Today's post comes from Will Boyd at 3 Story Church. Will is a developer who works with congregations on their web and social media presence. This piece is a sermon preached at First Lutheran Community Church in Port Orchard, Washington on August 15, 2010. 3 Story Church will be working with FLCC on its website in the coming months. The sermon is a reflection on how people and communities of faith share their stories of God's activity in their lives.
A Word for the People
Acts 13: 13-23, 38-43
I would like to take a moment to describe just what it is that I do. I own a business called 3 Story Church. The focus of that business is helping churches and faith communities re-connect with their past, present, and future stories and tell them to the world. Quite often this comes in the form of websites, videos, and social media. Also a big part of what I do is speak about the way that changes in communications and society affect churches.
We are living in an exciting time when it comes to communications and technology. Much like changes that occurred as a result of the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, the changes that we are experiencing as a society due to the rise of the internet and social media are revolutionary. Advances in technology are rewriting the rules of what is possible for individuals, companies, and even churches. Right now, you hear about things like Facebook and blogs everywhere you go. It seems that the phrase “social media” is on everyone’s lips. And, it is hard to deny that the internet has evolved to become the primary means of communication and media consumption for more than just one generation. Marketers and corporations are falling all over themselves to take advantage of what things like Twitter and their websites can now do for them. So, it is only natural that churches want to learn how to get in on all the excitement.
But what is all the excitement about anyway? Why are websites, Facebook, and so on becoming such powerful communication tools? Put simply, unlike other communications tools going back to the printing press, these new tools are all about allowing everyone to share with everyone else. Suddenly, a teenager in Spokane has the ability to share her thoughts about tennis shoes with just as many people as does Nike. Similarly, a small church in Port Orchard now has the ability to reach as many people with their message as does the largest church anywhere. This is much different from the world that has dominated our recent history. Most of us are still used to a world where, if a church wanted to communicate its message outside of its own walls, then it either had to spend a fortune to broadcast its services on television, or participate in marketing activities like purchasing ads in newspapers, billboards, or radio. Going from a world in which communications travel in one direction from a single broadcast source to a large audience to a world in which communications happen like a giant conversation where everyone is on a more-level playing field is a big shift in a short amount of time.
It is no wonder that people are often a bit shocked when I tell them that these “new” communications tools that marketers and corporations are scrambling to learn are nothing new at all to churches. They look at me like I’ve lost my mind when I assure them that we as churches already know precisely how to use these tools to reach the world. No, we don’t have to learn something new at all. In fact, we have to re-learn something as old as our faith. We have to re-learn how to be church outside of our walls.
In most of our lifetime, our options for communicating have been very limited. We’ve really had no options for being church in our communications. When, as was necessary, churches turned to marketing to reach potential visitors, our communications were just that…marketing. We did our very best to represent our churches in ways that would attract people to church. We also paid special attention to trying to create programs and offerings that we thought people would like. However, we never saw our communications as a real extension of our church. And, how could they be? A 2 inch advertisement in the local newspaper is certainly not church. Our goal had to be to get people to come to church so that the real work of being church could happen.
The most powerful thing that the social media and internet revolution has done for churches is to allow us to stop marketing ourselves to people and free us to start sharing church with them. We can now BE CHURCH on our church websites. We can now BE CHURCH through tools like Facebook. We can now take church to the people where the people are. While all of this might feel new to us, as we can see in our Scripture reading, taking our faith to the people where the people are is nothing new at all. In these verses from Acts, Paul and his companions travel to Antioch and enter a synagogue. This was not a synagogue full of people who were followers of Jesus. Paul and his companions, as we sports fans say, did not have home field advantage. Instead, they were meeting the people where they were. That is one of the greatest blessings of what I and others call the internet revolution…that it has never been easier for churches to meet people where they are.
I was leading a workshop on the internet and the church at the 2009 General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) when I had an interesting exchange that stuck with me. In the workshop, I covered in greater detail the way that technological changes are allowing churches to more fully be the church online. When I finished, a gentleman approached me. I could tell by the look on his face that what I said had confused him a bit. He looked a lot like I must look when my wife is mad at me for something I don’t even know I did. After thanking me for the presentation and assuring me he enjoyed it, he questioned just how a church can “be church” online. His main point of contention with this possibility was that churches would lose support because, as he put it, “people expect everything on the internet to be free.” This was not the first time I had heard or thought about his question, so I felt well prepared to address his concern. I pointed out that there are others who are not only surviving these phenomena, but thriving in it. I pointed out that NPR is a great example of how people will support things that they expect to be free.
