Archive for the ‘Computers’ Category

Chris Yaw: Every congregation can have an online school

Posted on: July 10th, 2017 by CEP Administrator No Comments
Computers

Chris Yaw: Every congregation can have an online school

Bible resting on computer keyboard

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The Internet gives even small congregations the ability to offer vibrant adult education and formation programs, an Episcopal priest and founder of the online learning website ChurchNext.tv says in this interview.

As he watched his own congregation’s worship attendance flatten despite record giving, the Rev. Chris Yaw began to wonder: How do you reach people when they’re not in church yet are in front of smartphones or computer screens?

“I had this idea that the church ought to reclaim its place in the community as a teacher, a place where the religiously curious can come and ask questions,” Yaw said.

So two years ago, Yaw launched ChurchNext.tv, a Christian learning website that now offers subscribers, both individuals and congregations, more than 100 courses.

Such programs enable churches of all sizes to offer vibrant adult formation programs, which are essential for church renewal, Yaw said.

“In an age when people are walking around with computers in our pockets, why not listen to a course on an introduction to a Gospel or something like that versus some of the other stuff that’s out there?”

Chris Yaw

Yaw serves as the rector of St. David’s Episcopal Church in Southfield, Michigan, and served previously as associate rector at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Battle Creek, Michigan. He was ordained in the diocese of Los Angeles, where he worked for 15 years as a television journalist. He has an M.Div. and a Th.M. from Fuller Theological Seminary.

He spoke recently with Faith & Leadership about ChurchNext.tv and adult formation. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: Tell us about ChurchNext.tv. What is it?

It’s a website that provides online Christian learning. It started as a video blog featuring long interviews with people who are making a difference in the mainline. You can still see a number of those on our YouTube site (link is external).

Out of that, this idea struck me. I’m a priest and a rector at St. David’s Episcopal Church (link is external) in Southfield, Michigan, and I know that people come to church less frequently. At my church, for the second year in a row, we had our best pledge drive ever, we have more money coming in, we get 20 to 40 people joining the church every year, but Sunday attendance is flat and even declining.

People are coming, but they come less frequently. So how do we reach them when they are not here, but they are likely in front of a screen? I had this idea that the church ought to reclaim its place in the community as a teacher, a place where the religiously curious can come and ask questions.

So we launched ChurchNext (link is external) in August 2013 with 28 courses. These are 45-minute courses that you can take at any time.

They are taught by experts in various fields, what we mainliners would describe as middle-of-the-road. We are very clear that we are going after the mainline. We do have Catholic teachers and subscribers, and evangelical teachers and subscribers, but our sweet spot is Episcopalian, Methodist, American Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Disciples of Christ, etc.

We launch a new course every week and are now up to a hundred courses, and we’re launching all of them in a “for groups” format. We originally designed our courses for individuals to take on their own but found that many people were taking the courses together, with a group.

So we went back and reformatted the content to use on a big screen, on a TV, for group learning. You can actually stream it now and download the facilitator’s guide and the participant’s guide at a fraction of what a DVD would cost.

We design online learning experiences. It is not passive; the pedagogy behind it is very interactive, with quizzes and discussions.

Q: What’s your assessment of the current state of adult education and formation in churches today? How well are people formed?

A friend of mine who runs a company called Forward Movement, an Episcopal publishing imprint, estimates that 80 percent of Episcopal parishes do not have ongoing vibrant adult formation at all.

For the priests who look after those parishes — myself included — that’s not something we are proud of. We are not called to make converts; we are called to make disciples, and that’s a process and a journey.

What ChurchNext does is to make it possible for any church, for $300 a year, to subscribe and have access to hundreds of classes and be able to suggest to us classes that they want.

We are trying to make it really easy. The vast majority of churches in America have under a hundred people on a Sunday. Getting a preacher is hard enough, but getting a vibrant formation program is another thing. So this falls right into the category of, “Oh my gosh, for $15 you can buy a class and have everybody in the church watching.”

Q: Your biography on your website says that you are “passionate about renewing congregations.” What role does formation play in congregational renewal?

I think that’s the key to the renewal of congregations. The more deeply formed and committed people are in their personal faith, the stronger the church.

For example, the case for stewardship is not, “Guys, we need money.” The case is, “Look what God has done for you.” We give out of mature faith.

In my own experience, I find that those who are most charitable are those who are most deeply formed. Tom Bergler has written a couple of books, “The Juvenilization of American Christianity” and his follow-up book, “From Here to Maturity: Overcoming the Juvenilization of American Christianity.” We have worked with him to create a course called “How to Bring Maturity into Your Congregation.”

Our courses generally go along three lines.

The first is information for adults and young adults. That’s going to be Bible and theology and church history.

The second is courses that will help in terms of crossing thresholds: baptismal preparation, confirmation, weddings, divorce, death.

And the third line is leadership training. Those are courses in church marketing, this new course on how to bring maturity into the life of your church, how to run a Vacation Bible School, how to sit on the vestry, how to read a lesson on Sunday morning — all these kinds of leadership courses.

Q: What about just the very basics of church? So many people today didn’t come up in church and so almost need a basic primer on church and faith.

Stephen Prothero says that 1 in 10 Americans believe that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. And that’s probably not far from true. We have an incredible amount of religious illiteracy.

And as clergy, we are constantly overestimating the theological and biblical literacy of our people.

ChurchNext is at that place between the seminary and the pew. I know as a pastor of 550 people that maybe three would take an online course from a seminary. I can double or triple that number with my online school.

Not everyone is going to sign up, but many would. We’ve used it to prepare people for the sacraments. We did a sermon series in the fall about the Book of Common Prayer, and then as a follow-up, we had an eight-part course called “Opening the Prayer Book.” We showed it on a big screen, and people came up afterward and said, “I’m 70 and have been going to church since I was a kid, and I never knew about the prayer book.”

Q: The ChurchNext website lists the company’s guiding principles, one of which is “Go deep.” What’s that about?

I am convinced that people do want to go deep.

Some studies indicate that American Christians prefer an emotionally comforting, self-focused, actually shallow faith. But we don’t go there. We are not here to win a popularity contest but to change lives. And that only happens when you push and promote what’s challenging and genuine. I really think that’s what people deeply want.

We are not our best selves when we are self-focused, when we are comforted. The reason Christianity is the biggest religion is because, to do it right, it is challenging, it hurts, it is uncomfortable. When we look back in our lives, the things that were most difficult are the things that we are most proud of — raising children, making sacrifices, serving our country in the military.

So, as much as we are tempted, we don’t dumb down our courses. We try to take advantage of the best teachers we can and present that in a way that’s accessible to people.

Q: What have been the most popular categories and courses so far?

I think that people have enjoyed those with names that they recognize. David Lose’s courses have done well. A number of Episcopalians have enjoyed Frank Wade’s course on the Episcopal tradition. We occasionally do a free course that we offer to the world, and recently launched one by Becca Stevens called “A Simple Path to a Deeper Spiritual Life.” Last December we had a wonderful course by Cornel West that must have drawn 2,000 comments.

Learning is one thing, but engaging people is another. ChurchNext is not just a technology platform; it is an ecosystem. It is where people are making comments and learning and being transformed. We do questionnaires after our classes, and it is surprising how many people will say the class had a major impact on their spiritual life.

