Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Don't Blow It

Jeff Jarvis (Huffington Post) has some sobering words for the newspaper industry:

You blew it.

You've had 20 years since the start of the web, 15 years since the creation of the commercial browser and craigslist, a decade since the birth of blogs and Google to understand the changes in the media economy and the new behaviors of the next generation of - as you call them, Mr. Murdoch - net natives. You've had all that time to reinvent your products, services, and organizations for this new world, to take advantage of new opportunities and efficiencies, to retrain not only your staff but your readers and advertisers, to use the power of your megaphones while you still had it to build what would come next. But you didn't.

You blew it.

I can't help but wonder if someone will be writing a similar letter to the church 10 years from now.

Have we misread (or turned a blind-eye from) the ways in which communication and culture shifts have impacted our mission field? Are we holding on to the right traditions? Do we fight the wrong fights and, in the process, ignore the fights worth fighting?

What would happen if our proud denomination of 4.8 million members removed the inactive or disinterested members from their roster? Would 2 million people remain? 1.5 million? How many members would be under the age of 40? How big / strong / vibrant is our church today? What things are in place to ensure that the church is still the church for the next generation?

Are mainline, protestant churches destined to suffer the same fate as newspapers?

It's certainly not out of the realm of possibility. We're at a pivotal moment right now. It doesn't have to end badly. We don't have to keep closing more churches than we grow. We don't have to keep shrinking in membership, worship attendance, and giving. These can be avoided if we stop complaining about the way the world is changing and embrace what's going on. We can find our voice in the midst of the Information Age. I believe we're poised to not only survive but thrive in a postmodern (and post-postmodern) universe, if we hold true to what is at the heart of our theology...and get our hands a little dirty in the process.

Here's hoping we can learn from the mistakes of some in the newspaper industry...for the sake of the church and the sake of the gospel.

(article ht: @paulyeager)


  1. "We don't have to keep shrinking in membership, worship attendance, and giving. These can be avoided if we stop complaining about the way the world is changing and embrace what's going on."

    Interesting premise, Erik, but I'm not sure I fully understand what you mean.

    First, "stop complaining"? Sure, it doesn't do any good to whine about the changes that are taking place. But I don't think we (the church) can begin to determine how to respond to (much less embrace) what is going on if we don't 1) name those changes, 2) talk about them until we achieve some sort of understanding, 3) turn to scripture and prayer to see what God might be saying in the midst of all this so that 4) we can figure out how to respond.

    Second, "embrace the changes"? You're going to have to help me here. If I take your newspaper analogy alone, it sounds like you're saying we should embrace the new technologies? Many have argued for (and are trying to) wrapping the church in the current culture's 'clothes.' (PowerPoint projections might be the clearest example, but it's gone way beyond that.)

    If the church is to 'embrace the changes' like the newspaper industry should have adapted to the changes of the past two decades, I guess I would have to ask, Which ones? And for how long?

    We adults have 'embraced' e-mail communication wholeheartedly. But my college-age children have long since declared that medium passe. We live in a time of such rapid change that, by the time we can figure out and adapt to such changes, the world has changed again, rendering us irrelevant once again. Need I say, Twitter?

    The future of the church does not hinge on adapting to the latest technology or cultural value. As I see it, we (and I'm speaking principally of 'mainline' churches) need to get serious about some old methodologies, namely dwelling in Scripture and prayer—or to put it in a word: Discipleship. It is not ours to figure out where the church is going or how it should respond. That's God's job. We are called to pay attention to what God is doing and wants to do in our midst, in the throes of all these changes, for a world that is hurting.

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  3. Thanks for the note, Dwight.

    I think you and I are talking about two different things. It seems you're talking about sacred practices; I'm talking about the way the church postures itself in the world. My point has nothing to do with powerpoint in worship (and other conversations associated with it), but is about evangelism, outreach, and our connecting points with an ever-changing world. God will always work through the faithful...but I think the faithful could use a little ingenuity in how we create our presence in the world.

    The newspaper industry didn't have to collapse. They could have remained a strong media presence - not by compromising who they are, but by shifting the way they positioned themselves in the midst of a changing world.

    In a similar way, many of the ways the church has chosen to function publicly does not reflect what's at our core (the practices and theology you refer to). Instead, we are in public debates over gay pastors, gay marriage, abortion, and whether or not we should share communion with Episcopalians.

