One of the premises of my book, Faith Formation 4.0, is that evolutions in human communications have changed our social environments, and thus the structure of our churches and their methods of evangelizing and forming people in faith. This July 8, 2010 YouTube video by Strongman Digital Media does a great job documenting human communications over 5511 years in less than five minutes!
Digital Media and Social Networking are flattening hierarchical structures and challenging previous generations’ definitions of authority. The Pew Internet and American Life Project has been tracking the World Wide Web and changing cultural patterns since 2000.
The Pew Internet and American Life Project Director Lee Rainie offers an excellent description of how a networked environment is changing us in his book, Networked: The New Social Operating System (2012, MIT Press). He introduces the concepts in it through this YouTube video:
For the past two decades, Pew researchers have tracked the intersection of religion and digital media. Some of the most important reports include:
I love TED talks. They ignite my thinking. They fuel my feeling. They often motivate my action. This talk by Amanda Palmer is titled “The Art of Asking.” For some, it conjures connections to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened” (Mt 7:7-8 NRSV). For me, it challenges us to go one step further… to why the door is opened. Amanda reminds us of our human longing to be given an opportunity to contribute… to give… to give back. When we ask for something specific, we create an opening for another who has what we need to respond. There are many situations – the death of a friend’s parent, the notification of a colleague’s medical diagnosis, an explosion that mame’s unknown people – that beckon my response, but I typically do not know how to respond. When someone asks, they invite us into their life and encourage us to do the same for others.
Sometimes it helps to gain a new perspective. Consider this video by Richard Reising, self-professed “Speaker, author, and church branding consultant.”
The Episcopal Church Foundation’s VITAL PRACTICES is an excellent resource for church leaders needing quick, reliable information to help their decision-making. Jim Naughton and Rebecca Wilson (Speaking Faithfully: Communications as Evangelism in a Noisy World, Morehouse Publishing, 2012) recently offered their tips for how to determine when to use “old” media or “new” media. Check out their essay: “Print vs Digital: Which? When.”
Many faith communities are being creative about finding funding to support their ministries. Economic forces have both led to increased need and decreased resources. Partnerships with large corporations have often resulted in mutually beneficial relationships. I am not sure about this one.
A friend of mine who is a priest posted a Facebook request to help her congregation’s effort to earn $20,000. If they get the most “likes,” Walmart will support their efforts to eradicate hunger by creatively distributing food for weekend use and expand their emergency food distribution capacity.
My frustration is that to help her and her community expand an essential project requires me to accept an application that will tell me what is happening in my local store (advertising) and links to my facebook page so that my friends will see that I support Walmart. Argh! I wonder how much that advertising is worth. Likely much less than the amount Walmart will distribute to worthy projects. I support the amazing projects that are listed at the Walmart site and will look for an alternative way to demonstrate my care for our brothers and sisters directly.
This morning on CBS’ Face the Nation, Bob Schieffer first interviewed Roman Catholic Cardinal Timothy Dolan, then hosted a conversation about The State of Religion in America with Episcopal Bishop Marianne Budde, Imam Suhaib Webb, Rabbi David Wolpe, and International Communion of Evangelical Churches Bishop Harry Jackson. As they shared their perspectives on the state of religion in modern America, I resonated with the recognition that many American’s have had a crisis of institution, not a crisis of faith. (I believe the phrase “I’m Spiritual, not Religious” is more accurately translated “I’m Spiritual, not Institutional.”)
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life is well recognized for its efforts to chronicle changes in the American religious landscape. In their 2008 U. S. Religious Landscape survey, the fastest growing segment of the population answered “none” or “no religious preference” to open-ended questions about religious preference. Interviewing Americans in 2012, they identified that one-fifth of the all adults (18 years old and older) and one-third of adults between 18-35 years do not identify with a religion. (“Nones” on the Rise, October 9, 2012) (See Faith Formation 4.0, 10).
When asked why they are not affiliated with a religious communities, this growing population talk about a loss of integrity. What a faith tradition espouses – what it says it believes, often does not match what is operative – how it acts in the world. Bob Schieffer’s dialogue partners seemed to agree. Imbedded in each of their diverse expressions of faith was the recognition of God’s love and a challenge for us to respond along with a lament that religious communities’ often fail to remember the second part.
The most powerful reminder came from Rabbi Wolpe who highlighted that we – individually and collectively – too often stop with the first part of God’s message in Exodus 9:1. In addition to telling Pharaoh to “Let My People Go!” God’s message to Pharaoh continues, “that they might serve me.”
Fortunately, religious communities are listening. Mission is being reclaimed as an orienting purpose. We need to continue to ask what we should do with the Freedom we’ve been given!
The Episcopal Church, in partnership with The Living Church Foundation, has released a new white paper “Marketing Your Parish: Advertising Best Practices for Effective Evangelism.” It offers a very clear guide for applying advertising techniques – from a marketer’s perspective.
“Fundamentally, commercial and church marketing are more similar than you might think. Both require a coordinated strategy of sending messages to a targeted group of people, and both chart their efficacy with one measure: conversions. Effective commercial advertising sells products, whereas effective church advertising gets confirmed communicants in the pews. In this sense we are all advertisers; the church simply deals in spiritual rather than tangible goods. Moreover, through the intelligent application of commercial marketing strategies, together with a purposeful digital-media plan, you can significantly increase the number of people who express interest in your church as well as those who actually join.” (p1, emphasis added)
Parish leaders know that conversion results from a relational process that takes time. Yes, we need to be visible in the public sphere and yes we need to use all the tools available to us to share the story of God’s presence in our lives…. AND we need to be aware that Evangelism is more than “increasing the number of people who express interest in your church.”
Evangelism is an invitation into a relationship with God through God’s people. It happens as God’s people tell others about God’s Dreams for us and share their stories of faith and action. Conversion occurs when we experience the reality and depth of God’s unconditional love and choose to respond by sharing it with others. Getting new members into our churches – both the physical structures and the communities that gather in them – is not the end of effective evangelism; living God’s Mission is.
A complete catalogue of all the digital resources available for evangelization and formation is impossible, though we keep trying. Randall Curtis is the Ministry Developer for Young Adults and Youth for the Episcopal Church in Arkansas and a Board Member of Forma, the Episcopal association of people supporting lifelong faith formation. Early in 2013 he used their listserv to poll Forma members. His goal was to identify the most useful digital resources. Here is his list from February 2013:
Have you noticed our move past the tipping point? There are a greater proportion of digital evangelists than digital skeptics! Local faith communities now assume that they need a website and institutional leaders are integrating every form of digital resource to mark their presence in cyberspace. Some are more information-oriented; others are more formation-oriented. Some are designed for passive engagement while others require active participation. Each is being used to ensure that every generation has heard the Christian Story and has access to the means to become and be Christian.
For over 2,000 years, Christian methods of keeping, sharing, and adding to the stories of God’s presence and Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection have evolved as new communications techniques were introduced. In addition to the oral traditions passed from generation to generation proclaiming the Good News, the church has incorporated the media of the age: handwritten letters, carefully illumined texts, and mass-produced books; simple line drawings, elaborate paintings, and laser art; buildings, statues, stained glass, and mosaics; radio and television programs as well as multi-sensory electronic-enhanced worship. Today, the “rules” of engagement and social interaction have changed. Handwritten forms of interpersonal communication have been transformed by social networking, the printed page is now “turned” on the digital screens of nooks and iPads, and Skype and other forms of web conferencing are replacing telephones.
What are your “technologies of faith?” How is your community integrating digital resources in faith formation?
Julie A. Lytle, PhD
M3: Message, Method, then Media
Digital Evangelist & Theological Educator
81 Blueberry Hill Road
Hyannis, MA 02601