So there is transformation that happens. We are convinced this is the work of the Spirit. We pray regularly for the folks taking classes, and we ask them to pray as they take classes and open their hearts up to what the Spirit is going to do.

Some people say you can’t have any relationship online, but look at Facebook. We can actually have relationships online, just very different from face to face. And we are not all about staying online, either. All of our classes have downloadable discussion questions, and we urge people to take classes and then come together.

Q: Do you know who the participants are — what percentage are taking the classes within a group setting, what percentage are doing it at home on their own?

We can tell the number of subscribers that we have in churches versus individuals. But even when a congregation has a subscription, they allow their members to take the classes by themselves. When the congregation subscribes, we don’t really have access to who is in their school, what they are learning, what their email addresses are.

So no, we really don’t know. Probably in our third year, we are going to pay somebody to do that kind of research and find out who these people are and what they need and want.

They say there are four stages to a startup. The first is, will it work? The second is getting traction. The third is, how do you scale? And fourth is, how big can you get? So a year and a half into this, we are pretty sure it is working, and we are pretty sure we are getting some traction.

Once we move into the third stage, which is scaling — which we have already had to do to a degree, because we have had some modest growth — we will be able to answer those.

Q: How many congregations have subscribed?

Probably 250 or so. They are across the mainline, but mostly Episcopalian.

Q: And they can customize their own online learning programs. Tell me about that.

It is actually pretty exciting. A congregation can subscribe, and we set up an account that allows the pastor and church to have their own school that they brand, an online academy, and the pastor goes to our catalog and chooses the courses that he or she thinks would be germane to the congregation and then launches the school and invites people to take the courses within the context of their own congregation.

There are three basic aspects of online learning that make it attractive: cost, expert teaching and convenience. The vast majority of Americans have never taken an online class, but once people take a class, more than 90 percent tell us in our surveys that they are going to take another. So it really is an effective way to learn.

We really want every congregation to have an online school. In an age when people are walking around with computers in our pockets, why not listen to a course on an introduction to a Gospel or something like that versus some of the other stuff that’s out there?

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Alban Weekly, Faith & Leadership, Alban at Duke Divinity School, July 10, 2017

Kyle Matthew Oliver: You already have everything you need to be a digital media minister

Posted on: June 20th, 2017 by CEP Administrator No Comments
Computers

Episcopal priest

 

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It’s easy to be intimidated by technology. But technological skills aren’t the most important part of online ministry, writes a former digital missioner.

I recently found myself giving an impromptu training session over the phone.

I was on the line with a church administrator about the language translation plug-in I’d installed on her parish’s new website. I adjusted the phone at my ear, took a deep breath and said, “Trust me, this is easier than it seems.”

For four years, I served as a “digital missioner (link is external)” at an Episcopal seminary, where I offered resources and training for colleagues interested in doing spiritual development and Christian education in new ways.

One thing I learned is that fear is the chief obstacle to doing ministry online. In the case of the church administrator struggling with the translation plug-in, it was more important to reassure her that she could learn the task than it was to tell her where to click.

Relationship, in other words, was the key to moving forward. That’s why, when the organization I serve began our work spreading digital literacy in the Episcopal Church and beyond, we prioritized forming learning communities.

If “overcome fear with relationship” or “begin with community” sound to you like lessons from Church Leadership 101, then you get my central message.

The good news about digital media ministries is that they are, first and foremost, ministries.

Are you a lay or ordained church leader? Then you have already been called to live out (and probably trained to take on) Christian acts of hospitality and proclamation, formation and service, fellowship and solidarity.

If you want to learn to minister online, the challenge is to align your existing ministry instincts with this new environment. You already have everything you need to be an effective digital media minister — except maybe some practice.

In her book “Faith Formation 4.0 (link is external),” my colleague Julie Anne Lytle calls one chapter “Message, Method, then Media.”

Her point is that technological bells and whistles — the media — are not the point of the work. They may worry us or keep us from moving forward, but they’re not the hard part.

Technology is comparatively straightforward and continues to get easier to use — most of the time, you can solve your problem with a how-to video on YouTube.

It’s people who are complicated, and your training and experience indicate that you likely already know something about connecting with people.

Moreover, technology isn’t the source of the power of these ministries. It’s true that the method of interactive communication online allows us to reach more (and more varied) people. But it’s the message of the gospel, of God’s transforming love, that will matter for those people.

That message hasn’t changed in 2,000 years.

So if you’re feeling down about your ability to reach out online, let me encourage you to reframe your situation with an example. Imagine you are leading a Bible study at church. Suppose someone in the group makes a comment that is met initially with silent stares around the table.

What facilitation options do you have in that moment?

You might want to make a sympathetic hum of recognition if the comment has resonated. If not, you might try tilting your head a bit off-axis and squinting slightly as if to say, “I’m not quite following you.”

You might use your arms to gesture gently around the room, inviting follow-up comments from others. Or you might respond verbally yourself, or invite someone else to.

The point is, you want to honor the contribution this person has made. An obvious goal of group facilitation is to help ensure that everyone feels heard and valued.

The same principle applies in a digital environment. If you’re hosting a conversation on a Facebook comment thread or online discussion board, you still want to avoid letting someone go unheard.

Online, your responses are likely to be word-based, since nonverbal communication is limited. But sometimes a playful emoji, a carefully chosen image or a simple “Like” can help acknowledge and recognize someone’s contribution.

Of course, we can take this fairly mundane example to a more high-pressure pastoral level.

Perhaps someone says something mildly or extremely inappropriate. Your in-person ministry instincts are to communicate that this behavior is out of bounds, hopefully with reference to some kind of group norms or church policy about how people of faith treat each other.

You need to decide whether to relay that message in public or in private, depending on the severity of the situation. You might even need to remove the abusive person from the room, and to support the person who was mistreated.

Here again, the same principles apply. It’s important that you are clear about appropriate behavior in the online conversations in some way “hosted” by your church, and it’s important that you enforce those rules in cases of abuse.

There are private channels (like direct messaging) and public tools (like deleting a comment or blocking someone) to use according to your good judgment.

As Meredith Gould puts it in her helpful book “The Social Media Gospel” (link is external): “Use the comforting knowledge that virtual community is real community to guide your response. … Tap into what you already know about responding to someone whose pain manifests as anger.”

You already have what you need.

If that’s true, then how should you take your first steps as a digital media minister? You need to practice, preferably beginning under the direction of an experienced mentor, and always in collaboration with trusted colleagues. As in any new setting, you should listen before you participate and participate before you take on a leadership role.

Find out where people in your community spend time online and join them there. Let your motto be “As in the parish hall or coffee shop, so on the parish website or neighborhood discussion board.”

You don’t need an extra tunic, though your smartphone charger may come in handy. The Holy Spirit will be there to help you take care of the rest, as she has been all along.

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Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, News & Ideas, June 20, 2017

Heidi Campbell: The Internet challenges and empowers religious institutions

Posted on: May 28th, 2017 by CEP Administrator No Comments
Computers

 

The digital culture isn’t changing religion as much as it is reflecting offline shifts in Christian life, says a scholar of religion and media at Texas A&M University.

People today — especially young people — belong to fluid networks that are not limited by traditional religious boundaries, family relationships or geography. That is both reflected and facilitated by the Internet, said Heidi Campbell, an associate professor at Texas A&M University.

This has deep implications for Christian institutional leaders, who may see it as a threat or an opportunity — or simply the way their members now live.

