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Just like when we started – a social media reflection

new building GMC in 1917Grabill Missionary Church started more than one hundred years ago.

Here’s how it happened.

In 1898, a bunch of like-minded people were meeting in small groups in fifteen church buildings and school houses, all served by a couple brothers who were preachers, all within a circle about 12 miles across. Some of the places had preaching services, some of them had Sunday school.

Some of the people in these small gatherings came from other churches, responding to a new (for them) understanding of what the Bible taught. Others came from no church at all. There was great excitement about the new things God was doing, and some resistance from those who had learned the old way.

In 1900, the railroad decided to build a town and the spreadout groups started talking about a central location.  In November, 1901, a church building was dedicated. In January, 1902, the first train went by. In February, 1902, the first plat of the town was filed.

At the time, people from the congregation saw each other all the time. They lived within walking distance. They shopped from each other, traded goods, chatted while at the post office or hardware store. They lived local.

Much of the conversation was, I’m guessing, pretty mundane. People talked about weather and sick animals. They mentioned that they needed to get some work done. They mentioned coffee.

This mundane conversation was, however, the fabric of community. You can’t talk about deep spiritual concepts all the time. Sometimes you just talk. And in that chatter grows connection and in that connection can grow faith. Particularly when you watch what happens in a life across time, how a person handles crisis.

Community is formed in communication and communion, interaction and intimacy. The more of both, the deeper the relationships.

In churches, that kind of interaction doesn’t happen easily anymore, at least not for large parts of a congregation. The technology of the car has made it possible to travel further to church, to shop, to eat, to live. A community is less defined by geography.

Churches, at least wise ones, respond by creating additional times of interaction. We create small groups or Sunday school classes where people can share life together. Or that’s what we hope. And sometimes people are aware of what is happening in each other’s lives daily, and sometimes not.

And for a long time, no one has known any better. We’ve known that more communication and communion would be nice, that our sense of community was suffering, but we figured that we were like the rest of American culture, feeling the disconnection that comes from distances.

And then came a new set of communication tools. They are simple enough for almost anyone to use. They are cheap enough for almost anyone to afford (as cheap as a free library card if necessary). We call them social media. We could call them “small town streets”

Just like people were able to chat with each other while heading to the store or waiting at the mill or taking the milk to the creamery, people now can chat while sitting at home. And some of the conversations sound the same, about weather or work or coffee. Or the neighbor’s odd behavior at midnight every night.

At first, only one or two people in a congregation knew about these tools. The first person to talk about Twitter or Facebook or Myspace was viewed as peculiar. When it was explained that this was an Internet thing, all the stories about bad people lurking in chat rooms to injure children were mentioned.

A funny thing has happened, however. More people are becoming aware of these tools. Parents and then grandparents discover new ways to see pictures of the trips that their children or grandchildren are taking. And then conversations like this happen as a small group from a church gets together.

A: “How was that phone call this afternoon?”

B: “It was great. He’s doing well.”

A. had heard about the phone call from looking at B’s facebook status.

To look at social media as a new evangelism tool, just like broadcasting was viewed, misses one of the core values of social media: transparent interaction. Rather than thinking of social media (facebook, twitter, myspace, youtube, blogs, flickr) as a new broadcasting tool, churches are probably wisest to think of it as a way to live life together away from Sunday morning, to live in the community as a community, like churches that make a difference usually do.

There are some cautionary notes, however.

  • We can’t fall into believing that this way is the best way, that people not on Facebook are somehow missing out. In fact, congregations using social media have to be more aware than ever of the need to be redundant, to provide key information in as many forms as possible, to foster communication and communion wherever possible.
  • We have to remember that what is online is a search away. I have chuckled sadly at the times I have read online comments about how to reach people on the Internet, how to convert “lost people.” There has been a complete lack of understanding that those “lost people” can read what is being said about them.
  • Social media is a place where the new is addictive. I spend time bouncing from platform to platform wondering if there is something new, if someone said something that I need to respond to. This fear of missing out (FOMO) is an addiction of sorts. Of course, people probably spent too much time chatting in front of Grabill Hardware, too. But no one ever thought the answer was to tear the porch off.

