Friday, March 22, 2013

What Can an Internet Entrepreneur Tell Us About Our Church?

The following was written for the weekly newsletter of the church where I serve, Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ.

            You've heard me confess in sermons to being a public radio junkie.  I listen to public radio all the time.  This week I had blown through all my usual podcasts and was hunting for a fix.  I ended up landing on an episode of On Being with Krista Tippett.  (I liked this show better when it was called Speaking of Faith with Krista Tippett, because there is so little intelligent discussion of religion in the media.  Now its topics are broader and  not exclusively on religion.)  This episode was an interview with Seth Godin, a marketing guru for the networked economy, bestselling author and internet entrepreneur.  None of these things on the surface particularly interested me, but I needed a public radio fix, so I listened.  Quickly, however, I found myself listening to Godin and feeling like he was speaking about our church.
            One of Godin's ideas is that the mass market is dead having been replaced by hundreds of thousands of micro markets.  In a world where anyone can make something and work out its worldwide distribution to the few people in the world who want it, success is no longer measured by making something for the masses.  Godin notes that the mass market was a voting machine where "the goal is to see how many people are going to vote for you. How many people are going to raise their hand and say, 'I like that.'"  Now the mass market is divided into micro markets and so now the market is a weighing machine measuring how much impact you have.  Impacting everyone is essentially impossible anymore.  People have too many other choices.
            From the perspective of the church-both at the local church level and the denominational level-the goal has long been a mass market approach.  How can we make our message attractive to the masses?  I'm thinking of Billy Graham Crusades, megachurches, televangelists, evangelizing the whole world, etc.  Such approaches have many negative byproducts, such as a shallow message, exclusion of diversity, emphasis upon institutions over people, and even corruption and abuse.  Yet, now in a world where people can get their religion in any form they want just by clicking to a particular web site, this mass market kind of church appears more and more like a relic of the past.  I know there are still megachurches out there, but NBC, CBS and ABC still exist too.   Cable, Netflix, and the internet have demolished the days when everyone watched the series finale of M.A.S.H. together.  The same can be said of the big churches.
            I actually think this is good news for a church like ours.  Most people are not interested in a LGBT-loving, peace and justice promoting, commitment oriented, free thinking, singing from a hymnal and listening to the organ sort of church.  Our church is not designed for mass appeal.  We are like a prize winning novel by a lightly read author which has to be special ordered on-line rather than a paperback novel sold in an airport gift shop.  So our efforts should not be wasted trying to offer our kind of church to the majority of people who aren't interested in it, but rather reaching the few people who want and need what our church offers.  Don't get me wrong, I still believe in welcoming everyone who comes our way, but I think we should be realistic about who will actually do so.
            Godin's words should give us hope, because he says that success today is measured in impact rather than numbers.  A small company can have a great impact culturally if it has a story based on integrity.  If so, why can't a small church with a dedicated membership and a story of God's extravagant welcome also make a large impact in its community?  The goal of this type of business, marketing or church is relevance rather than numbers.  Of course, if your product or message has no integrity and is merely self-serving or profit-based, then you failed before you began.
            Godin uses the idea of "tribe" to describe what is happening today.  Once upon a time, "tribe" was defined by geography and blood line, but today it is described by shared interest and belief.  He explains that by the time of say, Mark Twain, this shift had already occurred.  "Mark Twain would show up in a city and a thousand people would come to hear him speak. And everyone who came was in his tribe. They were in the tribe of, you know, slightly satirical, slightly jaundiced people who were also intellectuals who could engage with him. And he had never met them before, but within minutes, they were part of a congruent group who understood each other. And so if we fast-forward to today - you can take someone who hangs out in the East Village or Manhattan who has 27 tattoos - they go to Amsterdam, they can find someone in Amsterdam who talks their language and acts like them, because they've chosen the same set of things that excite them, and that they believe in."  The question facing our church is who is in our tribe and how do we connect with them?
               Let's face it; if people are looking for a church with a rock band, a church that doesn't challenge anyone on justice issues, or a church where they can be a spectator, then we are not the church for them.  There are plenty of other options out there.  We need to connect with people who want the kind of church we are.  This does not mean we form our own clique or club, but rather we are expanding our cultural impact among those who share our values.  If we really believe God loves and welcomes all people; diversity of belief is a gift not a threat, and people of faith can make the world better for hurting people everywhere, then we will only make an impact in these areas by connecting with people who share those values.  According to Godin, we don't need large numbers to change the world; we only need a story with integrity.
            I believe Jesus had something to say about a small group of faithful people with a powerful story changing the world too.
            Grace and Peace,

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