Monday, August 14, 2006

Preaching to the wired

A couple weeks ago, I gave a keynote presentation to the ELCA Communicators Conference. ELCA is the largest association of Lutheran churches in the US, and the conference is a bi-annual meeting that gathers communicators from across the church to learn about how to better communicate to their members, employees, etc.

I was particularly excited about the presentation because it was to a group that’s decidedly outside the normal audience I speak to: though almost every hand went up when I asked how many were “on the Internet”, only 10% or so read blogs and just a handful in the room listened to a podcast. I decided to focus on new opportunities to communicate online, and ended up talking about blogs, podcasts, wikis, MySpace, Second Life, and YouTube.

Feedback from the talk was uniformly positive, and I’m happy to report that several new blogs popped up after I gave my talk – but that’s not what I really wanted to talk about. (I do appreciate the feedback, however!)

I made a rather provocative statement (inspired in part by Reverand Marsh’s words before my presentation) that, though the entire room claimed to be “on the Internet”, none were using MySpace. Consequently, I claimed, none of them were actually on the Internet. My point wasn’t that they all have to hang out on MySpace… but that since many of their younger members are spending considerable time there, they should at least pay attention to it and find ways of engaging the kids on turf that’s familiar to them.

One day later, one synod (a collection of churches) made the plunge, and created a MySpace page. Two days after that, the synod’s communications committee asked that the site be taken down; among other reasons, they pointed out that parents were trying to get their kids off of MySpace, so the church shouldn’t be seen as encouraging the kids to spend more time there. I’m sensitive to that point – I really am – but I see it as a missed opportunity. The kids are seeking out opportunities to chat, and data from a couple years ago from Pew Internet & American Life Project indicates that nearly 2/3 of those online use the Internet in part for spiritual inquiries. As I said in an email over the weekend to the person who had to take the site down:

If the kids are there, then you have an opportunity to reach them there. Now, that may be a sensitive (and, potentially impossible) position for the church to be in… but I think that, absent the often alarmist reports about myspace (and the people who hang out there), there are legitimate and fulfilling uses of the service that will enrich a young person’s time online. The church has a chance to be a part of the good use of the service.

By the way, I was excited to find a great site that speaks to these challenges, Church Marketing Sucks. This past spring, they did a pretty comprehensive series about What Web 2.0 Means for Your Church, and among other things, talks about how to use MySpace. If you’re interested in these issues, it’s a great overview and deserves your attention.

There’s a follow-up to the story. This evening, I was checking to see if anyone else from the conference had written about their impressions before I wrote this post. I found this post from a Lutheran church-goer in Lodi, CA, who was reporting on yesterday’s surprising announcement from the Pastor that he’d created a MySpace page. And at the 11am service, he made sure everyone knew the URL:

I can’t claim any credit for Pastor Eric Griffith’s dive into MySpace (at least, I don’t think I can – I don’t think he was at the conference), but if I ever wanted a perfect example of how a Pastor can get the voice for a site like MySpace just right, I’ve got it now. Kudos to Pastor Griffith!


  1. Thanks for plugging my blog, Rick!

    I am one of the many who thought your presentation at the conference was both mind-blowingly provocative and extremely helpful.

  2. Hey Rick, thanks again for your presentations at the ELCA Communicators Conference.

    Your post yesterday is timely, since I just heard the news report
    of a 14-year-old girl sexually assaulted by four boys here in Chicago, through a MySpace-arranged meet up. I'm sure you realize that makes it hard for us to support the medium by an "official" presence there.

    We need to think through what the purpose of congregation, synod and churchwide MySpace presences might be. One purpose might be to invite young people to online places that are safer, but still fun. Of course, we need to either create or find those alternatives.

    We need more dialog about all this. Thanks for helping to get the conversation going in ELCA circles!

    Warm regards, Paul

  3. Paul -

    Yeah, I saw that. And while it's a horrific crime, I'm not really sure that I can put it in the "MySpace is bad" bucket. Look at it this way: bad things happen in lots of places where we don't immediately condemn the place.

    People stalk other people using the telephone - yet we still see plenty of "good" uses of the telephone. I think it's too easy to see the bad in technology (especially new technology), without accepting that ultimately the technology is neither good nor bad. How people use the technology determines whether it's good or bad, and parents don't have any less responsibility to understand what their kids are doing when they access the Internet.