Technology is not relationship. Jesus did not talk about technologies, he talked about people. However, it the technology allows more frequent interaction, even about the details of life, then maybe we can build the same kind of community that happened in the early days of our congregation.

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For more on online/offline as a difference on tools rather than a difference between real life/fake life, see Liz Strauss’s wonderful post Online Culture: is your definition out of date?.

For history on Grabill, Indiana see Grabill.net.

Grabill Missionary Church is on facebook at www.facebook.com/grabillmissionary.

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8 ways social media can learn from church

I decided to start on my presentation for SOBcon 2010 early.

I haven’t been invited to make a presentation. I did, however,  spend most of two wonderful days in Chicago with some good friends, listening to people from marketing and PR and social media and communication and a bunch of other places talk about successful blogging. Driving home, I realized that I have some suggestions as well, drawn from an unexpected perspective.

Here’s my rough draft for next year.

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jon swanson and liz strauss at SOBcon 09Good afternoon. Thanks, Liz, for that introduction.

As you heard last year, I’m a social media chaplain. Not a chaplain of social media, in the way that people are social media experts, but more of a chaplain in social media.

My expertise, if I may be so bold, isn’t in social media but in communication. And even more specifically, in church communication. I have been around church for five decades. I have talked a lot and listened a lot and learned a little.

As I listened to all the experts last year talking about how to move big businesses into social media and how to help bloggers build their businesses, I realized that there are a few lessons that can be learned from church. After all, we’ve been about communicating messages for a long time. We’ve done it well sometimes and poorly more often.

Let me suggest 8 lessons you may want to consider as you expand your social media efforts.

1. Great stories stick

Seems obvious. Everyone talks about story these days. And lots of people forget to tell them, even in church. However, over the years, it is the stories that get people’s hearts. Stories, for example, about shepherds who leave a whole flock in a field and go looking for one sheep that has somehow wandered off.  Arguments prove, numbers support, stories transform.

2. Some people will never believe.

Lots of people in church can’t accept this. They spend huge energy hammering on people who resist (and in the process, undermine everything about carrying that they are trying to say). Spend your energy on people who will listen, who are interested, who do need what you offer. And maybe, in the process, even the people who “never believe” will be eavesdropping.

3. If the customer is always right, you have nothing to sell.

I struggle with people who are in “the meaning business” always giving in. Part of my struggle, of course, is with myself. But there comes a point when there are lines, when the customer can’t stretch the belief system so far that it becomes completely transparent. Be willing to say, “you know, we just can’t do that.”

4. Admit hypocrisy or it will kill you.

There are lots of people who hate church because they were told one thing and they were shown something else. You can fill in your own examples. I can offer you some of my own, times when I have taught that faith brings confidence…and have been worrying about making that very presentation.  Where we often fail is by ignoring the reality that grace implies failure. If you are perfect, you don’t need grace. So acknowledge your hypocrisy. Point out your own failings. Show where your product doesn’t measure up. And offer hope.

5. Sometimes you do have to ask

There is a place for asking for commitment, for inviting people to make a choice. But don’t start there.

6. Looking at the edges takes your eyes off the core.

There are, if you haven’t noticed, approximately 1 billion protestant denominations. (There are days that I would love to slug Martin Luther for demonstrating that the way to solve theological differences is to split into two groups. However, it wasn’t his fault and it certainly has been preferable to killing the other group, which continues to happen too often.) Often, those splits happen because people begin focusing on fine differences between them.  Unfortunately for outsiders, this means that insiders spend huge amounts of time saying, “we don’t do this like that group and we don’t do this like that group and we aren’t as __ as that group and we care more about ___ than that group.” It’s much like spending time differentiating between blogging and tweeting and pr and marketing and sales.

