You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Outreach’ category.

Tomorrow night I’ll be doing an encore presentation of a webinar called Digital/Spiritual Literacy. (There’s still some room left, by the way. Click heresocial media, congregations, twitter, learning, education, membership if you’re interested.) As part of the preparation of the webinar I’ve scoured theweb looking for resources. Thing is, just when I think I’ve found the just the right online articles and blog posts to make my point, something new comes along. That’s pretty much the way the web is working these days—the amount of new content is appearing so fast that it’s almost impossible to keep up. Actually, make that just plain impossible. But that’s okay. The great thing about the web is that if you plug into the right network (the network that’s right for you, that is) you have the opportunity to learn and grow with others who share you interests.

So that’s what the post I’m sharing with you today is about: learning and growing together. It’s by Elizabeth Evans Hagan, senior pastor at Washington Plaza Baptist Church in Reston, Va. Pastor Hagan, who blogs at Preacher on the Plaza, offered a terrific opinion piece on the Associated Baptist Press website called “What Twitter can teach the church.” It’s a quick summary of her experience with Twitter, from skeptic to believer. What I like most about the post are her thoughts on what congregations can learn from Twitter. She says, “Beyond its effectiveness for outreach, I think the church has a lot to learn from Twitter as a newly minted word in our vocabulary.”

  • First, say what we need to say and stop. The days of long typed memos addressed with a stamp on a letter in the mail are over.
  • Second, if we want to reach more people with our churches, then we must “follow” people outside our normal social circles.
  • Third, it’s a necessity to stay connected to those on our membership rolls. Relationships, like Twitter followers, take time and effort to keep going.

I like the idea of Twitter offering important lessons for congregations to learn. And congregations should be all about learning. As Hagan says in the closing words of her piece: “the church, like any good means of technology, is never something to be mastered to use perfectly all at once but rather to grow into as we learn and practice it together.”


There’s a moment within the first few minutes of The Matrix that tips off the viewer about just how AWESOME this movie is going to be. It’s after the eeriely green production logos for Warner Brothers and Village Roadshow, past the first glimpse of that iconic digital rain, beyond the cryptic phone conversation between Cypher and Trinity, through the rabbit hole and into the glare of an officer’s flashlight as two units of street cops enter the dilapidated halls of the Heart o’ the City Hotel to apprehend Carrie-Anne Moss as Trinity—all accompanied by Don Davis’ gloriously discordant score. I’m talking about the moment when Hugo Weaving as Agent Smith turns to the cop who just told him, “I think we can handle one little girl. I sent two units, they’re bringing her down now…,” and omiously replies, “No lieutenant, your men are already dead.” Agent Smith clearly knows something the police don’t—he is, after all, a “man in black”—and we have no reason to doubt that the cops inside the hotel are in trouble. Serious trouble.

Matrix, Trinity, Neo, Heart o' the City Hotel

The Future Is Here to Kick Your Congregation's Butt.

I’ve been thinking about this line from The Matrix lately because of a couple of blog posts I’ve recently run across on the Interwebs. One is from, a great resource for spiritual progressives, religious liberals, spiritual-but-not-religious folks, and anyone else interested in “balanced views of religion and spirituality.” The other comes from George Bullard’s Posterous blog. Bullard is a congregational and denominational consultant with a lot of expertise in the area. The two posts that got me thinking are both about worship and the future of congregations in the United States. Read separately, they give the impression that congregations are facing some tough times. Read together…well let’s just say it’s not a rosy picture.

The post is from Theoblogy: The Tony Jones Blog, and has the ominous title “More Bad News for the (Mainline) Church.” Jones looks at Hartford Seminary’s most recent Faith Communities Today report, “A Decade of Change in American Congregations, 2000-2010,” [PDF] and comes to this conclusion: mainline clergy in smaller congregations are unable to “satisfy the elderly members [in their congregations] and also reach out to new, younger members.” This is especially true for clergy serving smaller congregations. As Jones notes, “These clergy [are] in a predicament: their congregations are so small that to lose any of the old-timers virtually ensures closing the doors to the church, but without dramatic changes, the congregations are bound to continue their decline.”

Just how small are these congregations? Jones doesn’t say. That’s were Bullard comes in. The title of his blog post, “Your Congregation is More Likely to Exist Ten Years from Now if its Weekly Worship Attendance is Over 135,” gives us a pretty good clue about the kind of numbers we’re talking about. Bullard bluntly states that your congregation’s survival is “marginal or uncertain if it has 80 to 135. It is less likely to exist with vitality and vibrancy if its average weekly attendance is less than 80.” When I put these two points of view together, I come to this conclusion: clergy who are afraid to make changes in their worship services out of fear of losing current members are like the lieutenant in that opening scene of The Matrix. They may think they’ve got a handle on the situation, but as Agent Smith might say, “No reverend, your church is already dead.”

