The First Digital General Conference

The marathon that happens every four years in The United Methodist Church, known as General Conference, is over. And not a minute too soon for some delegates who felt sleep-deprived and exhausted with the ten-day, non-stop consideration of legislation that guides the church.

It’s been adjourned for five days and the physical after-effects are still being felt. How it will affect the church for the long-term remains to be seen.

I didn’t blog from GC primarily because I was just too busy. Working with staff who were producing much of the daily program, meeting with delegates, attending legislative committee meetings, discussing public information needs and a host of other responsibilities made blogging impossible.

But now that it’s over I’ve had a few hours to reflect. This General Conference was clearly a turning point in a subtle, but meaningful way. It was the first conference to integrate digital media into the proceedings. Worship, program interpretation, voting and communicating were all conducted with digital technologies. During an address by Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf a delegate on the floor got a text message from a daughter in Europe watching the live video stream and reacting in real time. Video streaming was viewed by people in more than fifty countries. And delegates could send video messages back home through a connection at the United Methodist Communications booth.

Worship elements were interwoven in a seamless way and provided both engagement and guidance without seeming to be interjections foreign to the worshipful setting. Program interpretation took place in a way that seemed both natural and informative. The proceedings didn’t just stop to accommodate video, video was integrated into moments of celebration and interpretation, and it led us to new insight and understanding without being forced upon us. Speakers adapted to multiple screens that brought them closer to the thousand delegates on the floor and spectators in the balconies even when the physical distance between them was greater than it appeared.

My hunch is that this will prove to be a General Conference in which the way the proceedings are conducted changed for the long-term future. But it was only a start. In the future digital tools will be even more prominent but this mainline denomination, as most of its counterparts, is made up of people who are not of the digital generation and such change will likely come as leaders emerge from the next generation for whom digital life is native.

It was also notable for an intentional effort by the various speakers who made formal presentations to coordinate messages. Delegates were presented with clear, concise and coherent information that they could use in their deliberations. A day and a half of messages were coordinated to give an overview of the church, not an easy task for a decentralized organization with global reach and great diversity.

There were at least three risks: the presentations could come across as boring, manipulative or taking time away from the work of legislating. I think the risks were overcome. The presentations were lively, honest and engaging. The speakers took risks, were honest and they respected the time constraints they were given. As a result, the mission and ministry of the whole church was defined with more focus than in the past and the delegates had straightforward information about the focus areas.

This was actually the culmination of a three-year conversation about the state of the church in which people from around the world were invited to participate in face-to-face conversation, online, and through various research survey methods. An effort was made to ensure that every voice could be heard.

Sharpening messages and focusing the mission of the church was only the first step, of course. The more difficult challenge will be to actually live up to what was communicated. That will require commitment and partnerships unlike any the church has seen in recent years. But the mood of the delegates toward this focus was positive and trusting. The greatest shift called for by the General Conference is that four areas of focus–equipping principled Christian leaders for the church and the world, creating new places for new people by starting new churches and renewing existing ones, engaging in ministry with the poor and improving health globally by tackling the diseases of poverty–actually be given priority and implemented in real partnerships.

If this happens it will mark a fundamental change in the way the church functions at the general church level. This General Conference, as difficult as it was because of time constraints, gave the whole church a great gift. The gift of focus and direction.

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