Sunday, November 22, 2009

Learning from yesterday

I wish I could remember everything I heard at yesterday's conference from the two web designers' hasty presentation. There were several things that I found immediately challenged me to reconsider what I've been doing in the past seven years of building parish websites here. The present one is the third incarnation to develop from the original material I put together to publicise parish information in the first year of my ministry here. Unfortunately questions fired at us thick and fast prompted reflection straight away, rather than making a note of them for later. I wish I'd got my camera out at the start and photographed the slides of text displayed, but I felt embarrassed, a bit too geeky, and didn't want to draw attention to myself. So it was only when the last slide repeated the first that a managed to take a snap.
Well, I can say, hand on heart that St John's is a seven day a week church. How much 'fullness of life' is expressed in our missionary 'offer' to the public? It's a place of peace, where people come to seek the presence of God, a place of welcome, kindness and compassion because of the people who've made it their spiritual home. In what ways can we better express that interest in life in all its fullness which is at the heart of the Good News of divine truth witnessed to by Jesus? It needs some more creative thought.

Then there's the second quotation, inviting us to look at a website as being more than just an information depot, more an extension of the life of the church. I hadn't thought about this until now. This is a time when sharing particular kinds of information can be used as a means to build real communities of interest. This may start in cyber space, but as a following of like minded folk develops, they find the need to 'eyeball' each other, and meet in the flesh. So the web content you deliver can be a channel to community building and development. This is something the Council is already learning how to do with its Social Inclusion Extranet website.

Obviously as church community, we want to tell the story of Jesus, invite people to share in the life of worship and service that has evolved through our life together. Our web information is an open kind of advertisement, an electronic extension of the noticeboards around the railings, if people are interested they can drop in and sample the church for themselves. This may be more true for people passing through, visitors from other parts of the country or planet, than it is for people in the locality. Visitors are very important to us, but so is the continuous task of building local community. Our concert programme brings in hundreds of people occasionally, likewise special services, exhibitions and Cards for Good Causes, but all this is a transient expression of community, with greater or lesser spiritual content, as a component.

Given that so many people today are able to access church information on-line, people who don't begin to know if we have anything interesting to say that would be worth enquiring into, what do we need to do with our web presence that would capture people's interest, focussing on aspects of life which concern them? This is the searching question that is now gnawing away at me since I heard yesterday's presentation.

We don't get a great deal of feedback about our website, except that people appreciate having all the information in one place. We have our web archives of restoration work, parish magazines, art exhibitions, Lent lectures in text and podcast format, linked faith trail, climate change and Christian apologetics web pages. There's a huge archive of photos of past parish pilgrimages, four years worth of web albums devoted to redevelopment photos, and of course, this blog. It is quite a significant output, providing essential information services, for sure, but much of it relates to my developing missionary interests over the years, interests which others may well have appreciated, but not necessarily shared. I get the occasional message that indicates that there are others out there who appreciate and share the same interests, but none of this has generated an on-line community of interest capable of leading somewhere new.

The buzz word is 'social networking', symbolised by the way that so called 'internet natives' the younger generation brought up to take the web for granted, make use of sites like Facebook and MySpace. I have a Facebook account, almost accidentally, due to pressure from my eldest who uses it a great deal to publicise her band Lament but I hate it. Too much of what is deemed to be 'content' is to my mind trivia. I'm not interested in community building around trivia. I can see how social networking is used for political and social action, but that's only about information distribution and maybe marginally about debate. One could use it to share life experiences with others, or to issue a well publicised invitation to people to share a social vision, but to what end? I need convincing.

In yesterday's session, I was taken with two American websites shown to us, which made use of the best of networking, marketing and design techniques for church purposes. One was a video blogging site, presenting the personal testimonies of a score of individuals from the world of creative arts and sport speaking about the transforming effect faith in Christ has on their lives. A minimalist format, with people speaking to camera from a huge white leather arm chair, like you might find on any reality TV set, telling their stories in a very relaxed, warm, straightforward way. It was a well thought out consistent production, devoid of mawkish sentiment and pietistic language, quite compelling to watch. See what you think.

The site is called 'I am second' It is nothing more than a site about people putting Jesus first in their lives. It offers all sorts of opportunities to people to connect on-line, join local groups, register as individuals or churches. What was so evident was the amount of thought invested in the creation of this evangelistic tool, starting from the most traditional of ideas.

The other website promoted Soul City Church, once more a visually attractive site with a variety of interesting content describing the social vision, teaching style and action plan for a church community which has yet to become incarnate. It's not a virtual church, like the one set up here in the UK offering participation in on line acts of worship in Anglican style, with prayer meetings sermons and bible studies, either live or podcasted. Soul City Church is a church plant, aiming to set up a real world base in Chicago, first advertising on-line, promoting key features that target people seeking meaning and transformation in their personal lives. The website sets out the vision of a group of spiritual entrepreneurs wanting to set up in a new situation, with a long experience of church planting and growth in a neighbouring state behind them.

The first stage is to develop a community of interest, and then invite them to a gathering point and publish the story of the church plant as it happens, starting early in 2010. This site is also worth exploring, as it again gives the impression that people have thought carefully about what they want to offer that's unique, and how to set about making the offer.

It may seem easier if you come from a new generation of independent evangelicals, without the institutional ties of historic denominational faith, but the same critical questions can be applied to presenting traditional forms of Christian life to a world decreasingly familiar with them.

I'm not ashamed to admit that much of this is new to me, although I've been aware of the way the evangelical movement has mutated and adapted in recent decades. It isn't by any means all conservative and fundamentalist. There's lots I don't know, because I've stayed tightly focussed on making the most of my own Anglican heritage.

When I worked for USPG I had many opportunities to learn about and share in charismatic renewal, but since then, I haven't got out much. A great deal of innovation has passed me by. It's intriguing to think that it's my interest in technology that has opened a window for me into how the other half of missionary Christianity lives.

No comments: