The Christian St. Patrick’s Day

St. Patty's CommunionEaster 2009 has come and gone.  Into the closet goes the little bunny decorations; into the tummy go the eggs, candy, and chocolate bunnies; into the compost go the dying lilies.  Now we turn the calendar page to things like Pentecost and summer.  Many of us have gone to church in order to do our twice yearly duty and are no worse for the wear, although less and less of us are doing this little dance each year.

I like Easter.  I have followed the tradition of Lent for all of my adult life.  I always feel elation on Easter Sunday, with a sense of accomplishment and reverence.  It is a sort of “holy high” that isn’t completely describable with words.  This year, I felt this high even more, due to the fact that I finished reading my Bible cover to cover in 90 days (OK, plus about a week).  Onward Christian soldier I went with my sword in hand, and committed in my heart.  I’d like to say that the church service magnified this sense of elation, but I honestly can’t.

As I left church on that day and allowed my mind to wander, I strangely started to think of St. Patrick’s Day.  At first I ignored this, because I felt that maybe I might have taken too much communion wine (OK, it’s grape juice).  But as I thought deeper, I realized that these holidays really have a lot in common.

I must have some Irish in me.  After all, both of my names point to the Emerald Isle.  But no matter what my Irish-blood-ratio may be, it is not something that I find any identity in whatsoever.  In fact, most St. Patrick’s Days I don’t even wear green.  I don’t pinch people, and I’ve never had a green beer.  I do enjoy the occasional Shamrock Shake, but that is about it.  I have no reason for this lack of “green pride.”  It isn’t like I wouldn’t drink a green Guiness if I had the chance.  I just feel no real desire to.

This is not the case with most people, I know.  Saint Patty’s Day is the one day where everyone is Irish.  From Snoop Dog to Isabella Rosalini, everyone is in on the action.  We can all grab a bagpipe and march down Main street in our kilt, and drink a pint at O’Malley’s when we’re done.  Tomorrow we go back to drudgery, but everyone can be a part of this party.  There is no card check at the door, no proving your heritage, no strings attached.  At the same time, no one I have ever met has their life positively impacted in a lasting way by all of this festivity.

I realized that in may ways, this is almost exactly like Easter.  On Easter people flock to the church in their new costumes (don’t tell me you wear a light grey suit any other time of year).  People go through the motions, eat their Easter meal, and hide their eggs.  This doesn’t mean that anything is required of them on Monday.  It doesn’t mean they change their heart any more than celebrating St. Patrick’s Day makes people join the IRA.  Easter revelry doesn’t contain so much beer and rowdiness, but other than that it seems it is pretty much the same for a lot of people.

I am not saying that Easter is meaningless (see paragraph 1).  I am saying that when Christianity becomes a culture it is easy to separate the meaning of its symbols and celebrations from the heart of what its true meaning is.  I saw this in a conversation I had with a friend from across the world the other day.  We wished each other a Happy Easter, and as we talked I realized that he didn’t have any idea that the holiday wasn’t mostly about eggs and bunnies.  I learned that our chief export in this regard was not a holiday centered around the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, but instead one of fertility symbols and sweets.

I believe that there is a world agenda of forces that want to distract humanity from the truth of what Jesus did on the cross.  But I also know that people communicate what is most valuable to them.  It just kind of spills out of them constantly, and everyone around them knows it.  Jesus said that “out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34).  In other words, what we communicate to the world, is what is truly in our heart.

America is filled with many sincere Christians who are doing powerful work in the name of Christ.  Many churches are transforming the world.  But the cultural Christianity that we’ve grown used to is not.  It has all too often spewed a non-committal holiday of Spring, like so much green St. Patrick’s vomit.  –Ryan

copyright-notice

Internet Evangelism Day -April 26th

The other day I got a comment from Tony from InternetEvangelismDay.com. I usually am very skeptical about people who try to sneak link-spam into my blogs, and I tend to be pretty heavy handed with the comment approval. I checked out the site just for kicks-and-giggles, and was quite impressed with what I saw. Their site is a veritable menagerie of tools and helps for churches planning to use their Internet ministry effectively. At the core of their plan is to make April 26th a day dedicated to Internet evangelism worldwide. Continue Reading…

Internet Evangelism Day

The other day I got a comment from Tony from InternetEvangelismDay.com.  I usually am very skeptical about people who try to sneak link-spam into my blogs, and I tend to be pretty heavy handed with the comment approval.  I checked out the site just for kicks-and-giggles, and was quite impressed with what I saw.  Their site is a veritable menagerie of tools and helps for churches planning to use their Internet ministry effectively.  At the core of their plan is to make April 26th a day dedicated to Internet evangelism worldwide.  I am waiting to hear back from them about a few things, and am happy to use whatever platform I can to help them reach our mutual goals for ministry.  This really gets to the heart of my passion.

InternetEvangelismDay.com screenshot Behind all my theorizing and theologizing regarding the Church and communication is a core conviction that has been growing inside for several years.  Basically, I have grown tired of the Internet being the Devil’s playground.  Christians fear it.  UnChristians revel in it.  It is the Mos Eisley Cantina (for all the Geeks out there) of our little planet.

The Internet is both the biggest opportunity for evangelism in the history of the world, and the greatest tool the Church could ever hope for.  Yet we are letting it slip by deeper and deeper into darkness.

When Gutenberg invented the Printing Press, the Christian Bible was the first book ever printed, and almost immediately the Church showed that it intended to use this medium to the fullest.  Still to this day, the Bible remains the best selling printed book of all time, and other Christian books are common worldwide best sellers.  Yet, as the Internet spawned, the Church has been painfully slow and wary to use this medium much at all.

Do you doubt me?  Can you name one major Christian blog that cracks technorati’s top 50 regularly?  Give me one Christian site that is on everyone’s bookmark list.  We have GodTube, the poor Christian cousin of YouTube (I’m not really dissing them at all), and other Christian versions of popular culture online.  And yes, we use the Internet pretty well for Bible tools, and maybe some “Christian dating,” but not much else with excellence.

So my conviction and passion is to point the way for Christians to use this tool to spread the great news about what Jesus did for humanity through cyberspace, and to use the World Wide Web to teach people wanting to learn more about God wherever they are.  I have a passion for this, because I believe that God has a passion for it.  I believe that no x-rated site, or malicious virus can prevail against God and His people.  I believe in a revolution of love starting on your web page, and mine.

That is why I am behind what InternetEvangelismDay.com is doing.  Mark April 26th on your calendar, and start a viral movement to take the Internet for Christ.  –Ryan

copyright-notice

A Few Things You Might Want to Check Out

One of the things that is unique about this blog, is that there are multiple streams of blogs (entirely separate blogs, really) that address different topics.  You will find them in the main links above.  Some of these blogs are more personal in nature, like the one on the homepage, and the My Wife page.  Others are more theological, or sociological in nature.  The Post-Christian page contains posts addresses how Christianity and contemporary American culture interrelate.  The Church Tech blog looks at how the Church can interact, and is interacting with current communications technology, specifically the Internet.

Some recent posts that you might find interesting:

10 Ways that Churches Can Improve Communication

Analysis of the 2009 ARIS survey, which spawned a Newsweek Cover Story and the frontpage of USA Today

-A series of posts on How to run an effective church web-ministry

What Makes a Good Church Web Ministry (Part 3)

OK, here we go!  Let’s look at some examples of real live church websites that I have encountered recently.

