On a recent Sunday I passed through the narthex and noticed the large pile of bulletins left by departing worshipers. At least three-quarters of all the bulletins printed for that day were destined for the recycling bin. In each folded paper were dozens of carefully crafted announcements designed to engage and attract people to essential opportunities for their growth in faith. I’d like to think church people had memorized all the pertinent details for future reference. But the truth is many of them did little more than scan them. I know that because our weekly email newsletter is opened by less than half of the recipients, with a click-through rate of less than five percent. Messages are going out but not being received.
Why? Because communication patterns have changed. Information hits us from every direction in every possible media, and we struggle to keep from being buried in it. In a digital, interactive, social-media-saturated culture the church is struggling to find its voice in a cacophony of powerful voices, all competing for our attention. To get a sense of how much has changed, consider this sampling of factoids from Erik Qualman’s most recent video, Social Media Revolution 2015 #Socialnomics (Qualman 2015):
- If Facebook were a country, it would be the largest in the world.
- More people own a mobile device than a toothbrush.
- By 2018 video will account for over 2/3 of mobile usage.
- Grandparents are the fastest growing demographic on Twitter.
- The average person has a seven-second attention span; the average goldfish has eight seconds.
How do churches find a voice in such a strange land? We do as the church has always done: we baptize and transform new models of communication so they serve the mission and ministry of God’s people proclaiming Good News!
Social media will have to be one part of the answer. People have always had supportive networks of friends, and churches have been a key center for networking. But now people carry their networks in their pockets. According to the Pew Research Center, “The new reality is that as people create social networks in technology spaces, those networks are often bigger and more diverse than in the past. Social media allow people to plug into those networks more readily and more broadly–making them persistent and pervasive in ways that were unimaginable in the past” (Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project 2014).
What if you could carry the church in your pocket—have regular access to your supportive relationships outside of Sunday morning? It’s already happening. Facebook keeps people connected better than most organized church groups. If a friend or neighbor experiences a crisis, people spread the word, and caring support is mobilized—often before the church office knows there is a problem. Caringbridge.org enables family and friends to keep up-to-date on a medical crisis without intruding on a family or individual’s need for space. A number of apps provide ways to organize meals, transportation, and childcare. Social media communities also celebrate milestones—birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, promotions—in ways reminiscent of smaller, family-sized congregations. Churches should embrace and encourage these organic uses of social media. If we have a hard time getting folks to come to church, we can encourage folks to take the church with them.
Video is a crucial media for sending your message into the world. What if you recruited a group of smartphone videographers (think middle and senior high youth as well as tech-comfortable adults) who would regularly record events, classes, and gatherings and post them on YouTube? Adult classes could record their lessons for homebound members. Special events could be shared with many more people than actually attend over the following days and week. Pastors and educators can record short (remember the seven-second attention span!) explainers made available to members and visitors (e.g. how we do baptisms, confirmation; how to prepare communion elements; how childcare works on Sundays; how to find information about church activities). If you create your own channel on YouTube, folks can get the information they need while in the carpool line or late at night when they can’t get to sleep.
The evolution of better videoconferencing technology gives the church the opportunity to gather members and friends online virtually, without the need to physically assemble. We have begun to do regular meetings of ministry teams online. Using an affordable and capable platform—Zoom.us—our adult education group meets monthly online at 12 noon on a Thursday. Some folks join from their office, eating lunch. Others join from home. Occasionally someone will be traveling and call in by phone or use a local Starbucks’ Wi-Fi for video. Everyone can see and hear everyone else. The host shares a screen with the agenda. We pray together, laugh together, solve problems together, and dream together. We get done, and everyone goes back to their routine with little interruption. Virtual meetings are not a total replacement for face-to-face meetings, but they can be an amazing multiplier of efficiencies—time, travel distance, transportation expense—and are good enough now not to get in the way of the smooth, personal interaction needed for group cohesion.
To serve the church’s mission, whether adopted or adapted, new models of communication will need to be
- more collaborative than top-down
- more focused on curating what’s already out there than creating new things
- more video-based instead of text-based
- characterized by short, brief, to-the-point messages rather than long and boring ones
- accessible on devices people carry in their pockets rather than printed in Sunday bulletins.
If we can transform our communication in this way, we will truly engage in meaningful ways with the people of our congregations and neighborhoods who are being shaped by the culture of this decade.
Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. Three Technology Revolutions. January, 2014. http://www.pewinternet.org/three-technology-revolutions/ (accessed February 10, 2015).
Qualman, Erik. Social Media Revolution 2015 #Socialnomics — YouTube. January 26, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jottDMuLesU (accessed February 9, 2105).
http://hope4ce.net — a place where innovative ideas and lesson plans can be shared for Christian education. Professor Kathy Dawson, 2015 APCE Educator of the Year, revealed this brand-new platform in her acceptance speech in Baltimore.
https://www.facebook.com/groups/176353665783252/ — Church Educators Facebook group. Ask to join. Sharing resources, ideas and support.
https://www.facebook.com/groups/techtools4ce — TechTools4CE Facebook group. Ask to join. Sharing and advising on use of educational technology tools in Christian education.
Von Clemans is a PC(USA) pastor/educator serving in adult educational ministries at Myers Park Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC, where he has been for over fifteen years. For over three decades he has helped congregations, educators, and pastors make appropriate use of technology in enhancing their ministry. A graduate of the former Union Seminary (M.Div.) and the Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, VA (M.A), in 2014 Von completed the D.Ed.Min. program at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA, with a primary focus on educational technology. He is married to Marion, a retired PC(USA) educator. They have two adult children and two grandchildren.