"Wesley didn't want to do field preaching, either," communicators are told
By Cate Monaghan
Interim Director of Communications, CA-NV Annual Conference
Although Bishop Sally Dyck called communications in the church a "ministry of ink," it was more contemporary tools which claimed focus at the 2009 annual meeting of the United Methodist Association of Communicators last week in Nashville.
At the same meeting one year before (in Providence, Rhode Island), when United Methodist Communications rolled out its Rethink Church initiative, social media may have been barely on the radar for many of the conference and local church communicators present. This year, though, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and the like commanded the attention of attendees, who flocked to workshops designed to help them use those tools effectively.
"The explosion of social media is forcing organizations like the Church to re-think how we do communications," the Rev. Larry Hollon, General Secretary of United Methodist Communications (UMCom), said on Wednesday. Pointing out that Facebook has 200 million active users and that billions of SMS text messages are sent each year, Hollon said United Methodists need to "be where people are, where they're comfortable."
The admonition was echoed at a roundtable discussion of social media Friday morning. Which vehicle(s) should a church use for its communication? "The one(s) its audience wants," was the answer.
Recent studies indicate that there are age and cultural divides, the panelists said. Twitter has been embraced by adults but seemingly is being ignored by teens. Facebook users are largely Caucasian (interestingly, the fastest-growing demographic is the 55 and older age group; in the past six months it has grown by 513 percent), while MySpace seems to be the choice of other ethnic groups, and youths 12-18 rely on SMS text.
The panel - online media and marketing consultant Bayard Saunders, Google expert John Ellis, and Gavin Richardson, a youth pastor and self-styled "social media participant anthropologist" - acknowledged that many in the church don't want to "go there" (use social media). But it's in the Wesleyan tradition, they pointed out.
"Wesley didn't want to do field preaching either," one of the panelists said, adding that the founder of Methodism forced himself to take his message where the people were.
In her keynote address on Tuesday, Bishop Dyck, resident bishop of the Minnesota Annual Conference and President of the UM Commission on Communications, reached back farther still in our Christian heritage to playfully dub the writer of the Gospel of Mark "the patron saint of Christian communicators."
"He started something new, a whole new way of communicating," the bishop said. At a time when narratives were largely oral, she noted, "he came up with this whole new genre . . . and it was, for me, the sign of a truly innovative communicator.
"And I doubt he ever got any creative journalism award for it!" she added.
She noted that the Gutenberg press put Bibles into the hands of ordinary people. "Now you can go on line and you can read it off your handheld, and you can listen to it on your iPod, and there are a lot of different ways," she said. But she emphasized that the message is the same.
"We just keep telling the old, old story . . . . and that's what it is that you do," she told the communicators. "You tell the story so that others have a new way of hearing it, or if they’ve never heard it before, that it grips their hearts and they're able to listen in some ways that otherwise they wouldn't be able to do."
It is that "we are called to fulfill a ministry that stands at the intersection of faith and culture," Hollon said, making a forceful plea for United Methodists to adapt to the changing communications landscape. "It's urgent that The United Methodist Church in the United States change," he emphasized.
"Our current membership is graying, and our oldest generation, the so-called 'Greatest Generation,' is dying at the rate of a thousand a day," he said. "If we do not re-engage with younger generations, our future is clear. We will continue to diminish, and lose the capacity we now enjoy to offer a meaningful, vibrant community - a community of faith that I believe the world is hungry to know about because it offers purpose and meaning at a deep personal level.
"But we will also lose the public witness for justice and human dignity that are the hallmarks of the Wesleyan tradition - and this will affect millions of vulnerable, poor, and overlooked persons in the United States, if not around the world. And we will risk losing a connectional system that is delivering effective change on behalf of those who political and economic systems often marginalize and silence," he said.
"As the heirs of Wesley, our future as a viable, effective witness to Christ and the good News He bears is at stake."
Walking the walk
The use of new technology fully was on display at the annual meeting. In addition to ongoing "tweeting" (message-sending via Twitter) by UMAC members, on Wednesday Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton interacted with conferees via the Web-based remote access program Adobe Connect, briefing them and answering questions about the Church's "Imagine No Malaria" campaign, the next phase in a global health effort that builds upon the popular Nothing But Nets program.
In addition to informing the communicators about Imagine No Malaria, it was a practical demonstration of Adobe Connect, which United Methodist Communications has made available to conferences at an affordable cost by extending its "umbrella" license to them.
(The California-Nevada Annual Conference has bought into the program and now is able to offer committees, boards, and agencies the means for conducting fully participatory meetings via the Internet.)
2010 meeting to be hosted by Cal-Nevada
Robin Russell of the United Methodist Reporter was named Communicator of the Year at the Thursday evening gala, and the Rev. Hilly Hicks was inducted into the UMAC Hall of Fame.
The 2010 annual meeting will be hosted in San Francisco by the California-Nevada Annual Conference.
Membership in UMAC is open to any person working as an employee or volunteer in communications in any United Methodist local church, district, annual conference, jurisdiction, general church board or agency, or related institution.
Any United Methodist Church member who is working in communications in a capacity outside the United Methodist Church also is eligible for membership. Annual dues are $75. Visit http://www.umcommunicators.org/ to find out more and to complete an online membership form.