Why? Because when a congregation’s worship attendance numbers are below these thresholds, there’s little need for the kind of capacity building necessary to face the future. They are, according to Bullard, below the size “where effective functioning requires shared leadership beyond the pastor and any part-time or volunteer staff.” Bullard goes on to say that

The sharing of leadership makes it more possible the congregation can weather the ups and downs of attendance, the occasion crisis, and the resource demands for functioning as a vital and vibrant congregation.

In other words, lone rangers (lay or ordained) can’t do it alone. Congregations that rely solely on their pastor and/or a small cadre of volunteer staff to run the show simply do not have the capacity to address the challenges every church must face over the next decade. And by running the show, I’m talking first and foremost about worship.

This is why I believe increasing worship attendance should be the number one strategic move any congregation in this size range can make. If your congregation has an average worship attendance of under 80, you need to make it a goal to raise that number over 80. And if your congregation has an average worship attendance that’s over 80 but under 135, you need to make it a goal to raise that number over 135. Of course this would require some major changes, changes that some clergy are hesitant to make out of the fear that they may lose some current members. But maintaining the status quo practically guarantees that your congregation will not be around in another 10 years. If that’s the case, you might as well start familiarizing yourself with Ending with Hope: A Resource for Closing Congregations right now.

If church had a Facebook page, I’d definitely like it. That’s because there are a lot of things I like about church. I like that we sing in church (there aren’t many places in American culture where people sing together, other than the Star Spangled Banner and Take Me Out to the Ball Game at Wrigley Field). We get to share our joys and concerns with a gathered community (I know, I know: J & S can be seriously abused…but when it’s handled well, say, when people have to write something down ahead of time and have it read by the minister, it’s a wonderful opportunity to feel like you’re part of something larger). I like to listen to choirs sing (my dad was a choir director…said that directing a choir was when he felt closest to God). I even like to hear a good sermon from time to time (but if you’ve read some of my previous posts, you know my tolerance for that is waning). I like teaching Sunday school (especially with the youngest ones…preschoolers need to know that there are people in the church who are really, really happy that they are here!). I freaking LOVE potlucks (fondest memories of my Methodist youth…where I first learned that you can use cottage cheese to replace some of the ricotta in lasagna). I love the way a sanctuary feels when nobody’s in it except for yourself (and perhaps the Deity Formerly Known as God). I love church libraries (they’re so earnest, especially the small ones). I love the trimmed lawns, the shade trees, the bushes, the flowers. I love that fact that people insist on supporting these institutions, and that they are there when we need them.

However, liking or loving church, no matter how genuine the emotion, is not going to be enough to save these institutions. If we’re going to survive, we need to bring new people into our doors, and new people aren’t going to be showing up just because some of us like church. It’s going to take a whole lot more. And that reminds me of this TED Talk by Benjamin Zander on music and passion (see below). I was introduced to it by John Roberto at a Faith Formation 2020 class. The big take away here comes at minute 16:51 when Zimmer says this about classical music:

Now, how would you walk — because you know, my profession, the music profession doesn’t see it that way. They say 3 percent of the population likes classical music. If only we could move it to 4 percent our problems would be over. I say, “How would you walk? How would you talk? How would you be if you thought 3 percent of the population likes classical music? If only we could move it to 4 percent. How would you walk? How would you talk? How would you be if you thought everybody loves classical music — they just haven’t found out about it yet.” (Laughter) See, these are totally different worlds.

I think that if church is going to survive, we need to act as if we thought everybody loves church as much as we do. That doesn’t mean, of course, that 100% of the people in the United States are going to start going to church if we walked that way. But it does mean, perhaps, that more people are going to find out why we church lovers think it’s so important. So…do you love church? And if so, what do you love the most about it?

Wow! Lot’s of folks talking about how the traditional sermon might be retooled for social media, etc. Let’s see…there’s Scott Wells, Dan Harper, Cynthia Landrum, Tom Schade, & Christian Schmidt. If I’m missing someone, please let me know. At any rate, I promised the recipe for an “Inside-Out” sermon in a recent post, so here it is.


  • a generous portion of social media (you choose: Facebook, Twitter, Google+, YouTube, etc.—but remember, the more the better!);
  • a wallop (that’s a BIG dollop) of rockin’ church website, something that supports blogs, podcasts, videos (both recorded and live streaming), etc.;
  • a smattering of 19th & 20th century media (newsletters, CDs, DVDs, cassettes and eight-track tapes, etc.);
  • integrated small group ministry built around sermon themes (optional, but highly recommended).


