Getting Outside the Bubble

In “They Like Jesus But Not the Church,” conservative author Dan Kimball contends that some of his colleagues live in a bubble of Christian subculture. As a result, they use insider language and presume that values they share within their faith communities are more broadly accepted in the wider culture than they truly are.

Kimball says emerging generations know little of the religious values that shaped older generations. In fact, some have no understanding of organized religion and those who do are often skeptical or reject it outright.

Studies by the Barna Group confirm the bad reputation of organized religion among emerging generations.

As bad as this is, Kimball says the reality is even worse. Because they live in the subculture bubble, these church leaders are unaware of negative perceptions about them, and they don’t hear the many conversations about organized religion occurring outside the bubble.

I suspect we are all subject to living in bubbles and I’m not rushing to judgment. I doubt it’s unique to the conservative leaders Kimball is addressing.

Important conversations about religion and spirituality are occurring in various places relevant to local congregations and mainline faith communities that we aren’t aware of because we can’t keep up with all of them, and we’re not present in some of the media where emerging generations are living their lives.

This is one reason I think being a pastor of a local congregation today is among the most difficult vocations in the church. Managing multiple expectations about values, priorities, perceptions and judgments about what it means to be a person of faith in the fragmented and polarized dawn of the 21st century is an extraordinary challenge.

It’s a daily, ongoing feature of our media-driven lives. It occurs at the intersection of faith and culture. Sometimes when I’m in the middle of that intersection I feel caught between irreconcilable differences, and occasionally I’m lambasted by one critic and then another, and they hold opposing views! In a two-sided debate I’m wrong on both counts!

And I’m not charged with delivering a word of hope every Sunday in front of a flock with such disparate expectations. To do so is an act of courage I deeply respect.

Communicating isn’t easy

Going beyond the bubble is a challenge we are trying to meet at United Methodist Communications.

The past few days have reminded me that we live in an unfettered environment of judgment and critique, affirmation and agreement. We’ve had some invigorating theological discussions at United Methodist Communications as we’ve considered how to partner with local churches in public media to communicate about the church and faith.

We’re considering messages to be delivered through external media such as television, print publications and the Internet. We contend with issues of language and values that push the edges of institutional constraints and traditional religious language.

This isn’t merely because we want to test limits, but because communicating today is no easy task. Simple phrases like “organized religion” carry negative connotation among those in the United States who’ve been burned by experiences with a church in the past or who only know organized religion by what they see on television or read in news stories.

In a media-saturated environment, religious perceptions are shaped by televangelists and the religious right. But people who don’t know us lump us into the same category.

And that’s only part of the challenge. Some congregations are more willing and able to push the edges of language and messaging than others.

Then there’s the absence of mainline voices in mainstream media. Lack of significant presence in media-digital and other forms-only adds to the misperception of irrelevance, or worse, unconcern. It leaves the presentation of values from the Christian tradition to celebrity megachurch pastors and other media-savvy religious entrepreneurs who are not representative of the whole diverse community of faithful Christians.

Add to this generational, cultural, racial and ethnic considerations, and communicating with those who don’t know the language of the church becomes even more complex.

Seizing opportunities

Stepping outside the U.S. bubble, we at United Methodist Communications don’t assume that what works in the United States will apply to Europe, Asia or Africa, and we consult with persons in various global contexts to gain perspective about communication in their unique circumstances.

We learn a lot from local churches around the world. They help us to break through our own bubbles, and we hope we partner in a helpful way in a reciprocal learning process.

After writing about these challenges, I must also say there could hardly be a more exciting time to be a communicator in a faith community. The tools and the opportunities have never been greater.

At United Methodist Communications:

  • We’ve expanded our global engagement with people through social media such as Twitter and Facebook.
  • We offer online training in various skills relevant to local church ministry.
  • We produce a weekly webinar on using technologies to get outside the bubble.
  • In non-church media, we invite people unfamiliar with The United Methodist Church to come to 10thousanddoors.org to learn more about the church.
  • We’re frequently updating the front page of UMC.org to keep it fresh.
  • We publish a digital edition of Interpreter magazine.
  • We’re using more videos and blogs on several Web sites.
  • Increasingly, we’re publishing in nine languages and striving for consistent global coverage of church stories.

We’ve seen conversations grow and take flight. We’ve seen visitors to the Web sites increase, and more pages opened and read. We’re continuously monitoring what people are interested in and how long they stay on various sites, and we adjust content to attract them.

And it will come as no surprise that we’ve received accolades and taken criticism.

God’s love: Too big to contain

We may not have broken the bubble yet, but we’re working hard to expand it. We work from a premise that The United Methodist Church is concerned about the conversations occurring around it, especially about spiritual concerns and organized religion, and that we as a church can be more expansive in our outreach and sensitive to those with whom we want to communicate.

We work from the conviction that the teachings of Jesus about the love of God cannot be contained in any bubble. God’s love breaks through our isolation, fragmentation and division, and embraces all who seek it.

And we follow the lead of John Wesley, who said more than 200 years ago, “I look upon all the world as my parish.”

3 Responses to “Getting Outside the Bubble”

  1. thepathleader March 8, 2010 at 2:53 pm #

    Thank you for the updates Larry. I continually hold you in my prayers as you lead, serve and live out your missional engagement in the world. Thinking with you outside the bubble… Laurie Beth

  2. Michael March 10, 2010 at 1:23 pm #

    Interesting. I’m now rethinking my intentional use of “Body of Christ” in place of “church”. Of course my messages are directed primarily at the members who attend worship, but now I wonder how such use, though well-intentioned, could be misinterpreted or misconstrued. Hmmmmm.

  3. rtfgvb798 April 9, 2010 at 11:05 pm #

    IS VERY GOOD..............................

Leave a Reply:

Gravatar Image