“They don’t go between the church world and the Internet world. They just live in both spaces,” said Campbell, who refers to this as “networked religion.” “The Internet is not transforming religion. In many respects, what it is [doing] is just reflecting these broader shifts that are also happening offline.”

Campbell researches the intersection of media, religion and culture, with a special interest in the Internet and digital, mobile culture. She has written or edited four books and more than 60 articles and book chapters on religion and new media, including the 2013 edited volume “Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds.”

Campbell spoke to Faith & Leadership about the five key characteristics of networked religion and how institutions might respond to it. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: How do you see change happening on and offline, and how does each reflect the other?

“Networked religion” is a concept that I put forth in an article called “Understanding the Relationship between Religious Practice Online and Offline in a Networked Society (link is external).”

The concept of networked religion is recognizing that religious practices and relationships are being informed by the structures of the networked society.

The social relationships that we live in are now increasingly decentralized. They’re increasingly more fluid. Religion and religious culture are also being influenced and shaped by these larger forces in society that people like [sociologist] Manuel Castells have talked about.

In a networked society, if we live in a place that we have more global interconnections and sense of accountability, and our traditional relationships and patterns of belief are becoming much more individualized and less tied to institutional constraints and boundaries, we get a version of religion that is much more individual.

It’s much more dynamic. This matches a lot of what the Pew Research Center has found regarding trends toward having “belief but not belonging” or “faith without affiliation.”

What we see is a consistency between trends online and trends offline.

One of the fears has been, for the last decade, that people would plug in, log on and drop out of society and church and different social relationships. But what scholars have found is that people online are importing their belief structures and understandings into that new space.

The Internet is not transforming religion. In many respects, what it is [doing] is just reflecting these broader shifts that are also happening offline.

Q: What kind of advice or guidance or ways of thinking about this would you suggest to people who are still committed to existing institutions?

I don’t like to be prescriptive unless I know the religious organization well.

One thing I do with networked religion is that I identify five key characteristics of networked religion, this highly mobile, dynamic, fluid, loosely bound form of religiosity online.

So these are some places that you can have some specific conversations about how these traits may be affecting your community, or to what extent you would see this trait as something you could leverage for the positive — or see it as problematic.

One example, one characteristic is networked community. [This] suggests that many religious groups such as churches now function as loose social networks rather than tightly bounded social networks, and this means that people see their church community as one part of their social network.

It’s not the hub anymore for many people. So people have varying levels of commitment and affiliation and may be involved in more than one religious community, and they network them together through their daily lifestyle and their practices in using media and other events to connect those things.

For many people, especially young people, the church they go to on a Sunday is just one part of their religious community and network.

Institutions could either see it as a threat and say, “How can we get increased buy-in into our institution? How can we brand ourselves in a way that’s cohesive, to show people how they can carry us and the community and integrate them into a lifestyle, and give resources to connect people to community?”

Or they could just recognize that’s the reality and say, “OK, how can we create resources that give added value and then show people that they can be involved in our community and other spaces but also show how those other passions or other social groups could be connected, even if it’s in a loose way, to our institution?”

People no longer live in these tightly bound groups that are defined by family or institution or geography. They live in these networks that are fluid, and it’s up to the institution to see, how are we going to frame that — as a challenge or an opportunity? And in what ways can we leverage that?

Q: What are the other characteristics?

Another characteristic is the idea of what I call storied identity. Storied identity shows how people’s religious identity is malleable rather than fixed. It used to be that a religious identity was something you took on through maybe religious education or confirmation or baptism. You kind of put it on like a cloak.

But now people see identity as something that you can negotiate, that you construct and you perform. So individuals especially use the Internet and other resources to seek out their own “spiritual tribe” online — a group of people where they can make sense of their religious self and their religious belief.

Facebook and Twitter, blogs, social media allow people to express their religious identity, to experiment and to create a cohesive identity that’s free from institutional constraints. Again, religious organizations need to look at what the implications are of that, because our identity is created often by the tribe of people we associate with, and that may or may not be the church or institution that we go to on a regular basis.

Storied identity is how people construct their religious identity, in the sense that they’re trying to create a narrative that makes sense about who they are.

Q: One of the implications for institutions seems to be sort of flexibility or fluidity.

And that’s obviously something that many institutions are not used to. They’re used to having their clear mission statement and set of principles that have been decided by committee and worked out through certain authority structures.

If you’re going to do that vetting process, you’re going to lose a lot of people along the way, because they’re just not used to that in an instantaneous, global culture.

Q: Are the other aspects also related to this fluidity?

[Another characteristic] is what I call convergent practice — how, especially in the digital culture, people are able to move through spaces very quickly. It encourages people’s blending practices and information from multiple sources.

The fourth characteristic is what I call multi-site reality, and this is where we see that the online and offline worlds are connected by people, because no longer is the Internet something that you log on to and go into this separate space. It’s something we carry with us in our back pockets.

People are trying to live in this bridged, hybrid space all the time and trying to, through their practices and conceptual framework, link them in ways so that they don’t have conflict with themselves. They see it as whole people living in multiple contexts.

Then the last one is the idea of shifting authority.

The initial concerns were that the Internet was going to undermine religious leaders, and there are definitely examples of how there are new religious interpreters emerging online, whether they be “theoblogins” or thought leaders through social media like Twitter.

But we also see that religious leaders in the last five to seven years have become very media-savvy and have seen how they can use the Internet to either re-establish their authority or solidify their networks.

The Internet both challenges and empowers religious institutions simultaneously.

Q: Do you think that there is a gap between online and offline that needs to be bridged in the religious world, or do you see them as a fluid, intermingled space?

That depends again on your ideas and background. The organizations that see the Internet as this other space, they tend to do one of two things. Either A, it becomes the mission field — they think it’s a space that’s inherently secular, and we have to sanctify it. But the problem with that is sometimes they don’t recognize that there actually is a lot of faith and spirituality and good discourse happening.

Or B, they see it as “another space,” and we have to distance ourselves.

I think the problem is that it is this integrated space, and it’s a space where people live. They don’t go between the church world and the Internet world. They just live in both spaces.

So it’s more a matter of, how do you do spiritual development, religious education, create community in that hybrid space when you recognize that even though your institution may not be living in that space, this is where most of your people, and especially young people, live?

So it is a new territory, but it’s a territory you need to understand rather than just seeing it as something you need to cultivate or sanctify.

I’m researching now what I call “religious digital creatives,” and so I’m interested in looking at how individuals use new media or leverage their new media skills for ministry and what kind of connection that has or relationship it has to institutional churches. Do churches recognize that ministry? Do they see it as a threat or as competition, or do they try to embrace them and bring them into the mission and goals of the institution?

I’ve also been interviewing Web designers, people who are media officers for denominations, and finding out that many of these people are trying to be innovative in their use of social media, but they’re slowed down by either finances or time in their schedules, or just the fact that their institution doesn’t understand, “Why are you spending so much time on the Facebook and Twitter feeds for our denomination rather than doing the annual or monthly newsletter?”

So there’s a sense that the structures don’t allow for some of the innovation that other people can do very easily.

Q: How would you advise institutional leaders in approaching new media?

I believe that we should be techno-realists. This was a movement in the mid-1990s, and basically it was trying to address the early hype about the Internet — that the Internet was either going to save humanity or it was going to destroy and enslave people.