  1. Seven days (168 hours or so) before you want to deliver your sermon, post something on your social media sites about what that sermon will be about: “Whew! Had a great worship service this morning. Looking forward to a break, then getting started on next week’s sermon. Topic? Compassion.” (BTW, that was 138 characters, so you could tweet it, although if you want retweets, you could trim it down a smidge: “Whew! Great worship service this AM. Looking forward 2 day off, then starting next week’s sermon. Topic? Compassion.” 116 characters.) And guess what? If you want, you can set this announcement to be sent out automatically via a variety of services, like HootSuite, Tumblr, etc.
  2. Six days before you plan on delivering your sermon, post a few calls for ideas from folks: “Starting to think about next Sunday’s sermon on Compassion. Would love to hear stories of how compassion has touched your lives!” Again, these could be scheduled posts via Hootsuite, etc., so you can make this day your Sabbath and still stay in touch.
  3. Five days before, pepper the interwebs with quotes about compassion from the resources you’re looking at: “’All faiths insist that compassion is the test of true spirituality…’—Karen Armstrong” (84 characters with spaces, eminently retweetable!). Also, if you’ve received any stories about compassion touching the lives of followers or friends, you might share them (with permission, of course): “@soandso says she found #compassion in the form of a NYC cab driver who helped her when her purse was snatched.” (For information on using the “@” and “#” signs on Twitter, see: The Twitter Glossary)
  4. Four days before, continue peppering social media sites with quotes and stories. Post something on your congregation’s website with some initial thoughts about your topic: “I’ve really been enjoying reading Karen Armstrong’s book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. Armstrong recently spoke at our General Assembly (the UUA’s annual mega-meet-up of Unitarian Universalists from around the United States and beyond). You can see Armstrong’s lecture online here, if you’re interested….” You get the idea. Just enough to share a few resources and let folks know you’re doing your job (which is writing sermons, isn’t it?).
  5. Three days before—Ack! Gotta get this sermon written!—hole up in your study and write the darn thing. Send out a few posts throughout the day to let folks know how you’re doing: “Who knew that #compassion would be so tough to write about? Okay, maybe I should have known!”
  6. Two days before, post a little something on YouTube. Sit down in front of your bookcase (or the background of your choice) and give people a few reasons why they should come to church (or check out your live stream) on Sunday. Tell them something like, “I’ve been going deep into the idea of compassion this week as I’ve prepared for this Sunday’s sermon, and I’m convinced that it is, indeed, what’s needed to ‘heal the seemingly intractable problems of our time’….” Or something along those lines. Let folks know there’s a living, breathing, caring human presence behind all these posts and tweets, etc. Be real. Really. Post the video on your rockin’ congregational website.
  7. One day before, post an update on said website. Let folks know what resources you looked at as you wrote the sermon. Give then all the details they’ll need to find you tomorrow, both physically and virtually. Let them know you’re excited about tomorrow’s worship service and thank them for their love and support.
  8. Sunday morning, use Dan Harper’s plan: post a written version of the sermon just before the service starts. Invite comments via Twitter, etc. as the sermon’s being preached. Let people know they can continue the conversation after the service by commenting on your blog, etc. Have techies post video and podcast, burn CDs and DVDs, etc. Go home and put an episode of Columbo on the television and take a nap. You deserve it. That evening, go back to step one and post something about the topic of next week’s sermon.

There’s a legend in these parts about a liberal religious minister who once a week (usually a Wednesday, the locals say) disappeared into the hermetic confines of her book-lined study for a full 24 hours (with little more than bread and water for sustenance) and emerged on the other side with a beautifully crafted sermon of sound reason and impeccable logic. The legend goes on to say that hundreds of souls would flock to the hard wooden pews of this minister’s congregation just to hear her deliver what was, essentially, a record of the lofty thoughts that occupied her mind during those twenty-four grueling hours. It was a religious experience, I hear tell. Maybe not quite as significant as Moses descending from cloud-enshrouded Sinai to deliver the Ten Commandments, but significant nonetheless…and just as mysterious. One can only imagine the intellectual angels and demons this minister wrestled with during her weekly trip to the edge of the abyss, peering into the meaninglessness of existence in order to bring back something—anything—that might give her parishioners enough of a raison d’etre to get them through another week. Then again, maybe she just preached about whether or not she thought the Twins were going to make it to the playoffs that year.

What interests me here is the process. It resembles the model of sermon writing I was taught in theological school: Choose your theme, get a bunch of books about that theme, go to your office, close the door—always close the door, place the books on your desk, begin to peruse them, find some stuff that supports your stand on said theme, place a sheet of vellum on the desk, dip quill in ink and commence writing. If you really want to be a super duper sermon writer, try picking your themes a few weeks in advance and start piling up the appropriate books ahead of time. (This allows you to take full advantage of the inter-library loan service at your local university.) Soon your desk will be covered with books and your fingers will be stained black with India ink and you’ll find yourself in sermon-writing nirvana. And your congregation will know you’re doing your job because you’ve developed an efficient, if secretive, method for delivering sermons.

So here’s the thing. Two things, actually. Thing one: settling into a cozy pew for an hour or so to listen to a ripping good sermon may once have been considered a relatively inexpensive way to be entertained on a Sunday morning, but nowadays if I want to listen to someone talk about something on Sunday (or any day), all I need to do is logon to the interwebs and visit…for free. Thing two: if I want someone to talk at me in person, I’ll hitch a ride with the Doctor and transport myself back to second grade and suffer through one of Mrs. Updike’s diatribes [*shudder*]. At least, these are two things the “Unchurched, Underchurched, and Dechurched” may be thinking. They might also be some of the things our youth and young adults may be thinking (well, at least the part about hitching a ride with the Doctor). The finely wrought sermons that used to fill our pews to the brim on Sunday mornings may not be cutting it any more. Which is why I believe that if the sermon is going to survive as more than a quaint relic of a bygone age, we need to turn the whole process inside out. Like this “Inside-Out” Sundae from the Green Mill Restaurant & Bar in Bemidji, Minnesota:

Take our tulip sundae glass, dip the outside in caramel and chocolate sauces, fill the inside with vanilla ice cream and strawberries and top it all with whipped cream and nuts. You’ve never seen a sundae quite like this!

That’s what it says on their menu. And I did eat one of these sundaes once. And it was a mess. Point is, digital natives have an entirely different way of relating to information (caramel sauce) and, perhaps more importantly, an entirely different way of valuing expertise (chocolate sauce). While Boomers and Builders may be content to have information and expertise presented to them with a cherry on top at the end of the process (sitting in the pew on Sunday morning), digital natives (and digital immigrants) know that information and expertise are pretty much everywhere, not just in the preacher or the books on top of his or her desk. The sundae glass is fairly smeared with them. And it’s much, much more interesting (and fun and authentic) to be in on the process from the very beginning, before the ice cream is even scooped in.

Okay, I admit this sundae metaphor is pushing it, but I hope you get a sense of what I have in mind. Actually, I’m not the only minister who’s thinking about this. Dan Harper recently posted his thoughts on getting more folks involved with the whole sermon writing thing. In More than a Sermon, Dan suggests posting “a reading and a question for reflection on a sermon blog” on Thursday, posting “the reading text of the sermon on the same sermon blog” on Sunday just before preaching, live streaming the sermon with comments via Twitter, then following up with comments on the blog, with Dan joining in “the online conversation when it made sense to do so.” A pretty good place to start, if you ask me. (And remember “pretty good” is high praise when it comes from someone in Minnesota.) I have my own recipe for building an “Inside-Out” sermon that I’ll share with you next week. In the meantime, comments on the subject are more than welcome!

Facebook Twitter More...

Follow UURevPhil on Twitter

Flickr Photos



RSS Unitarian Universalist Association: Top Stories

  • Trusting Intuition March 22, 2023
    Lynette Yetter My intuition became honed, for safety and survival.Continue reading "Trusting Intuition"
    Lynette Yetter
  • Nominations for Election at General Assembly 2023 March 16, 2023
    The UUA Nominating Committee submitted the following slate of nominations for elected boards, committees, and commissions, which will be part of the larger election at General Assembly 2023.Continue reading "Nominations for Election at General Assembly 2023"
  • Blaze by Blaze March 15, 2023
    Erika HewittWhat’s your most memorable story about getting lost? What do you remember about finding your way home?Continue reading "Blaze by Blaze"
    Erika Hewitt
  • Unsticking My Mind March 8, 2023
    Tomo HillboWe must unstick our minds if we want to bring change into the world.Continue reading "Unsticking My Mind"
    Tomo Hillbo
  • UUA Responds to Growing Legislative Attacks Against Trans and Nonbinary+ Kids and the LGBTQIA+ Community March 6, 2023
    The UUA responds to the most recent onslaught of oppressive laws and policies threatening the lives of trans and nonbinary+ children and the LGBTQIA+ community and continues to work for justice and the ability of all people to thrive.Continue reading "UUA Responds to Growing Legislative Attacks Against Trans and Nonbinary+ Kids and the LGBTQIA+ Communit […]

RSS The Interdependent Web


%d bloggers like this: