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Monday, September 9, 2013

Church Communicators Serve Up Food for Thought

This is an article I submitted for the Evangel, our congregation's newsletter.  It was published in abridged form there, but I wanted to share the whole thing.

If your church disappeared tomorrow, would your community notice?

That provocative question set the tone for a lively and thought-provoking workshop led by JIM NAUGHTON and REBECCA WILSON, who make their living helping churches communicate better as the principals of Canticle Communications and co-authors of Speaking Faithfully: Communications as Evangelism in a Noisy World. Jim is also the founder of The Episcopal Cafe, a news blog.

The workshop, organized by NINA NICHOLSON Diocesan Director of Communications and Technology, gave congregations an opportunity to not only get better at using social media and other tools, but also to understand what kind of messages they are putting out in the world, and what might actually generate interest among their neighbors.

I attended the workshop as part of a team who will be collaborating on multiple aspects of communications at St. John’s, including the website, the bulletin, our presence in social media, and the Evangel.

The event started off on a sobering note as both leaders described the seemingly difficult climate in which the church finds itself. As Pew research reveals, increasing numbers of people are identifying with no faith and even embracing atheism. A number of high-profile scandals involving clergy and the perception of religious leaders as too judgmental and too political have not helped. “Our world thinks it knows what Christians are up to, and is disinterested or even hostile,” Naughton explained. He continued with a question: “What do you have that is attractive enough to break people's habits, behavior, and thinking?”

Episcopal churches have a tendency to use “insider language” that we expect people to know. This suggests to those who see and hear unfamiliar terms that a church might be an exclusionary club, and not for them. In an increasingly secular world, even spiritual messages should not make assumptions about the reader’s understanding of what church life is like, or even what the Bible says.

Mainline protestants in general have a tendency to “play it safe” and shy away from the edgy or controversial. On this, Wilson reminds us, “We have a savior who made people so angry that they killed him.” I was reminded of the few times St. John’s entered my consciousness prior to our joining. Each involved an incident where the parish had taken a stance on a social justice issue that led to some conflict. While there is always room for growth in how we respond to situations like this, in aggregate they served to tell me that this was a place that did not back away from its Gospel calling in the face of resistance. That was a strong factor in my decision to consider St. John’s as a new spiritual home for Jeffrey and me.

Naughton argues that the majority of “prime real estate” on web sites should be targeted at prospective visitors and newcomers, with parish business taking a back seat. “Jesus did not preach the Sermon on the Mount about the acolyte schedule,” he reminded. Those looking for a spiritual home want to be challenged inspired, and possibly redeemed. Their first instinct will not be to attend a meeting, and -- while schedules and calendars are important -- most transformative moments are unplanned. An effective menu system can get viewers who are looking for business information to what they need.

Since Andrew’s departure, parishioners have been taking turns writing reflections for the cover of the service leaflet. These narratives, many in the first person, are exactly the kind of content Naughton and Wilson believe has the power to engage people. We are generally shy and feel ill-equipped to evangelize to others, but Naughton and Wilson believe that what will reach them is “your story of what God is doing in your life, and you already know about that.”

Expanding on the topic of audience, Naughton and Wilson pointed out that many people drive past multiple churches -- even Episcopal churches -- to get to the one they attend. He challenged us to understand who lives around us, what do they care about and pay attention to? Are we gracefully inserting ourselves into the places where they are? What about their lives is hard, and could benefit from an understanding faith community?

We have done a little of this with projects like Ashes to Go, where you gently present an opportunity for “church” to those who don’t have the time or inclination to visit the building. This summer, St. Luke’s is offering Worship Without Walls, a “flash-mob” style evening service at a different outdoor location each Sunday. People seem generally surprised and pleased by these no-strings efforts to reach them where they are.

SUSAN DUNN, PATTY DREHER and I did some brainstorming about more ways to “get out there.” What could we offer regular commuters from Walnut Street, with the stresses and anxiety that the business world brings? What about those who have lost their job?

How could we become a part of community events like the Farmer’s Market? In June, a small group of us attended a service at St. Lydia’s, a growing “dinner church” that is affiliated with both the Lutheran Synod of New York and the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island. I learned in passing that the sister of one of the farmers at the market is an Episcopal priest. What if we partnered with his farm to offer a locally sourced meal intertwined with worship?

These are just a few ideas, out of countless possibilities. Naughton pointed out other community events, like Thanksgiving, Memorial Day or Veteran’s Day, that are not religious holidays but are often opportunities to creatively reach the community, waiting to be claimed. What could we offer which might become a new Montclair tradition?

I left the workshop feeling that we are doing many things right, and there are many things that we could improve upon to reach those around us and get to know each other and ourselves better. As we continue our “adventure” I hope many of you will bring forward your gifts and talents to help us to authentically tell St. John’s story in a way that inspires growth, both by bringing new people to our midst, and building our understanding, love and commitment for one another.

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