They had a list of principles like “Computers will not destroy nor will they save our education system.” Technology has both promises and perils.

What does the technology offer you, and what kinds of characteristics does it encourage in positive ways? What are maybe the problematic — both technical and moral — traits of the technology?

A techno-realist would say that basically you need to be technologically and new media literate, but you also need to understand your own religious identity and mission very clearly and then be able to line them up once you understand the digital culture and your own culture.

Where do you see places that that technology and that theology can intersect in positive ways, and then how do you find people who are already doing that, as well as develop resources?

A lot of churches, when they do, just get on the new media bandwagon; they have the “if we build it, they will come” mentality: “We’re going to go spend all this money on this website, spend time building these social media platforms.” And then they wonder why they flop.

Because it’s maybe more to their benefit to actually find out if their organization, their community is already doing these things and then support that and encourage those activities that build the values, that build the theology, that build the community that they want.

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Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, News & Ideas,  May 09, 2016

If you are too busy, try fostering community

Posted on: April 23rd, 2017 by CEP Administrator No Comments
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Executive director, Leadership Education at Duke Divinity

One of the spaces that is worth your time — to listen and to share — is online. Social media enables ministers to build and sustain networks of relationships.

My friend is having trouble dealing with the challenges of leading a congregation, caring for a sick infant and responding to a host of invitations for random acts of ministry. She is being careful not to overcommit. The congregation is supportive in every way, but she is worried about missing an opportunity that would benefit the church.

Those who know me well will likely find it funny (or aggravating) that I, someone who fails to return email promptly because of overscheduling, am giving advice on time management. That is the point; we all have trouble keeping up.

In network theory, the hub and spokes method of networking is regarded as critical to getting connections started, but is a temporary state that is unsustainable. As long as my friend (and the rest of the good ministers I know) defines ministry as connecting to and meeting every need that is presented, the theory says she will soon run out of time, energy and patience. The hub and spokes will break down.

For generations, congregations have been masters at inviting folks beyond a relationship with the pastor to membership in community. Congregations have been organizing small groups for learning, support and work forever. No one expects the pastor to be the only caregiver in a congregation. We might expect the pastor to have a specific role in certain situations, but the pastor who tries to do it all will not last long.

As my friend explained her situation, she remarked that one of the main reasons she felt overwhelmed was that her sermons were increasingly read on the internet. Strangers were emailing and asking for help, service and more. We wondered together how she might invite them into the network of the congregation, rather than to relationship with her alone.

The rise of email has made many more people accessible to each other with lightning speed. But social media is different. It creates new spaces for connecting people to each other. These forms require some energy from a pastor, but like the spaces of old, others will carry the responsibility alongside.

Pastor Keith Anderson and scholar Elizabeth Drescher have published “Click 2 Save: The Digital Ministry Bible,” (link is external) where they feature more than 40 ministry leaders using different types of social media to foster community.

“Social media is the place where people are meeting, connecting, learning and getting news, and keeping track of their interests,” Anderson said in an interview with Faith & Leadership. “As somebody in ministry who wants to share the gospel, I need to be in that digital space just as much as I need to be in the church office or in my community. Also, it’s a place where young adults are gathering, a group that the church finds difficult to reach.”

As when entering other ministry settings, the first step is to listen.

Good pastors don’t enter the hospital room shouting about the topic for next Sunday’s sermon. Neither should we use Facebook as only a place for one-way communication. Social media is much more like meeting a crowd at the coffee shop rather than tacking an announcement on the bulletin board.

Anderson understands social media as a tool for nurturing relationships. Dedicating 20 to 30 minutes twice a day considering what to offer and how to respond to others through social media is a little different than figuring out who to visit in the hospital or organizing other aspects of ministry. Yet it can create the conditions that invite others to listen and respond to each other.

If my friend can invite folks into a space for conversation with her church, she will be able to respond with an offer of a relationship that is nurtured by much more than her own energy.

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Alban Weekly, Alban at Duke Divinity School, February 06, 2017

John P. Jackman: Facebook and faith

Posted on: March 26th, 2017 by CEP Administrator No Comments
Computers

 

When a middle-aged pastor joined Facebook, he didn’t know what to expect. But he quickly discovered that this new medium offers a powerful way for the church to be present in the world.

Four years ago, at the urging of younger members in my congregation, I joined Facebook. As a 55-year-old pastor, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But I soon discovered that this strange new medium, for the church at least, is about much more than new technology.

For us, Facebook is about theology — and ecclesiology. For pastors and other church leaders, Facebook offers a powerful way to enhance and expand our ministry and our presence in the world.

Pastoral ministry, indeed church itself, at least in part has always been about building relationships and cultivating community. For pastors and other church leaders, that task includes contact and communication, getting to know our people and their lives and helping them to know and care for one another.

But even for pastors with the very best visitation skills, the weeks do not have enough days and hours in which to build and nurture deep, authentic relationships with more than a few church members. And even if it happens every Sunday, the typical post-worship doorway exchange, complete with handshake and “Fine sermon, Pastor,” doesn’t build much of a relationship.

Yet relationships are vital to any faith community. Their absence or presence is what often decides whether members will drift away, leave through the back door, or stay committed and involved.

For me, Facebook opened a doorway that allows me to be in touch with people, to know and share in the day-to-day joys and sorrows of their lives, in a way that previously happened only occasionally in a home visit. Even more, it makes possible a whole new layer of instant community — a sharing in real time — that had not existed before.

With Facebook, I and church members can almost immediately share photos of important events, rejoice together at moments of triumph, and express concern when tragedy strikes or a loved one falls ill. All these things and more can be shared in the moment and acknowledged while still fresh, instead of weeks later, as usually happens in church life.

One of the most compelling reasons to sign up for Facebook is that it is heavily used by college students and 20-somethings, the very group that has always drifted from church and been difficult to stay in touch with. After joining Facebook, I intentionally searched for all our college and 20-something members and “friended” them in short order.

Soon, I was in touch with their lives in a way that I had never been before. Yes, sometimes I saw a frat picture or two that they probably would not have wanted their pastor to see if they had thought about it for a moment. But I knew when they were sick. I knew when they were taking an exam they were worried about. I knew when they had a job interview.

Now, as never before, I could send them a brief “attaboy” or note of encouragement and celebrate with them when things went well. I joked with older members that I now usually knew what was going on in our college students’ lives before their parents did. But it wasn’t a joke — it was true.

You don’t believe that kind of virtual presence can make a difference in a young person’s life? Then consider how delighted I was when one of our younger adult members wrote on her Facebook page, “I can’t post that on Facebook — I’m Friends with my pastor!”

But is this really community? Is this really substantial communication? Isn’t Facebook just a giant water cooler conversation? Well, yes. That’s exactly what it is, nothing more or less.

Water cooler conversation is vitally important in building relationships, researchers have found. It helps create informal bonds that lead to more substantial communication and trust. Telecommuters, for example, report that, lacking these seemingly inconsequential conversations, they feel disconnected from the people in the office. And for many people in our congregations, the only options are the Facebook “water cooler” or the post-worship handshake exchange. Which do you think is more likely to nurture real relationships and greater involvement in church life?

As our congregation’s membership in Facebook has grown, so too have the layers of communication. Many new parents in our congregation now post baby pictures and give regular updates, enabling me to learn about the sniffles and the first vaccinations and the milestone events even as they’re happening. I have made more than one hospital visit as a result of posts on Facebook, responding to events I learned about long before we got an “official” family telephone call at the church office.

This new level of connection and relationship is not just for the pastor but for the entire congregation. Pictures of church events, tagged with relatives’ names, have shown up on the Facebook walls of young members who now live far away, keeping them connected to our church. We’ve had members and former members post comments from across the country and around the world.

Facebook, of course, is not without problems and challenges. The technology can create a digital divide, and pastors need to be aware of which members are not Facebookers and intentionally use other methods to stay in touch with them.

Foolish use of the medium — things far less than Anthony Weiner-level stupid — can end a ministry career. And even with the best intentions, an unthinking post can easily violate the privacy of your family or a church member. But healthy pastors, whether in the virtual world or the real one, have good psychological boundaries and should know how to limit the information and private opinions they share in the very, very public world of Facebook.

At the same time, authenticity is vitally important, especially with younger members. Young people today have a nose for the artificial. They can sense when you are posting “with your robes on.” Be genuine and be honest, always keeping in mind the limits of a fundamentally public forum.

Remember, Facebook is two-way communication. Listen as well as talk. At some level, your members will be measuring the authenticity of your responses just as they would in a personal conversation.

As new as Facebook is, its strengths lie in skills that have been at the heart of the church from the very beginning. As recorded in Acts and the Epistles, the apostolic church was profoundly relational, with members clearly concerned about staying in touch with one another, bearing one another’s burdens and sharing in one another’s joys.

This is what real church is about, and any tool that enhances our ability to build connections and relationships is not one to be ignored.

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Alban Weekly, Alban at Duke Divinity School, November 14, 2016

Mihee Kim-Kort: The holy work of social media

Posted on: February 8th, 2017 by CEP Administrator No Comments
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Mihee Kim-Kort
Minister and member of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board

 

A group of Presbyterians has organized a weekly Twitter conversation about “the many intersectional ways we are Presbyterian and called to be church.”

Participating in a Twitter conversation called #PresbyIntersect showed a pastor that social media can facilitate a culture of belonging, where friendship is experienced in new ways.

My entrance into new media began with blogging on Xanga in 2003. It was a way to procrastinate writing a senior thesis during my last year in seminary. My posts were short, sometimes quotations from books, sometimes little reflections about my life — newly married, in the middle of exams and books and papers, getting ready to search for my first call.

When Twitter first launched in March 2006, I was making plans to begin my Th.M. program at Princeton Theological Seminary. It wasn’t until almost a year later, during a class on Tillich’s theology, when Adam, an M.Div. student sitting next to me, encouraged me to jump on.

I hesitated. The platform, the purpose, the timeline that seemed to scroll by so quickly — it was intimidating. Everything that I knew was Myspace and Facebook. I might have even still been blogging at Xanga.

But I figured, why not? When I signed up, Adam was my first follower, and his tweet to his followers was something along the lines of, “Hey, let’s welcome Mihee to Twitter.” I felt a little jolt of excitement.

Many years later, the various ways to interact online are ubiquitous, and it is an understatement to say they are part of the landscape of our culture, whether through social media or gaming, or through apps or forums like Reddit.

They are a means to tell stories, to build relationships and networks, to educate and learn, to lift up causes. They enhance and mediate. And in many ways, they replace traditional forms of communication.

The hashtags used to organize topics and trends, particularly on Twitter, have become so commonplace that they are now used in other platforms (Facebook, Instagram) as well — and indeed, symbolically, in texts, emails and even verbal conversation.

People can collect thoughts on a particular topic — anything from TV shows (#GreysAnatomy) to this past year’s election coverage (#electionnight2016) to silly conversations (#holidaypickuplines).

Many groups also use hashtags to host a teach-in on a topic for a specified amount of time or to “gather” regularly around a topic.

For example, this past June a group of about a half-dozen Presbyterians across the country who are active on Twitter simply messaged each other and talked about the possibility of gathering more regularly.

We wanted to talk about our faith, and specifically Presbyterian identity, through an intersectional lens. So #PresbyIntersect (link is external) was created. Since then, we’ve met weekly and invited many others to talk through topics ranging from police brutality and violence to allyship to trauma to the generational gaps.

Each week we agree on a topic, put out a promotional image that gives the date and theme, and then collaborate and work from a Google document to prepare questions to ask the community.

Initially, this was intended to be a time to engage justice issues and to share information and resources. But I’ve noticed a shift already.

It has become a safe haven for discussing all our questions about and struggles with what is happening more widely in the world, as well as the impact of those things on our communities. We want to be faithful, we want to engage, and we need a way to invite people from all walks of life and perspectives into the conversation.


This screenshot shows a recent #PresbyIntersect exchange.

I’ve found that the faith community of #PresbyIntersect helps us live out a sort of digital diaspora where we intentionally inhabit an ethos of reconciliation and wholeness. It can become a creative and radical site for integration.

Sometimes that wholeness looks different from what we expect. But it’s always rooted in and centered on storytelling. As we constantly enact that safe space in all the venues and platforms of our lives, we begin to broaden our understanding of what is holy and sacred in our work as church.

Participating in new media becomes a practice of friendship. It gives us as the church occasions to live sacramentally toward each other by enacting and embodying signs of grace that express the story that gives meaning to our lives.

This theme of friendship keeps coming up for me lately, and I see the necessity of leading with it in all my work — whether through social media connections or in campus ministry.

In May of this year, I went on a pilgrimage with a group of campus ministers and conference staff to the Taizé community, where I picked up a book written by one of the brothers called “Friends in Christ: Paths to a New Understanding of Church.”

In it, Brother John highlights the importance of a “culture of belonging”: “The capacity of the church to communicate the Gospel stands or falls with its identity as an inclusive community of friends. … In a society where doing, organizing, and achieving reign, how many congregations are aware that, along with deepening a relationship with Christ, building friendship among the members should be a priority?”

New media and digital technologies — spaces like Twitter — can be a way to facilitate this culture of belonging, where friendship is experienced in new ways. I have connected through social media with many new people from different contexts, people I normally wouldn’t interact with face to face, and have learned so much about how they enact their faith in their communities.

Hearing their stories has been encouraging, helping me see the beauty in our different experiences. Participating in #PresbyIntersect and other digital forums has also helped me be in intentional and thoughtful dialogue with colleagues and those with whom I have a deep friendship about how we can be the church.

Like many technologies or tools, new media can be abused or used irresponsibly. But it also offers a chance to make meaning and reach out in positive and hopeful ways. It invites us to consider how we might frame all our practices around a different kind of intimacy and connection — a virtual culture of belonging.

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Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, Faith & Leadership, January 24, 2017

On being an iPhone pastor in a typewriter church

Posted on: January 8th, 2017 by CEP Administrator No Comments
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On being an iPhone pastor in a typewriter church

The ‘Millennials and Church’ thing has been written about to death in recent years. Theories about what millennials want in church range from the newest, flashiest, most technologically advanced thing, to the oldest, most artisanal traditions.

If you are sick of reading about how to get millennials back to Church, join the club. In fact, I wouldn’t blame you for not reading yet another blog post about the topic; but bear with me, I promise not to talk at all about what millennials want or how to get us back to Church.

That being said, figuring out millennials is big business for Christianity these days and finding the magic bullet to get us all back to church would make someone rich. Lots of church consultants and ministry experts are making the speaking rounds telling the Church all about millennials and the big “change” the world is experiencing.

And yet, as a millennial myself, I am rarely asked why I didn’t follow the rest of my exiting generation and when I am asked why I am still around, it is usually after I have pointed out that I am rarely asked.

Being a millennial and an ordained Lutheran pastor has provided me some insight into the Church’s quest to regain millennials. Almost always the starting point for this conversation is, “how do we get the young people back?”

Yet, it is almost never asked, “Why are young people leaving?”

Why are young people leaving the Church?

Church people are convinced they know the answer to why people are leaving. The surface level answers have to do with sports on Sundays, shopping on Sundays, lack of commitment, not having prayers in the schools, boring traditional worship, not enough youth ministry, too many rules, too much organ, etc.

The experts have more sophisticated reasons: like people being busy and carefully choosing how to spend their discretionary time.

Yet, none of these things seem to really name the reason that my contemporaries are not going to Church. None of these reasons seem sufficient to explain my anecdotal experience.

Admittedly, I have never had parishioners my own age in the last six years of ministry. Yet, there is one area where I have consistently done ministry with millennials.

Baptisms.

I have met with dozens of millennials who are bringing their babies to be baptized, but who don’t otherwise go to church. Since I require to meet with parents for friendly conversations about baptism, I have the opportunity to ask about the role of faith in their lives.

And there are two things I have taken away from these experiences:

Even though I fit the big teddybear-like white-guy-with-a-beard mould of the stereotypical pastor, I don’t fit the age mould. I don’t talk about faith like they expect me to. And, I tell them way more about baptism than their parents, grandparents or my predecessors have.

Almost always, the millennials I meet with find it refreshing that I didn’t just expect them to magically know everything about church and that I encourage questions and skepticism.

While the first takeaway is troubling, the bigger takeaway when I meet with other millennials (even ones that are almost completely unchurched) is that I don’t have to make the cultural commute that I am constantly making with most of the people I serve.

What is a cultural commute you ask?

Well, it is the whole “iPhone pastor in a Typewriter church” thing.

It is the idea that in order to engage or interact with a certain community or group of people – or generation of people – you need to speak in their cultural language.

An easy example is actual languages. Even though I am an English speaker, I took grade school in French. It was draining to operate in a second language all the time.

It is the same for immigrants and foreigners, even when they already speak English. You don’t just speak the same language, you learn a whole system of symbols, images, colloquialisms, inside jokes, history, and baggage that go along with a group of people. And, when you don’t get that culture, you feel constantly like you are on the outside.

An iPhone pastor in a typewriter church

I remember when I first got my iPhone and would pull it out to make appointments or send messages in front of parishioners. They would often look at me like I just beamed down from the starship Enterprise; these were people who remember riding to school in a horse and buggy.

But more than that, when I sit in most meetings or conversations with church people, the discussion ends up being full of cultural references that pass me by. TV shows, music, movies, and historical references from the 50s, 60s, and 70s of which I don’t understand the meaning, are regular parts of conversation.

At the same time I have to park my own cultural baggage. I can’t make Friends or Breaking Bad or Jay-Z or Mumford and Sons or Hipster or Twitter references because most people won’t get them.

But it isn’t just pop-culture symbols. It goes deeper than that.

It is the whole way Church and faith were approached 50 years ago versus how things are approached today.

The most draining cultural commute that I experience as a millennial pastor is the difference between congregations who still expect that every good Canadian (or American) citizen would be a church goer versus my expectation that only people who are interested and for whom faith is very important would be a church goer.

It is a cultural commute that takes shape most clearly for me in this way:

When I go and talk to unchurched millennials about baptism, I often get asked about why faith and church is important to me. This is often the most exciting part of the conversation.

Yet, when I ask church boomers and older members about why faith and church is important to them, I get uncomfortable looks and uncertain answers.

Now don’t get me wrong.

I love the people I have served and do serve. And, I don’t begrudge them in anyway. If anything, this is a failure of church leadership to not help people think through why church is important to them.

I also think that it is an important part of ordained pastoral ministry to be constantly making cultural commutes towards those whom we serve in order that they might hear the gospel (wasn’t the whole incarnation a cultural commute?).

But this cultural commute, this expectation that as a millennial I will always cross the bridge in the cultural gap and engage in a world that is culturally different, is not just because I am a pastor.

Church people so often expect that anyone outside the dominant culture or generation – millennials, foreigners, seekers, new converts – will be the ones to make the commute. And, this expectation is often unconscious.

It is okay for a millennial pastor to be the one crossing the bridge, making the cultural commute in order to be a part of a church community. But, it doesn’t always work the same way for millennial church members.

And, I think this is a big reason millennials aren’t in church. It just isn’t a world that most of us can even access.

When I attend the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada’s (ELCIC) National Convention, we talk about how to do ministry in remote parts of country where pastors are unavailable. We talk about right relationships with Canada’s indigenous peoples. We talk about working for justice in the correctional system. We will pass resolutions on climate change and immigration issues. And, we might event talk about “how to get the young people back.”

These are important issues, things we should talk about, things we should speak out about. But, we aren’t talking about why people are leaving church.

And, we certainly aren’t talking about how to translate ourselves into a church for 2016 and beyond. Instead, we are talking about restructuring, right-sizing, which is the corporate language of the 80s and 90s.

I suspect that this is where a lot of conversations in local churches sound like, and where conversations in districts and national offices sound like. Churches are trying to catch up to the 80s, while my millennial contemporaries are leaving churches because the cultural commute to even access church is just too far a journey.

Commuting to make church work

Being commuting pastors is something that many of my millennial colleagues and I just accept. I know that helping congregations and church bodies move into the 21st century (hopefully before it ends) is just going to be my lot. And, not just our lot, but our calling.

About the author


ChristianWeek Columnist

Erik Parker is the Pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Selkirk, Manitoba, as well as a blogger and speaker. When not doing those things, he is chasing his two young children around with his wife Courtenay. He blogs at millennialpastor.net

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Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, News & Ideas, December 07, 2016

L. Gregory Jones: Renewing community in a networked society

Posted on: December 27th, 2016 by CEP Administrator No Comments
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The Vanishing Neighbor
Senior fellow, Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, and executive vice president and provost, Baylor University

“Middle-ring” relationships have receded in the new social patterns of American life. We need imaginative Christian leaders to develop institutions that can support and sustain the community we now lack.

A large-church pastor is worried about the health of his church. Small groups seem to be working fine, and the overall worship is fine. What is missing, though, is the sense that the congregation is a community capable of moral and spiritual formation.

The pastor’s worry reflects far more than the circumstances of one congregation, or even of congregational life more generally. It reflects the disappearance of the crucial “middle rings” that are central to healthy communities that nurture and sustain vibrant personal life.

Middle rings are what Marc J. Dunkelman describes in his book “The Vanishing Neighbor (link is external)” as the heart of community in American life. Inner rings describe our most intimate relationships, with families and close friends; outer rings describe casual acquaintances. Middle-ring relationships are the people with whom a person “is familiar but not intimate, friendly but not close.” They are central to fostering a sense of vitality as well as nurturing those “meaningful disagreements” that shape a healthy body politic.