What matters is the people you are trying to reach and what you are trying to connect them to.

7. Broadcasting feels wrong, but it lets you reach some people.

While driving home from SOBcon 09, reading @chriscree‘s tweets of the sessions, I was listening to public radio. There was a story about “bottle evangelists”, people who put Bible verses on slips of paper and seal them in bottles and throw them into the ocean. I was listening and thinking, “that is incredible one-sided, non-conversational, inefficient.” You are probably thinking something else. But then they talked about the period when Albania was completely closed to religion. No way in. And they talked about being able to drop bottles that would wash up on the shore.

Sometimes apparently ineffective and untrendy methods are what works.

8. Authentic identification isn’t a tactic, it’s the point.

If we are wanting to sell people on being transparent, we can use that as a tactic, we have to be transparent. If we want to come alongside someone to help them understand our message, we may have to actually come alongside them. You can’t put on the mask of openness, you have to be open.

If you are arguing that lives are transformed, yours has to be. Or people will see the inconsistacy. Church knows that one well. We mess it up often.

But it is, after all, where we started.

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There it is. I’m still working on the slide deck. And I’m open for questions. In fact, if we start talking now, this will be something more by next May.

Photo credit Becky McCray

A conversation with Hope – deliberate practice in practice

Easter is a busy time at churches.

Sunday evening, after three services and lunch and naps and a drive, Hope and I headed for a wings place to use her coupon for a free dessert. Nancy enjoyed some time at home.

It was a fun time to talk. Among other things, we talked about working hard, about doing things well.  I made a distinction that, as I listened to myself (which happens occasionally) ended up being pretty helpful.

On one hand, I said, there times that we finish an event, a task, a project, and we say, “I should have done better. I could have done that differently. That wasn’t very good.” If we are unable to identify exactly what we could have done better, we probably are talking out of guilt or false modesty.

On the other hand, I said, there are times that we finish and we say, “This is what I can do better or differently the next time.”  When that happens, we are on our way to actually improving our effectiveness.

I asked if she understood. She did. She offered a perfect example (which I won’t share.) And if she does what she said she needs to, it will in fact improve her performance in a specific setting.

I do, however, have an example I can share from my own experience yesterday.

We, like many churches, usually hand out a bulletin, a program, every Sunday. Like many churches, we usually put an ad in the paper for Easter, inviting people. Like many churches, we usually print invitations for people to give to friends inviting them to Easter services.

This year we didn’t do any of that.

Instead, we produced a DVD with four segments about our church. (Here’s one of the video segments ‘starring’ me.) We tried to give guests and regulars a picture of what we are doing every week, not just on Sundays. We handed them out to every family group that came on Sunday.

A great idea. (And our attendance didn’t suffer)

However, we have already had some feedback that some people don’t know how to use a DVD. We also found out that our website didn’t list our special service times on the front page.

It would be easy to say, “we failed.” But that would be silly. More than 1150 people showed up and had a great and thoughtful morning. 400 family groups have DVDs. Some have already watched them. And only a couple people reported not having the times…but they did make it into the building anyway.

We can, however, do better in specific ways. We can do a video on how to play a DVD and play it in the service most likely to not know how to use this format.  We can make a checklist that says “for Easter, list times on the sign, in the newsletter, on the website.” We can keep looking for opportunities to be even more effective.

Hope knows what she’ll be working on this week. I know what I’ll be working on this week.

But what about you? What one thing do you know that you can fix in what you are already doing well?

a smaller group is still full of people.

Sunday mornings, I teach.

I’m part of the staff at a church and so on Sunday mornings I run around helping  with many details, but at 9:00, I teach. It’s a class of about 18 or so.

I’m aware of our larger congregation as well. I greet or chat with many people. I find cables and equipment and rooms and answers. But I like to help people understand. So I teach.

