Thursday, August 31, 2017

Sharing the Word of Life: New Technology in the Church

From the Sounds of St. Francis, September, 2017

Then another book was opened, which is the book of life.”  Revelation 20:12

The Book of Revelation is perhaps the Bible’s most dramatic and mysterious section.  Revelation 20 recounts the climax of the story, the great Day of Judgement, when our Lord will return to speak the truth upon all humanity and make all things new.  It’s easy to miss the fact that the author is also noting a significant change in communications technology.  The Lamb, that is Christ, has a book, a book of life—a book, and not a scroll.

Books—codices is the technical name-were new-wave technology in the first century.  The first mention of a codex in literature is by the Roman poet Martial, who was born a few years after the death of Christ.  Before codices there had been tablets of wax and clay, as well as scrolls.  The codex was a handy technology.  Its covers protected the contents and it was easy to find one’s place.  The paper could be written on both sides, so it was more economical as well.
It took the codex a few centuries to surpass the scroll.  Religious officials were inevitably among the holdouts, with their preferences for the venerable, the beautiful, and the familiar.  In synagogues today, they still read the Torah from scrolls. 

But Christians were different. 
As soon as codices became widely available Christians were using them, especially for their religious texts. After all, Jesus held one when He judged the world.  When a fourth century Christian library was discovered in the sands of Egypt a few centuries ago, it was composed entirely of codices.  The use of books by Christians drove the process of developing a canon of Scripture and facilitated the rapid spread of our faith.  In fact, it facilitated the social adoption of the codex. 

Why?  Because Christians wanted to get their message into the hands of as many people as possible.  Because while the Gospel testified to timeless truth, it was also new, a word that spoke to people in the midst of the time where God had placed them.

Something remarkably similar happened in the sixteenth century, just as moveable type was being launched in Germany.  The leaders of what became the Protestant Reformation embraced the innovation from the beginning, as the cheapest and most effective way to get their message into the hands of people.  Martin Luther arranged to have his 95 Theses printed almost immediately after he posted them on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, and Protestant presses flooded Europe with oceans of ink in the form of Bibles, catechisms and devotional images.  Printing made books affordable for ordinary people.  Literacy spread dramatically, and with it came religious renewal—eventually among both Protestants and Catholics.

Why are we using more digital technology here at Saint Francis? Why are we publishing Sounds just once a month now?  These are questions I’m asked a lot these days.  I believe these changes are driven by the same kind of desire to share the word more effectively that led our ancestors to adopt the codex and printing press. 

The way people communicate has changed dramatically in the last decade.  Our congregation has aged and shrunk considerably in the last decade.  Our approach to communications has changed only slightly during that time.  For the sake of the message that the Lord has given us to share, it must be surely be time to try something new.

Under the leadership of our new Communications Director, Karen Schneider, we will be doing all we can to share information as clearly and accessibly as possible.  We think that new communications tools (email, our website, the Realm database, social media) help us to do this most effectively.  Most of us (and even more of the younger demographic we hope to reach) communicate about important matters electronically.  In the recent communications survey (summarized helpfully by Renita Ford elsewhere in this issue), we found that a majority of our respondents (who were mostly over 50) preferred to receive messages from the church via email.  Only two of the nearly 100 responses were received on paper!  We track our calendars and pay our bills over the internet.  We listen to podcasts, keep up with our friends and send and receive important messages using these various tools and platforms.  But our congregation’s current presence in this “world” is minimal and not as professional and attractive as it could be.

A highly committed core of volunteers, especially the participants in the Membership Working Group chaired by Chris Rigaux, developed a plan for moving forward relying on best practices gathered from other local congregations.  Chris managed our website with great care for several months.  Lisa Gaddy got our Facebook page up and running.  Tracy Holmes, our faithful office manager, oversaw the transition of our database to Realm.  You are increasingly using this program to sign up for events, to send messages, and to check your giving details.  Karen comes to her work with a great deal of talent and experience in digital production and marketing, and she has great plans for improving the website, launching a detailed weekly email with links in case you want more information, and using social media to promote events.

 Much more of what we do can be presented to the outside world using digital connections, These digital tools free up staff time for interpersonal work that is more important.  They help us put the good news about Jesus and what God is doing here in the hands of many more people. 

Many of you know that Father Mac and I write often for The Living Church.  In the last three years, the magazine has shifted from being a weekly print publication to a predominantly digital resource that also happens to publish a magazine every two weeks.  The quality of the magazine has improved dramatically, and the organization is connecting with more than 10 times as many readers.  While I’m not sure that people in South Africa will want to read about Lobsterfest and the Thrift Sale, the general trajectory blazed by the magazine is one I hope we can follow, using the potential of these new tools.

A transition like this does come with some costs, and one is a weekly print newsletter (currently sent to most of you electronically).  Sounds has been weekly for a long time, maybe since the mid-1980’s.  It had originally been a monthly newsletter, but a weekly publication made sense at a time when the congregation was larger, when faithful volunteers handled the production, and when everyone else published print newsletters.  Take a moment and ask yourselves how many print newsletters do you receive these days?  I don’t know of another church that still undertakes this kind of publication schedule.  In preparing to hire Karen, I met with the communications director of a large Episcopal church in Alexandria.  She was shocked that we still publish in print each week.  At her church (where her position is a full-time position), they have three print publications a year. 

Publishing Sounds in print is costly, and not in ways you might expect.  We’ve saved a little in paper and postage by emailing it to most of you.  But writing articles and laying out the publication also demand a great deal of staff time.  We estimate that weekly Sounds costs something like $25,000 a year.  I’m not troubled that we’re spending this much on a communications venture.  In fact, if we are serious about growing the congregation, we should be spending more.  It is concerning, though, to spend this much on an outmoded communications venture, which only really serves people who are already members.  Much of the time (and cost) comes in laying out the articles, so that the resource will look nice in print, even though relatively few of you actually read it in print—and legal size pdfs don’t scan easily into smartphones—believe me, I’ve tried it, too.

When we decided to search for a new communications director, we didn’t look for someone experienced in laying out print newsletters.  Karen is the right person for us because she can do the digital communications work we need to do with great care and skill.  And we need to free her up to do it well.

I know that for some of you, these changes are disconcerting.  As many of you have reminded me, digital communication is no panacea.  Living our lives online brings plenty of new problems, as the codex and the printing press did before.  If you want to explore some of these, join me for the Sunday morning class on the tech-wise family in September.  We will continue to publish a monthly print newsletter for those who don’t use computers and so that newcomers have an attractive resource to hand to learn more about the parish.  We have also begun printing detailed announcements in each bulletin, so you should have an easy way to keep track of events from week to week.  And, of course, we still want to talk to you. 

Our past practices no longer meet our needs, and I hope that moving in this new direction will help us do a great deal of good.  I hope all of you will pray for Karen and pray for the renewal of our congregation.  Pray for those people outside our congregation who will begin to encounter us online.  This is an exciting moment in our life as a congregation, as we serve the Lord who has a book, who is the Master of all networks—the Word who became flesh for us.  

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