Then, Now, Next: Exploring Outreach in the Digital Era – slides and talk

Then, Now, Next: Exploring Outreach in the Digital Era

Audience at talk

Here are the slides for the talks Gabriel gave at the 2013 Northern California Church Alive Summit in Sacramento. Each session was attended by around 40 people. The third time he gave it was the best. The notes below were the basis for the talk, but weren’t followed exactly. We didn’t capture video for the talks.

Then, Now, Next: Exploring Outreach in the Digital Era
2013 Northern California Church Alive Summit
By Gabriel Serafini (gserafini@gmail.com) http://gabrielserafini.com/ @gserafini

Welcome, and thank you for coming to this session. Today we’ll be exploring what it means to do meaningful outreach in the digital era. We’ll be looking at what has worked well in the past, what is working today, and where we can go from here. We’ll be digging into the question of where are the missing people in our churches, and share some original research that may shed some light on the topic.

But first, allow me to begin by telling you a story. It is a story of how the loving sharing of Christian Science with a prison inmate leads to me being in this room today. My dad grew up the adopted son of alcoholics, and both parents died by the time he was 12. He did not have a good sense of right and wrong. He ended up on the streets as a young man, and eventually got a felony conviction and was locked up in prison. In solitary confinement he was allowed to bring a single book, Science and Health, to read. What he read changed his life. It saved his life. He became a different man, and ended up being released early, served as a prison chaplin, married my mother, and ended up having four children and a loving family. Without Christian Science, I wouldn’t be here today.

So before we start looking at reaching out, and the activities we do in the name of outreach, let’s take a look at our motives. Please take a quick look at the handout you received. Can we all agree that the primary reason we want to reach out is that we see it as an expression of our love for one another? That we want to do outreach because we want to obey the command that Jesus gave us?

When we look at who our neighbor is, are we looking far enough? Beyond our inner circles of partners, friends, family, church, co-workers, friendly people down the street? Are we including poor people, rich people, people who look different from us, prisoners, people in other countries? Who do we see as our neighbor?

Let’s agree that love is our motivation, and that love does not have limitations. We want to be free of any impositions that would keep us from loving effectively. Sharing, and communication, is one concrete action we can take to love our fellow man in this day and age.

So how have we done this effectively in the past? What can we learn from it, and how can we, as Christian Scientists, be effective communicators today?

Let’s start with the earliest story telling. We told stories around the campfire. We’d share the best places for hunting, gathering food, our dreams, hopes, what our place in the world was. Don’t we still love to do this around a campfire today?

As civilization developed, we invented writing, and figured out how to make marks in clay tablets.

From there we invented papyrus, which was a lot lighter and more convenient than clay tablets.

Writing continued to develop and eventually we gathered our most precious collections of stories into long rolls of paper. These stories documented our family histories, legends, and also the inspired words that we came to call the Bible.

A quick side-note about the Bible, that I didn’t know until I read a book called Misquoting Jesus: Until the Gutenberg Bible, printed in the 1450’s, every single copy of the Bible was different from one another. This was because each one was painstakingly hand-copied, one line at a time, and invariably, changes were introduced, usually unintentionally, but sometimes intentionally. This is one reason that there are so many different translations of the Bible — it is a whole scholarly field to try to figure out what the most authentic, most original version of the stories are. This collection of stories has had an immense impact on the history of the planet, so I think it is interesting that we’re still figuring out what the most true version is.

Printing presses eventually replaced individually hand-copied books and became very effective means of sharing information. In the late 1800’s, when Mary Baker Eddy first discovered Christian Science, she started sharing it using pamphlets, books, newspapers, and magazines.

As you might know, reading rooms were the standard way that publishers of books would share their goods with the world, much like the car showrooms of today. It was a way to view an expensive purchase before you bought it. Amazon didn’t exist back then, Barnes & Noble was still just a printing business (they wouldn’t open up their first book store until 1917, seven years after Mrs. Eddy passed on), and you had to have your own distribution channel if you wanted to get any exposure.

Radio hadn’t been invented yet, so if you wanted to hear about something, you had to physically attend a talk, or lecture, on the topic.

The primary ways that we have traditionally thought about doing outreach in Christian Science are directly tied to the best means of sharing available in Mary Baker Eddy’s day: in-person lectures and publisher-house reading rooms for previewing books before you make an expensive purchase.

Since 1910, there have been a few innovations in our abilities to tell stories and share with one another.

We’ve invented radio, and used it to communicate with millions of people all at once.

The telephone revolutionized one-to-one remote communication.

Movies transformed our traditional story telling into a new art form, that remains one of the most powerful ways of connecting even today.

Television brought storytelling to the masses. We landed men on the moon, and watched it as a nation together. How many of you got to see that? How did that make you feel to be part of that event, to get to see it? Pretty amazing right?

We started to get even fancier when we invented cellular telephones. Suddenly we had freedom of movement with our communications. And the bills to prove it!

Computers and the Internet started to really change things, didn’t they? We are in a new age now, the age of computers. The age of always-on, always-connected devices that allow us to talk, tell stories, and communicate in ways we’ve never before been able to do.

We have smart phones now, that we carry in our pockets, that are really tiny computers that can be transformed by the touch of an app icon into 1000 different devices. We are in the age of magical devices.

With all the huge advances in communication, story telling, and technology, where are we as a group of people? Are we still fixated on the state of the art from 1910 when we think about doing outreach?

Have you asked yourself, where are the young people in church? Where are the new people? Where are the people that used to be part of our church family?

I’ve asked myself these questions too, and I decided to see if I could find some answers. I wanted to find those missing people, and I think I know where some of them are.