Yesterday, I almost thought it didn’t matter. As I stood in the shower, having spent some time studying, before driving the 20 minutes to our building, I thought, “but no one will be there.”

It’s spring break here. In the culture of our small community, spring break is a big deal. It’s big enough that we set up fewer chairs on the first Sunday of spring break. Last year, my first year with this congregation, I was amazed at the drop in attendance.

That’s why I thought, “but no one will be there.”

I shook my head. I remembered that there would be people in the building. There would be people in the class. I still needed to be ready.

Our attendance was a third less than usual. Our class was half the usual size.

But 2/3 of our usual attendance is still bigger than the number of people I got stressed out about for 7 years at our previous church. Half a class is still a whole group of real people with real concerns about real kids living real lives. The individual conversations that I had are still real conversations with people who need encouragement and affirmation and challenge.

I understand maximizing influence. I understand numbers. I understand the significance of traffic.

But I also understand that when your business is relationships, in our case with God and each other, your primary measurement must be “whether” rather than “how many.”

“Did you care for the people you had?” is far more important than “how many people showed up?”

It turned out to be a good morning.

Sunday mornings, I learn.

an interesting marketing opportunity. need advice.

I got a letter last week from  a couple account reps for a couple radio stations: “Especially when times are tough, the community could benefit from the positive message of faith that your organization delivers.”

I’m not big into radio advertising.  I’ve done it a couple times. I understand how it works. And how it doesn’t work.  (I have a degree in broadcasting, for goodness sakes.) I understand the need for sustained presence and the cost of that kind of presence.  I am particularly not in favor of using broadcast media covering large areas when you are a local church. It doesn’t seem to be the best use of limited resources. I feel a particular tension in using broadcast media when you are trying to build relationships.

But I was curious.

So when they called, as they indicated in the letter, I scheduled an appointment.

This morning I called to see if they could get done in 25 minutes so I could get to another appointment. When Brad called back he said, “sure.” I was impressed. They weren’t going to try to linger. They apparently believed that they had something that could be presented clearly and quickly.

They were early. I was on time.

I told them of my bias against broadcast and for narrowcast.

He said he understood.

What they presented was a website that will be promoted on the two stations and on their websites. This platform, called faithandfamilyguide.com, is designed to provide a landing place for the people in their audience who are at life and family transition points and are wondering about faith questions.

The site, limited to 10 churches, has articles about faith and family. It has links to landing pages for the 10 churches, with a common set of audio, video, and information resources, and links out to the sites of the churches. The site will carry advertising, will have its own contests, will have regularly updated calendar info. It will have an “ask the pastor” feature. It may accept content written through the churches (yes, I gave them links to this site and to 300wordsaday.com).

From what I can tell, their project is a good example of  content marketing. They are trying to gather resources and content-creators (the churches) and offer that content to their listeners. They will promo the site on air and will link to it from the two station websites. At the same time, they are qualifying leads and bringing them to the ten churches that sign up. No one has to go to the site, but they can if they are wondering about family or faith issues. And the stations hit a demographic that is full of family transitions.

We would pay a monthly fee. We would get the landing page and 24 spots a month on the stations.

Here’s where I need your help.

Does the concept make sense?

What questions should I ask them?

What should we be thinking about?

Does this approach take us to people who live around us that we would not talk to in other ways?

————–

(Just so you know, I love the concept. I love watching the stations branch out from straight ads to a new idea that can have a measure of interactivity. I love the funnelling. But I could be dazzled because of my low initial expectations. That’s why I need your help.)

i thought it would be quiet

I’m sitting in a corner trying to work. Two feet from me, three workers from a fast food chain are working through a list of agenda items. They are making enough noise so that the conversation between a friend and a sales person is being blocked out. And the people doing some kind of employment screening or testing are pretty quiet.

I’m here to think about vision. I’m doing drafting on a document that is about preferred futures for our congregation. We’re looking a few years into the future, thinking about what vision and processes and images will help us.

I came here because it’s challenging to think creatively in my office sometimes. But I’m thinking I may have picked the wrong place.

Except I think I’m learning.

1. Church doesn’t happen in the quiet sanctuary. It happens in offices and bowling alleys and coffee shops. It happens only when people connect. This is probably a really good place to think.

2. I don’t get to pick how my days turn out. I can choose places, but people always intrude. And people are the point. (And I understand that these are minor interruptions…but they are directly related to what I am trying to do.)

3. I can pick a place that is usually quiet, but focus is inside my head, not outside.

4. Fast food people are better at training than I am. Though I am responsible to help people grow, I am not nearly as effective with training as these people who are interrupting my thinking.

For example, yesterday a bunch of people spent time teaching other people. I never talk with them about how it went. I never make suggestions about how to sharpen what they are doing. I assume they are trained and am just grateful that they are doing what they are doing. Except I don’t think I tell them that, either.

5. How is Sunday permeating Monday? I’m supposed to help people who are running training sessions like the one next to me run them the way Jesus would if he were a manager at that fast food place. That’s what formation is about. If I want to help this guy, I need to help him understand how to value people, how to value time, how to value purpose. (He’s doing great, by the way. I’m not sure what I could add).

6. I gotta quit making assumptions about my friends. Across the room, my friend is talking with the sales rep about God. She had raised the topic earlier, identifying what some of her objections were to what she thought he must believe. He’s helping her understand the inaccuracies of some of those objections. It’s not a big “evangelism” conversation, the kind that people both in and out of church dread. It’s a real conversation between real people.

I am pleasantly surprised by him.

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The challenge with learning, of course, is that it doesn’t count until it works.

Time to work. I’ll let you know if I really learned anything.
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The link for my new ebook again? Unchurchy: reflections on communication and church.

100 percent savings and a free ebook

I had a coupon for 40% for Borders this weekend. The book I wanted wasn’t in our local store. (I need to read Outliers: The Story of Success for my deliberate practice, um, practice).

I thought about just buying some book because the coupon was so great. But saving 40% on a book that I don’t exactly need, just because the coupon is great isn’t much of a savings.

So I renewed my hold at the library and realized that I had saved 100%.

And then I realized that I had saved 100% of the time that I would have spent either reading that other book or worrying about having one more book on my pile of books to read.

And then I realized that I had saved 100% of the focus that I would have diverted from the projects that I need to focus on.

And then I realized that I had saved 100% of the energy we would have spent going to the store.

And then I realized that I had saved 100% of the emotional struggle that would have happened from spending 60% more on a book than we had planned to spend yesterday.

And so that 40% off coupon saved me 500% of resources that are limited.

That, my friends, is an amazing coupon.

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Now for an offer that may be a savings to you and may not be.

Here’s the back story. Kathy Drewien sent me a tweet the other day:

kdrewien @jnswanson Do you have posts on church communication? I just agreed to head team of new committee to enhance communication at church.

It was a great question. My first reaction was to say “no”, because I haven’t written or tagged any posts with “church communication.” But then I search my blog for “church” and realized that I have, completely inadvertently, written a number of posts that could be useful for church committees to use if they don’t want to sound churchy.

I spent a little time on the project and now have a new ebook: Unchurchy: reflections on communication and church.

It’s a collection of seven essays (posts) on communication, including “The Next Sentence” and one of my Emilio posts.

Here’s what I would love:

  • Download it if you or someone you know needs a way to help churches think about communicating differently.
  • Download it if you feel like helping me with layout and design.
  • Download it if you feel like adding one more book to your reading pile.
  • Don’t download it if it will add to your list of things that you want to get to but never will.

I’d love to save you 100%, but I’d love your feedback, too.

Make sense? The link for my new ebook again? Unchurchy: reflections on communication and church.