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!