To find them, I did a survey of over 30 church websites, and asked for estimates of the number of unique people who interacted with the normal activities of the church. This includes members and visitors to Sunday services, Wednesday meetings, the Reading Room, lectures, and Sunday School students and teachers, in the first quarter of 2013.

I’d like to ask each of you to picture what that number might look like for your church — the total number of people you touched from January 1 through May 31. Do you have that number in your head?

Would anyone like to share their estimate? Don’t worry, there are no wrong answers here, this is just a rough guess.

I’m going to share some interesting results we got from our survey. Five churches and one nursing home responded in time for this presentation.

What we found may surprise you. On average there were between approximately 3 to 10 times as many online visitors as there were in person physical visitors. Here are the numbers.

First Church, Yuba City
Estimated in-person visitors: 10-15
Unique online visitors: 60

First Church, Hayward
Estimated in-person visitors: 40-50
Unique online visitors: 143

First Church, Orinda:
Estimated in-person visitors: 50-100
Unique online visitors: 463

First Church, Oakland
Estimated in-person visitors: 100-150
Unique online visitors: 98

Oakland was the only church to have estimated more in person visits than online visits. There are two possible explanations for this: they had a lecture in February, and their website is still pretty new.

First Church Pasadena
Estimated in-person visitors: 200-250
Unique online visitors: 766

Fern Lodge
Estimated in-person visitors: 90-100
Unique online visitors: 955

What can we take away from these numbers? It suggests to me that our congregations are actually already significantly larger than we can see each Sunday and Wednesday, but we just don’t know it. This is translating the thing of our church building walls into the thought of a limitless world-wide ministry.

Our congregations extend beyond our walls, when we, ourselves, are willing to go there. When we share online, we find people who are hungry for what we have to offer.

I’m going to share one more statistic with you, and it was almost exactly the same for each site: For each single story (post or page) on the websites I shared, there were an average of 6 unique visitors. Fern Lodge, with the most visitors, had the most pages. This is a very important point, and it directly relates to what we might do next as a group. 1 post = 6 people came and interacted. What kind of activities do we have in our toolbox that yield that return on our investment? I don’t know of any.

By the way, those numbers were only for their websites, they don’t include Facebook or Twitter visitors, which would only increase the online visitor counts. So consider these numbers to be conservative.

Where are the people? They are on the Internet. They are literally searching for answers. Two of the churches reported getting new members as a direct result of having up to date websites.

We can’t ignore the world we live in today any longer. So what’s working today? Sharing our stories online.

And that’s just what we’re going to do.

I’m going to tell you a secret. If you are willing to do a little work, each member of your church can reach out directly to 18 people per quarter by following this simple process:

Step 1: Picture in your mind someone you care about, who doesn’t already know about Christian Science.

Step 2: Write that person 3 emails. Each should include one story from your life that you can share that speaks to the question of why it is that you love Christian Science, what it has shown you, the experiences you’ve had as a result of it. Keep it short, sweet, and jargon-free. Remember, they don’t know all the lingo, so make it understandable for them.

Step 3: And this is the most important step: Add these emails to your church’s website under the Healings category. (You can still send those emails too by the way).

If the numbers hold true, for every single story you share on your church website, you will gain 6 new online visitors. How about that for a recipe for growth? This is the direct translation of putting our gratitude to work for us as a tool of love, and one that not only blesses us, but blesses our wider community.

You may be thinking, well that’s nice for Mr. Fancy Computer Pants, but I don’t know how to make an online post.

Let me ask you: How many of you have an email address? How many of you feel like you can do email reasonably well?

If you can do email, you can do WordPress. We use it for all of our websites, and using just your web browser, you too can add your stories of healing to the Internet, for others to find. WordPress. Write it down. Google “WordPress tutorial”. Watch some YouTube videos. You can do this, I promise you. Remember: 1 story = 6 online visitors. And this works for you 24/7. It is incredibly easy.

Next, let’s talk about the mysterious world of social media. You’ve probably heard that term a bit lately. Facebook, Twitter, Google+. How many of you have a Facebook account? A Twitter account? If you are not already connected to this world, sign up. Do it. It is very, very simple. This is where all the kids are spending all their time. Don’t be intimidated by the fact that it’s a new thing, revel in the opportunity to learn. Make some new friends, share your stories. How else are they going to know?

If Mary Baker Eddy were alive today, I guarantee she would be tweeting, blogging, writing, friending, sharing, healing and communicating with people all over the world. We cannot call her our Leader and not follow in the footsteps she would be taking in today’s world.

This all comes down to one thing: expressing our love for one another. If we understand that as our true priority, it is a small thing to learn new methods of communicating, it is a small thing to try new experiments. Let’s get out there, and be the loving, compassionate communicators that we hope to find in the world. By doing so we may rediscover our missing church family. We might reconnect with the broken hearted. I truly hope that we can reach out successfully to people like my dad, the people who really need to hear the message of hope.

Let’s reexamine what it means to be Christian Scientists and be willing to discard any limitations that are holding us back. Let’s boldly experiment, let’s connect fearlessly, let’s burn the bushel baskets that might hide the flames of our love. Let’s determine to keep up with our fast moving kids, grandkids, and neighbors down the street. Let’s find our path for the next 100 years and be the kind of people we want to see in the world.

Thank you.

References:
On Christian Science Reading Rooms:
http://www.marybakereddylibrary.org/collections/research/ask-a-researcher/reading-rooms

Invention of Radio (Wikipedia):
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invention_of_radio

Invention of Movies (Wikipedia):
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Movies

Barnes & Noble Founding Date (Wikipedia):
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barnes_%26_Noble

On the varying versions of Biblical manuscripts:
Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why
by Bart D. Ehrman, 2007

Web site statistics:
Google Analytics, phone interviews for estimates

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