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"We are the ones who are sharing the story of Jesus through our denomination."

I had the opportunity to speak to 75 colleagues at the fall meeting of the United Methodist Association of Communicators, held in Nashville, TN, Oct. 20-23, 2009. Here’s an audio presentation of my remarks, in which I share my views on the changing landscape of communications.

Click here to listen to the audio:

Q&A: ‘We have to change how we reach people’

United Methodist Communications is in the process of making some organizational changes that will better position us to seek, create and distribute content relevant to our varied audiences. I recently sat down with a member of our staff who posed some questions about this restructuring, as well as our plans for the future of the agency. The Q&A session gave me an opportunity to communicate informally why it’s so important to bring relevant messages to several generations – each with varying technological IQs and different faith maps.

Q: There have been some organizational and staffing changes announced recently at United Methodist Communications. What was the rationale behind those changes?

A: In order to position the agency as best we can for the future, we have to focus our work on the target audience the church must reach to change the current downward trajectory. 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 of faith to a world that is hungry for community, purpose and meaning.

It is also essential that we continuously evaluate, analyze and adapt to the cultural and technological contexts in which we operate. These are dynamic environments that are rapidly evolving. If we are to remain relevant and beneficial to the church and to the greater mission of taking the Gospel to the world, we must update, upgrade and change.

Q: How does the gap in demographics present a specific challenge for the church and for United Methodist Communications?

A: We are losing the “greatest generation” – folks that fought in World War II – at the rate of about a thousand a day. They are loyal to institutions and tended to join mass-membership organizations, as well as work in community groups in a formal structured setting. Today they are the core of The United Methodist Church and all mainline denominations. They helped pay for the hospitals and schools and other institutions that meant so much to our society. Boomers, on the other hand, are less institutional, but they continued mass social movements and participation in change.

Now we are experiencing a transition to a generation of youth and young adults who don’t have institutional commitments, and are, in fact, skeptical of institutions. They are looking for direct personal experiences and are likely to identify with movements and direct involvement in bringing about change.

Q: How do we bridge the gap?

A: We have to fundamentally change how we reach out to people. We have to change how we carry the message of faith to people. We have to change how people experience the church in relationship to their faith journey. And we have to figure out how to communicate with them about faith because they don’t talk about it in the ways we do.

Q: With so much information overload these days, how do we cut through the communications clutter and manage to strike a chord with people, especially younger people?

A: As an agency, we cannot expect that we have a ready constituency, waiting eagerly to hear stories that convey our messages. We are in competition with every other means of communication, especially for youth and young adults who are not going to listen just because we are The United Methodist Church. Instead, they are going to respond to messages that interest and appeal to them and have direct relationship to their lives. Some they will filter out because they are not interested, but some will break through because the communicator has figured out a way to get to their interests.

We’ve got to be in the marketplace delivering messages that penetrate and cut through the clutter.

Q: How do we do that?

A: Being where they are is part of the challenge, since they will not necessarily come to us. We will have to lean on our Wesleyan understanding. (John) Wesley got outside the pulpit of the Anglican churches and went to the street corner because that’s where people were.

In digital media, we have to be present online in those places, with those search terms, or with that subject matter that will bring people to us. We have to be aggressive. A 19-year-old, unless he or she is very interested in what The United Methodist Church is doing about hunger, is unlikely to find us unless we approach with a search term or a story or some advertisement that addresses their interest in hunger.

Q: United Methodist Communications is leading the “Rethink Church” movement. How is your agency rethinking how it communicates with the world?

A: When we talk about the mission of The United Methodist Church, we must rethink how we present our message. The media are different, the communication channels are different, the language is different, and individual understanding of faith, I think, is considerably different. The community in which we live today is far more individualized, fragmented and specialized than ever. The demographics are changing. The world’s social environment is certainly more diverse. Rethinking church means rethinking how we reach out, invite and engage people.

Q: How does United Methodist Communications’ work as a global communications agency connect with the local church?

A: All that we do as a communications agency is intended to encourage people to be a part of a face-to-face community where they can have meaningful relationships that cannot be turned off, cannot be made anonymous, and are somewhat more difficult to be inauthentic than the online world.

Social media can be one form of community, I believe, but it can be inadequate, and it has limits. It can engage people. It can provide helpful information and encourage entry into a more direct and personal relationship. However, people get support and affirmation and are held accountable and responsible in face-to-face relationships in a community that has redemptive quality. That is what we call a local church when it is at its best. Social media at its best should be used to encourage those face-to-face encounters.

Q: Is social media the next media frontier for United Methodist Communications?

A: In the short term, it’s social media, and the short term is really all I can project. A good example of how fast things are changing is Twitter. When we started dealing with Twitter about the time of General Conference 2008, it was pretty much unknown. Today it’s all we hear about. These kinds of media are going to continue to be more integrated and comprehensive as we go forward. We are going to have to figure out how to be relevant with content in ways that right now we cannot even anticipate.

Q: You talk a lot about United Methodist Communications serving a global community. Why is that so important?

A: This agency is an expression of a global community, of a global church. We are a node on a global network that is interactive, connected and sometimes disconnected. We participate in that global network, and it will move with or without us. We have to stay ahead of the curve and be as interactive as we can in order to be of value to the church and to ensure the church has a presence and a voice in that interactivity. So far, the mainline denominations have not been particularly adept at that.