While I may have been prepared for his question, I was certainly not prepared for his response. He said, in as close to a direct quote as I’m capable of, “That’s great for NPR, but NPR has a good brand.” I think the only response to that I could muster was something like, “Well, that’s our problem, isn’t it?” But, it stuck with me. The more I thought about it, the more I mourned the idea that NPR’s “brand” was better than that of the church. Don’t get me wrong, I love NPR. When I found out I would be preaching at a Lutheran church, I already felt comfortable because I’ve been listening to A Prairie Home Companion for years. But people’s attitude towards Garrison Keillor should not be more positive than their attitude towards the Body of Christ. I started asking myself, “where did we go wrong?”
I went through all of the normal explanations of how certain, vocal branches of our faith have cast a negative light on the rest of us. Or how societal changes have cast God and faith to the sidelines. But none of these explanations seemed to satisfy my questions. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that, in our efforts to market ourselves to potential visitors…in all our work to create and provide programs that people would like, we as Christians had forgotten just what it was that we have that people really want.
In our Scripture reading, Paul shows us just how simple it is to “be church” outside of our church walls. When the leader of the synagogue asked Paul if he had a word for the people, Paul didn’t describe to those gathered in the synagogue the great programs or preaching that he had at his church. He didn’t try to entice the people to become followers of Jesus by offering them a robust social environment or a wonderful choir. No, he simply recounted for them the things that God had done. His word for the people was the story of God’s activity. He gave them the only thing he had to give…he gave them the story of the love and forgiveness of God.
BEING CHURCH means giving people an experience of God… as simple and as complicated as that may be. It is simple because we already know how to do it. It is complicated because it is out of our control and not a result of or a product of our programs, our theology, or our belief. Paul gave people an experience of God by reminding them of their own story, a way that they had encountered God in the past. Our churches can give an experience of God by sharing people their story of faith. On a website, that means, putting our story of how God has been and is active in our community in the front and center.
Quite often, churches feel the most important thing a website can do for them is to give people all of the information about the church…program information, mission statements, governance structures and so on. While there is certainly nothing wrong with sharing information with people…and it is important, using the church website as simply a marketing tool is missing a great opportunity to BE CHURCH in that space. That information becomes so much more than information when it is shared in a way that shows the visitor how God has been and is active through it.
My favorite example of BEING CHURCH on a website comes from a client of mine whose website I built. This church is an open and affirming congregation and wanted very much to share their open and affirming declaration that they had carefully crafted as a result of their discernment process. As a part of that congregation’s contract with me, I was also conducting video interviews with people that would be used on the website. A lesbian woman who had been a part of the open and affirming discernment process shared her personal story of that process and how her faith shaped and was affected by that decision. We place the video of that interview on the webpage just beside the carefully crafted open and affirming statement. Together, they are a powerful testimony to the activity of God in the life of that congregation.
When I think about the way that things like websites and social media can be used by churches, I often think about these verses from Acts. It makes me really excited to think that these technologies are making it easier and easier to tell our stories of God’s activity to the world. It may seem overly simple to some, but I assure you, there is nothing that we have, no program that we could create or implement, that is more powerful and attractive than the activity of God. In our Scripture, when the people hear Paul tell God’s story, they want more of it. I can’t help but imagine that they throng around him begging for more. Isn’t that what we all want. Don’t we all want more of God? I certainly believe so.
I also believe that it is more of God that the people outside of these church walls are hungry for as well. When my wife and I moved to Seattle, we were told that the Pacific Northwest was an unreligious place. We were told that the people here didn’t want anything to do with church. However, what I’ve seen since I’ve been here is just the opposite. When I walk through my neighborhood, I see yoga studios on every block. When I run through the park, there are often people doing Tai Chi by the lake. It seems that the conversations of the people around me in the coffee houses often turn toward the spiritual. I see it everywhere I go. People are hungry for more of God and they will go out of their way to get it.
That conversation with the gentleman after my workshop did more than just stick with me. It has changed the way I approach my work. Now, in everything I do, I try to help churches do more than just communicate who they are. I try to help them communicate who they are in relation to God’s activity. I try to help churches learn to tell those stories of what God is doing in their congregations via their websites, social media, and every other way available. I try to help them truly “be church” on their websites and everywhere else they have a presence.
If we as churches can return to the art of sharing the story of what God is doing, these new technologies will seem like nothing new at all to us. After all, at their core, these new technologies are all about making it easy to share. Isn’t that really what is at the core of the church, as well? There is nothing we are better equipped to do than share. We see this in our Scripture as Paul goes out, meets the people where they are, and shares the story of God with them. We see this in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. We are called to take every opportunity to give our word of encouragement for the people. We are a people charged with giving away the most powerful thing in the world…the one thing that everyone thirsts for…the love of God.