    For what it's worth, though it wasn't the intended topic of my original post, not all "adults have embraced email communication wholeheartedly". We have over 100 adults at church (ranging in age from 30 - 90) who don't check email regularly enough for it to be a reliable form of communication. For me, this is a symptom of a larger cultural / communication issue; not a church-related one. And yet, the way the church presents itself in all of the various media (phone, email, social networking, text messaging, video, press releases) will greatly impact the future of our church.

  4. Erik, I think you are exactly right about how the church has chosen to function publicly. It has been distracted from its main purpose. The comparison you made to the newspaper industry has captured my imagination over the past 24 hours.

    I think the church will soon need to identify what type of services it offers that are unique to it's niche. (Faith Formation, Relationships, -someone [insert more here], please)

    If the church identifies itself as a business in the business of "selling faith formation" does that help or hinder it's prospects?

    Can it dare to compete with the entertainment industry, spas, sports, and other things that beg for our "free time" in a world where "free time", ice cream, and other "extras" are quickly disappearing from both our time and our financial budgets?

    Some nondenominational churches have decided to compete. Some mainline churches have labeled that competition as a compromise of classic Christian theology and doctrine.

    I'm not saying the right answer is to compete or not compete. I think I'm saying, "What's the mission?" Where's the vision from our leadership?

    If Lutherans were Target and Baptists were Wal-Mart in a world where everyone buys online, would they find common ground to offer their unique services to the world?

    If I had had advice for a newspaper journalist 10 years ago, I'd say: find a new way to use your skills, or find a new career. As a professional church worker, Should I be saying that to myself, today?

  5. Erik, your comments are helpful, but I'm still not quite sure what you mean by "embrace what's going on" [i.e., the changes].

    I agree that we've gotten way off track, or at least that too many of us have invested our passion in issues that aren't central to the gospel message. But even if we were able to shift to discipleship, evangelism and mission, what does it mean to "embrace what's going on"?

    Let me try this metaphor that someone else gave me: In the late 1800s the Chicago Ice Company saw themselves as being in the "ice delivery business." They did a booming business by delivering ice (by horse and hand carts) to homes and businesses. When the internal combustion engine and refrigeration came along, they thought, "Cool. We can deliver ice more quickly and efficiently!" What they didn't see was that refrigeration would come into everybody's kitchen, eliminating the need for ice delivery. Had they seen themselves as being in the "ice-making business," they could have usurped Frigidaire's rise.

    So if the church is the Chicago Ice Company of the early 21st century, what do we need to do to embrace the changes that are taking place around us?

  6. Dwight - I like the Chicago Ice Co. story, and this it applies in this situation. When I talk about "embracing changes in culture / communication" I'm talking about how the church creates entry points for members and non-members. Millennials engage community differently than GenXers...and Baby Boomers...on down. I think we need to think long and hard (not just as an entire denomination, but as individual congregations) about how we embrace cultural changes and help folks connect.

    As a a for instance...I see that the ELCA launched a couple of really great television commercials. This is a wonderful way to bring "God's Work / Our Hands" into people's's also not engaging the TiVo / Hulu / streaming crowd at all. We have a news release department that does a nice job - and a majority of the content talks about the work of our denominational structure (boards, councils, committees)...which is a huge turn-off to Millennials.

    (Here's more about the TV ads --

    Furthermore, I'm not implying that mainline churches are in the same place as the newspaper industry. Just hoping we don't suffer the same fate because we pick the wrong battles and neglect to engage a diverse and changing culture.

  7. Ryan - you've touched on several excellent points! I'm intrigued by the slippery slope that comes when people use business terms like "marketing" when talking about church. I initially cringe at such usage, and yet, I think that having a business mindset can help our church navigate the waters of a changing world.

    I'm reminded of a story Bishop Phil Hougen told about a conversation he had with a Tanzanian pastor. The pastor was concerned for Bishop Hougen because of his nearly impossible task of helping people who don't want for anything to see that they need God. The question is posed to us in the church - how can we help people discover how much they need God's presence in their lives? We can ask this question to members and non-members alike.

    I think that asking the right questions can make a huge difference in how we position ourselves in the world.

  8. Erik, here's a twist: The Chicago Tribune proclaiming the Gospel (of Mark, no less)

  9. I am coming late to this conversation but only just discovered your blog. This post got my attention because I also wrote about newspapers' travails and their parallels with those of the church ( and

    If you read my posts, it's obvious I have a different take on the parallels and am less sanguine about the church's future in the US. I really don't see anything now or on the horizon that will reverse the decline of mainline churches or of Christianity generally. On the other hand, that may not be entirely a bad thing. In any case, change is underway, and in a hurry.


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