We must continue to be where the people are. Otherwise, I think the voice of the church, at least through our agency, is lost.

The church must report its own news, good and bad

One of the cornerstones of a free and democratic society is a healthy and free news media. The editors of the New York Times write of it with concern about the tension between transparency and national security. It is not an easy issue to grasp in all its dimensions. Watching crackdowns in China and Iran this year has given me a greater appreciation for living in a country where information is freely shared.

We in the church wrestle with the challenge of openness and transparency as well. In our age, institutions are distrusted and leaders are viewed skeptically. An open and transparent church, I believe, needs a news service that not only tells the church’s positive stories but is able to report news that might make us uncomfortable at times. In their wisdom, the leaders of The United Methodist Church in the past provided for this important function.

It is, in my opinion, one of our great strengths.

In my role as publisher of United Methodist News Service, I am often called on to defend or explain a decision to report on a sensitive issue. You can take your pick of issues – homosexuality, church trials, constitutional amendments. People often ask me why the church’s news agency would disclose information about disagreements or problems in the church.

The answer is simple: Reporting the unvarnished truth is our responsibility to the church and to you. It’s a core value. Out of our collective experience as a people of faith our forefathers and foremothers determined it is necessary for the good of the whole. This is a remarkable stand for integrity and truthfulness.

Being a truly open church requires being transparent about what goes on in our congregations, conferences and agencies. It means being accountable, from the local level right up to the Council of Bishops. The absence of accountability leaves room for a host of problems, ranging from complacence to the misuse of power.

Those who formulated this reporting role also decided it was better for the church to report its own news than to cede that role to outside entities.

As a result, The United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline provides for a newsgathering function that is editorially independent. This is essential for several reasons.

Having a news agency with the ability to report both the good and bad news generates a high level of credibility for the church itself. It’s a sign that the church holds itself accountable and strives to be transparent in its work. A news service without that freedom would essentially be doing public relations – an important function but one that is distinct from news reporting – and that symbol of transparency and accountability would be diminished.

An editorially independent news service also means the church is the primary source of news about itself, so the church is telling its story in a way that is journalistically sound and credible. If the church didn’t report its own news, then it would be defined by outside media that don’t understand the church as well. Other media also have less stake in how the church’s stories are told and, for that matter, whether they are told at all.

The presence of a healthy news service makes a statement that the church believes it has stories to tell about how its members are making a difference in the world and how people’s lives are being transformed through the church’s role as the body of Christ. For a denomination the size of The United Methodist Church, those stories are limitless. Moreover, we find that nearly every major news story has a potential United Methodist angle, and the stories of individual people living their faith journeys in interesting ways are innumerable.

Our editorial standards are consistent with the best practices and standards of the news profession. Our staff comprises professionally trained journalists who have had experience working in secular media. We apply the same news values to our work as our secular counterparts, with an additional sensibility that our role in the church brings. That means that while we use the same criteria in determining what stories are newsworthy, we also make allowances for stories that might be very important to some segments of our audience but that wouldn’t excite a secular reporter.

Our stories are largely a mixture of news reports and human-interest features on how the church and individuals are making a difference in the world. They are stories that can make you laugh, cry, pray or take action. If we are doing our job, some of our stories will occasionally make you squirm or even make you mad.

As we move forward into a new era of reporting through social media, I am excited about being even more engaged with our audiences. I invite you to engage with us as well via e-mail, comments on our story pages and posts on our Facebook page. Let us know how our stories resonate with you, and let’s be in conversation.

Refocus and the future: reaching young people with the Gospel

I want to be candid with you about measures we are taking at United Methodist Communications to address what I consider urgent concerns for The United Methodist Church. Since entering the ministry in my youth, I have always felt and believed proclamation of the Good News an urgent calling. Today it’s more so than ever.

The culture of materialism attempts to redefine the biblical witness of the sacredness of human personality. Today, each of us is defined as a consumer of products and services. Even in its most innocuous usage, I find it unacceptable. In my opinion, the values that arise from it create a void that only the embrace of a caring community living in the embrace of a loving God can fill.

If we do not enter into this world with messages that counter this definition of humanity, I believe we fail the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And we fail future generations. The church in the United States and Europe must reach younger, more diverse people who have been formed in this culture with the gospel message.

On the face of it, it’s a big challenge. It’s made more difficult in the midst of an economic crisis that reduces our capabilities and requires us to pare down even more. In the past year at United Methodist Communications, we have slashed some of our largest line items – travel and related expenses, and printing. Recently we’ve taken the difficult step of laying off good people.

These have been difficult steps, a sentiment that I’m sure would be shared by all manner of organizations and businesses today. But they have been the right ones. And they are enabling us to absorb a deficit and keep with our high levels of plans and programs for now.

However, the economy isn’t the driving force, it’s the precipitating factor. We are focusing on younger, more diverse audiences. The driving force is the Gospel and the demographic realities. It’s the imperative to be disciples of Jesus Christ inviting people to a new way of life, a valued way of living. Discipleship reminds us that we are valued by God and we are called to value each other.

I don’t seek commendation. In fact, we are doing precisely what we should do in a situation like this. The difference is rather than only talking about these details at private board meetings, I’m sharing them here. United Methodist Communications is steadily walking into a new kind of openness and two-way communication about what we do and how we operate because we believe it is right and appropriate in these times.

Your comments are welcome as always. Please keep in mind our policy on being constructive.

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