Typically, this middle ring comprises no more than 150 people, because of the limits of our brains. For much of American history, our middle-ring relationships have been formed through a “townshipped” model. This was as true for congregations as it was for our broader civic ecology.

Dunkelman notes, though, that profound changes in American life have transformed the ways we navigate and imagine the rings of our lives. Dunkelman highlights three broad categories of changes that are upending American community: the technological and economic revolutions of the last 60 years, the explosion in American mobility and the evolution of our lives at home.

These changes have affected the inner and outer rings, in many ways actually enhancing them. For example, social mobility has made people more reliant on intimate relationships, whether family members or close friends. Indeed, studies of cellphone usage show that the majority of our calls are to three to five people in our most intimate, inner rings.

The digital revolution makes it easier for us to maintain connections to casual acquaintances in our outer ring of relationships. It also makes it easier for us to establish new acquaintances through affinity groups and to connect even more broadly via social media. These outer-ring relationships can mobilize significant movements, such as the tea party on the right or the Occupy movement on the left.

Yet Dunkelman argues that such movements are not capable of addressing our yearning for the sustainable community found in middle-ring relationships. Those relationships have receded in the new social patterns of American life, leaving us feeling fragmented and isolated, even with healthy inner- and outer-ring relationships. We are missing a sense of community; in Dunkelman’s memorable image, the middle rings have become missing rings.

The danger in such a diagnosis is to become nostalgic and wistful, longing for “the good old days” of townships and community. But there is nothing that accounts for a longing for the good old days quite as much as a bad memory. Those forms of community were far from perfect, and wistfulness is likely to lead us to imagine a time that never was. Nostalgia for “townships” would be as counterproductive as it would be ineffective.

But it would be equally dangerous to ignore the challenges we face or to assume that we can adequately address those challenges through inner- or outer-ring relationships. The large-church pastor rightly senses that something is missing in the congregation he serves. Young adults also rightly sense that current institutions are failing them and us, and that new patterns are needed. But we are unsure what to do next.

Why? Dunkelman points to the pervasiveness and depth of the challenges:

A transformation of American community has come to affect everything from our propensity to innovate to our capacity to care for one another. It has disrupted our social institutions as much as it’s thrown a wrench into our politics. Without notice, a quiet revolution over the course of several decades upended the foundation that girded the very pillars — government, businesses, banks, schools — in which the public has lost faith. Its effects, which explain nearly every frustration listed above, run deep and wide.

Can we chart a future that is adaptive to the deep trends of our culture and nurtures middle-ring relationships?

Charting such a future will be challenging. As Dunkelman notes, we need to be honest with ourselves: “Simply reinforcing flailing institutions that have worked for decades, or tinkering at reforms around the edges, won’t fix our problems.” Those institutions aren’t working anymore in the ways we need them to.

Yet Dunkelman is also hopeful: “If we take a fresh look at what a networked society does and doesn’t do well, we can map out a plan to develop institutions that compensate for what we now lack.”

We will need the fresh imaginations of leaders of Christian institutions, and Christian leaders of institutions, in order to map out such a plan. Nurturing such imaginations will require clear-eyed diagnoses like Dunkelman’s, as well as the cultivation of “border crossing” relationships across sectors and across other divides among us.

And here senior pastors might be exceptionally well-positioned to provide vision and leadership — IF we embrace the realities of a networked society AND offer a “traditioned innovation” approach to community and institutions.

Congregations and other forms of Christian community can and should gather people across divides, focus on forming relationships that bear witness to the fullness of God’s reign, and embrace issues across sectors and institutions that, sadly, currently exist more as silos than as networks (including the church).

The Fresh Expressions (link is external) movement is one example of a Christian experiment that is helping to renew middle-ring relationships. Some of these fresh expressions have emerged out of larger congregations, addressing the gap between intimate small groups and the rather anonymous outer ring of the whole congregation; other fresh expressions are entrepreneurial startups in which hybrid forms of face-to-face and online gatherings connect people to each other in new ways. And yet others are crossing boundaries to work across sectors to serve and renew neighborhoods, especially in underserved areas.

Diagnosing our challenges without lapsing into nostalgia is critical, as is recognizing that we do not currently have the institutions we need to support and sustain middle-ring community. As we sow seeds of new and renewed forms of community through creative experiments and transformed imagination, let us also develop and renew institutions so those seeds will grow into full blossom.

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Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, Fait & Leadership, October 31, 2016

C. Kavin Rowe: The church and the vanishing neighbor

Posted on: November 24th, 2016 by CEP Administrator No Comments
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Houses and neighbors, vanishing as they get further away

fotolia/VarDaan

 

In the face of dramatic cultural shifts in how well we know our neighbors, one of the tasks of Christian institutional leaders will be to strengthen the role the church plays as the place where our families and distant connections come together.

Every Christian leader ought to know that the greatest commandment is to love God, and the second greatest, which “is like it,” is to love our neighbor (Matthew 22:36-40; see also Paul in Galatians 5:14). Love of God and love of neighbor was the way the vast Jewish law was organized into a more basic pattern of life. Jesus, of course, knew this well and drew the connection for his audience: when you love the God of Israel, you are to love your neighbor.

The trouble is that our neighbors have vanished. We know our families, we know our co-workers, and we know our “friends” from the Internet or special interest meetings on everything from sports to fishing to favorite books to politics. But we do not know our neighbors. Or such at least is the thesis of Marc Dunkelman’s new book, “The Vanishing Neighbor (link is external).”

Dunkelman argues that the social architecture of America has profoundly changed. Broadly speaking, we used to have three basic rings of relationships or connections: our families (inner ring), our neighbors (middle ring) and our distant acquaintances (outer ring). “Neighbors” were not just those who lived near us but those with whom we could “carry on conversations about personal subjects even if they aren’t entirely private: the birth of a child, for example, an ongoing illness, or a funny coincidence from a few years back” (97). Neighbors were those who knew something of our lives.

What buttressed neighborly connections, Dunkelman says, was “institutions.” Whether the Elks Club, the PTA or even the network that was the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, it was this broader institutional organization that made our connections possible and gave rise to our knowledge of our neighbors. In the days before email and all its cousins, our contact with each other was through multifaceted associations that brought us together and enmeshed us in wider, if not directly intimate, knowledge about each other’s lives.

As a whole, Dunkelman observes, these institutions have all but disappeared. And with them have gone the middle-ring relationships.

It’s not that we have quit caring about some of the work these institutions did. It’s rather that we no longer think we need them. They have been replaced by forms of media that allow us to connect directly with those who already share our interests. No longer do we need to gather with others to pursue what we see as “good” or even just to get to know people. We simply go online, discover people who fit what we have in mind and communicate with them about the interest or experience that led us to begin the search.

“Two people with nothing in common beyond a single point of interest can engage without worrying about other beliefs that might put them on opposite sides of a vast divide,” Dunkelman notes (111). People who share the same disease, who collect the same items, who cheer for the same college team, who support the same politicians and so on all connect with those of like experience and thought.

To be sure, a thick network can emerge from such connections, and there is deep good in finding others who have, say, gone through the same chemotherapy. We can also achieve remarkable goals through single-minded focus: issue-based activism has never been as popular as it is now.

But over time, the dangers are that such networks become more like “networked individualism” or even “communal narcissism” than places where we know and are known (111). And our longing for community goes unfulfilled. In fact, it actually deepens. Even the sickest want to know and be known. In Dunkelman’s terms, we have loaded up on single-bond ties or outer-ring relationships and lost the shared sense of life that we long for.