    If all of the good, positive and uplifting discussions that _could_ happen on MySpace instead leave because of a few bad apples, that only reinforces the negative experiences on MySpace, and will go a lot further to guaranteeing that kids will only find the things on MySpace that we don't want them to find.

    Look at it this way: if MySpace were a city of several million people, and you read about the crimes that took place in that city, would you hesitate to organize a congregation in that city? Would you decide to avoid talking to the people in that city because of the bad things that have happened in that city? I don't think so (though I certainly don't presume to speak on your behalf, feel free to respond) - and I don't think sites like MySpace should be any different.

    None of this should be construed to be a lack of appreciation for the real challenges churches face when thinking about this. I think it's a hard hurdle to leap, and I am sympathetic to leaders who must make the decision, knowing that some in their congregation will disagree with them.

    Ultimately, if churches opt to remove themselves from the discussions happening on MySpace, they won't get any pushback from parents who are worried about the risks of having their kids on MySpace. But the church will also miss what I see as a perfect opportunity to engage their young people in an environment where the kids already spend a tremendous amount of time, where they seek out friends and are trying hard to learn who they are and what's important to them.


  4. Hi Rick,

    I listened to your presentation and appreciated it. I especially liked the gasps from the audience during the long pause after you said "If you're on the internet and not on myspace, you're not on the internet" :)

    Its awesome that a respected voice in the tech industry is evangelizing Web 2.0 to the Christian crowd.

    Joe Suh

    ps. looking forward to your feedback!

  5. I very much appreciated your presentation at the conference, and have been trying to come up with unique ways to adapt some of the Web 2.0 technologies to our setting. It's slightly more challenging to incorporate some of them to a synodical setting as opposed to, say, a congregational setting.

    As the official "youngest" communicator around, a lot of these ideas are things I thought of this is just giving me some ways to chase after them.

  6. Hello,

    Thanks for the kind words regarding my plunge into myspace. I cannot claim any great revelation as to why myspace and why now...other than I was tired of preaching the whole "myspace is ruining your life like crack...why are you spending every waking moment there...don't you know you can get hurt out there?" to deaf ears. So instead of wishing young people were elsewhere...I decided instead to use the medium available and take a piece of it back for God's uses. Perhaps it will fizzle or perhaps God will bless it's use...all I know is that in one short week, my kids are already sending their "unchurched" friends to the site as a way of providing a safe exposure to what faith might be for them.

    If it serves no other purpose than that, then I suppose we'll chalk one up for the good guys.

    Thanks again and I suppose I invite anyone who would like to push back to drop on've already got the url.


  7. this is all very interesting... as pastor of 3.5 year old 'emergent' elca church, where 1/4 of the congregation are bloggers (including myself for the past four years at and having ive church blogs as ministry team tools (to plan liturgy, track newcombers, do theology...) as our normal way of communicating and a my space for our gothic worship service... i'm amazed at how strange we are in the ELCA world, as the net is the environment we live in, like a fish in water... but then our average member age is 26.

    we are tying to do teaching/experiental learning event about this new world for synods with our 'learning parties' sponsored by our mission center at


  8. I'm absolutely loving the feedback! I'm learning so much more than I knew before I gave the presentation, and hopefully some of the attendees are able to see this dialog to see some terrific examples of what's happening within the ELCA to use the new technology to reach out.

    Thanks to all of you for sharing... I'm even more excited about the presentation as a result of this ongoing discussion.


  9. Rick,
    Thanks for your great presentation and workshop! You lit a fire under all of us. The church has a lot to learn from the secular world, and vice versa. You did a great job of inspiring without overwhelming us. After you presentation, "But we don't have the money or staff for that..." just doesn't fly. Thanks so much!

  10. Although my comment is quite late in regards to when this post was originally put up, I must say, Rick's plenary presentation (and two workshop sessions) at the 2006 ELCA Communicators' Conference was one of the best (if not the best) presentation(s) of which I have ever been a part. If it wasn't for what Rick said, I highly doubt that I would have my own personal blog and domain today. I am quite grateful for Rick's message (and challenge) to the communicators of the ELCA. It definitely caused us to think, learn, and respond. Thanks, Rick!

  11. Justin - Thanks so much for the kind words; I'm so pleased the presentation was helpful, and that you've been able to explore some new ideas as a result. Keep in touch!

  12. [...] conference is important to me, for a couple reasons. First off, my 2006 speech to this group was the most impactful speech I’ve ever given. It was wild to see so many blogs pop up, and to receive e-mails months, even a year or more after [...]