Dunkelman doesn’t really offer any “solution” to the erosion of our middle-ring ties, principally because he realizes that we can’t turn back the clock (and often wouldn’t want to).

He does, however, recognize that without middle-ring relationships, we leave huge holes in communal life and lose the ability to integrate our lives on the basis of interpersonal knowledge and commitment. Moreover, we lose contact with large groups of people who depend on us and who may not have robust families or share our particular interests.

When a crisis comes — as it did in the fall of 2006 in Buffalo, New York, where two feet of snow caused extensive shutdown — the effect of this loss is starkly illuminated. In Buffalo, the isolation and vulnerability of a vast number of elderly people suddenly became apparent. They had almost no connection to others. Absent the middle-ring relationships, these people had been largely lost to view. That this is happening yet again in Buffalo is an indication not so much of a lack of will to help as it is once again of the fact that without middle-ring community, we cannot see our neighbors.

It would be a mistake to think that the role of the church (and/or its institutional extensions) was simply to take the place of the institutions that made the relationships of the middle ring. And yet there is a sense in which the church is still the place where the inner and outer rings come together, where our families and our most distant connections are put together through rubbing shoulders with our neighbors, and where we learn of our more immediate communal needs and opportunities. One of the major tasks for leaders of Christian institutions over the next many years will be to discover how to build ties that move beyond the immediate family and are much thicker than single-bond ties.

The New Testament churches were intertwined with a social architecture entirely different from modern America’s. But we nonetheless see in them the relentless drive to connect Christians of all stripes with each other.

Christians were brothers and sisters, members of a larger networked community that imagined itself as a family. As in all families, there were fights aplenty. But the development of concentric rings of ties — from the most familiar in the household to the broadest reach of Mediterranean cities — was an indispensable ingredient in the Christian sense of identity.

Being church was not just about supporting local life in the more narrow sense, nor was it simply a special interest in the way that baseball or bass fishing is. It was instead a dense and networked set of relationships that reached across the spectrum from family to neighbor to merest acquaintance to the entirely unknown brother in another place. In short, the early church was a burgeoning institution that created the connections that allowed Christians to become visible to one another across time and space.

If Christian communities are to thrive in a society that has lost its middle rings, we will have to make the connections that render us visible to one another. We cannot simply invest in our own homes and with special-interest friends.

We have no stake in renewing American middle-ring culture per se, and could not do so even if we desired it. But we do have an enormous stake in knowing our neighbors and in providing the institutional space for Christians to build relationships with their neighbors — to know and be known.

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Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, News & Ideas, November 03, 2016

Kyle Matthew Oliver: You already have everything you need to be a digital media minister

Posted on: October 8th, 2016 by CEP Administrator No Comments
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Bigstock / GreenVector

 

It’s easy to be intimidated by technology. But technological skills aren’t the most important part of online ministry, writes a former digital missioner.

I recently found myself giving an impromptu training session over the phone.

I was on the line with a church administrator about the language translation plug-in I’d installed on her parish’s new website. I adjusted the phone at my ear, took a deep breath and said, “Trust me, this is easier than it seems.”

For four years, I served as a “digital missioner (link is external)” at an Episcopal seminary, where I offered resources and training for colleagues interested in doing spiritual development and Christian education in new ways.

One thing I learned is that fear is the chief obstacle to doing ministry online. In the case of the church administrator struggling with the translation plug-in, it was more important to reassure her that she could learn the task than it was to tell her where to click.

Relationship, in other words, was the key to moving forward. That’s why, when the organization I serve began our work spreading digital literacy in the Episcopal Church and beyond, we prioritized forming learning communities.

If “overcome fear with relationship” or “begin with community” sound to you like lessons from Church Leadership 101, then you get my central message.

The good news about digital media ministries is that they are, first and foremost, ministries.

Are you a lay or ordained church leader? Then you have already been called to live out (and probably trained to take on) Christian acts of hospitality and proclamation, formation and service, fellowship and solidarity.

If you want to learn to minister online, the challenge is to align your existing ministry instincts with this new environment. You already have everything you need to be an effective digital media minister — except maybe some practice.

In her book “Faith Formation 4.0 (link is external),” my colleague Julie Anne Lytle calls one chapter “Message, Method, then Media.”

Her point is that technological bells and whistles — the media — are not the point of the work. They may worry us or keep us from moving forward, but they’re not the hard part.

Technology is comparatively straightforward and continues to get easier to use — most of the time, you can solve your problem with a how-to video on YouTube.

It’s people who are complicated, and your training and experience indicate that you likely already know something about connecting with people.

Moreover, technology isn’t the source of the power of these ministries. It’s true that the method of interactive communication online allows us to reach more (and more varied) people. But it’s the message of the gospel, of God’s transforming love, that will matter for those people.

That message hasn’t changed in 2,000 years.

So if you’re feeling down about your ability to reach out online, let me encourage you to reframe your situation with an example. Imagine you are leading a Bible study at church. Suppose someone in the group makes a comment that is met initially with silent stares around the table.

What facilitation options do you have in that moment?

You might want to make a sympathetic hum of recognition if the comment has resonated. If not, you might try tilting your head a bit off-axis and squinting slightly as if to say, “I’m not quite following you.”

You might use your arms to gesture gently around the room, inviting follow-up comments from others. Or you might respond verbally yourself, or invite someone else to.

The point is, you want to honor the contribution this person has made. An obvious goal of group facilitation is to help ensure that everyone feels heard and valued.

The same principle applies in a digital environment. If you’re hosting a conversation on a Facebook comment thread or online discussion board, you still want to avoid letting someone go unheard.

Online, your responses are likely to be word-based, since nonverbal communication is limited. But sometimes a playful emoji, a carefully chosen image or a simple “Like” can help acknowledge and recognize someone’s contribution.

Of course, we can take this fairly mundane example to a more high-pressure pastoral level.

Perhaps someone says something mildly or extremely inappropriate. Your in-person ministry instincts are to communicate that this behavior is out of bounds, hopefully with reference to some kind of group norms or church policy about how people of faith treat each other.

You need to decide whether to relay that message in public or in private, depending on the severity of the situation. You might even need to remove the abusive person from the room, and to support the person who was mistreated.

Here again, the same principles apply. It’s important that you are clear about appropriate behavior in the online conversations in some way “hosted” by your church, and it’s important that you enforce those rules in cases of abuse.

There are private channels (like direct messaging) and public tools (like deleting a comment or blocking someone) to use according to your good judgment.

As Meredith Gould puts it in her helpful book “The Social Media Gospel” (link is external): “Use the comforting knowledge that virtual community is real community to guide your response. … Tap into what you already know about responding to someone whose pain manifests as anger.”

You already have what you need.

If that’s true, then how should you take your first steps as a digital media minister? You need to practice, preferably beginning under the direction of an experienced mentor, and always in collaboration with trusted colleagues. As in any new setting, you should listen before you participate and participate before you take on a leadership role.

Find out where people in your community spend time online and join them there. Let your motto be “As in the parish hall or coffee shop, so on the parish website or neighborhood discussion board.”

You don’t need an extra tunic, though your smartphone charger may come in handy. The Holy Spirit will be there to help you take care of the rest, as she has been all along.

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Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, Faith & Leadership, October 04, 2016