As we get into this, let me give a brief explanation of how I am treating these.  Each of these are real websites that are live on the web as of this writing.  I have not manipulated these in any way, except that I have blurred anything that would immediately identify the churches or people involved.  Yes, you could probably figure out the churches if you try hard enough.  They are in public view anyway.  I am only concerned with being as fair as I can in critiquing them.  The second thing that I have done is to format the sites to best fit the image that I snapped of them.  I have also called both of these churches.  In one case (the good example) I ended up having a long and very fruitful conversation with the pastor.  In the case of the other, repeated calls have gone unanswered, and no one has ever answered their phone when I call.  I am curious as to the growth strategy for a church that never returns requests for communication, but that is another issue.  These same stipulations will generally hold true for any church site that I use from this point forward, unless I mention otherwise.

This is a less than effective site Example 2

In the first example, a hand drawn logo is at the top.  The frame is filled with blue, some links line the top under the header, and a few frames show a google map of the church’s location and welcome message.  When I visit the site, I immediately find out that they want to welcome me to their service, when it is, and how to get there.  The pages contain a few grammar errors, and there is a main link that says “under construction.”  On a brighter note, the calendar of events is up to date, although their “Vision Meeting” says something ambiguous about “blessed pot.”  Maybe they will have an influx of local community college students.  Another thing of note is that their google map on the home page is a screenshot, not an interactive google map.

Example 2 is a different story.  I am not holding this up as the paradigm for church websites, and I think that the design is quite old.  But immediately on accessing the site there is a wide range of stuff that grabs my attention.  There is a quick link to the sermon podcast that is up to date, there are some quick links for location and contacting in the upper right (you can’t see this well on the screenshot). and the phone number is there too.  The tabs are clean, and there is a slide show advertising a sermon series, picture galleries, and some shots of their location right at the top.  The events calendar is at the bottom of the homepage (not on this screenshot).  They did do one of my pet-peeves, though.  The senior pastor’s picture is right at the top, and there is a picture of the senior pastor and his wife less than an inch away near the welcome message.

This is one of those things that is just not well thought through, and a note to pastors:  OK, you are married.  Unless you are Rick Warren or Erwin McManus we don’t need to see lots of pictures of you and your family on the homepage.  People go to your site for a couple main reasons.  If they are thinking of attending your church, or if they are a current attender they might be looking for new information.  People are seldom looking to check out a church because you are the pastor.  They won’t know you until they come to your church usually.  One picture is fine if it looks professional.  A future entry will discuss building community through your site, and introducing your staff through the site.  This is not the way to do it.

Tied to that is the picture with “John and Jane Smith, Pastors” caption underneath.  If both spouses are equally in ministry together, they should have their own separate pictures.  People can figure out that they are married.  Another picture on the “Bios” area can have the two together with the family.  This is almost never the case, though.  In most cases the church just lists it that way because they think it is the new kitschy and inclusive thing to do.  That is not what is communicated to outsiders.  When the CEO of Apple puts his picture up with his wife and “Steve and Laureen Jobs, CEOs” underneath, then you can too.  Until then, it communicates unprofessionalism, and outsiders just think it looks weird.  We don’t need to copy the world, but we should try and keep from creating an out-of-touch subculture.

I know I ranted on this point, but it is a big issue.   -Ryan

copyright-notice

2009 American Religous Identification Survery Analysis

I promised a day ago that I would pour through the ARIS 2008 (Published March, 2009) survey that forms the basis for Jon Meacham’s article in Newsweek, “The End of Christian America.”  I have spent hours looking through the survey, highlighting, commenting, and reading the original article that first lead me to this survey.  It is the cover story for the magazine.  The cover reads, “The Decline and Fall of Christian America.”  I will do my best to summarize the basic findings of the survey and interact with them.

First, while I am not a professional statistician.  I will say that anyone who immediately finds fault in the survey itself has probably not read it.  The survey is quiet airtight.  It asks only open ended questions.  There is no “Do you think Christianity is A-Evil; B-Bad; C-just OK; D-A lie.”  Nothing of the sort.  Further, they did a good job of polling large numbers of people around the country in a random sample, that appears unbiased to any outcome.  In fact, the survey effort seems quite impressive.

Meacham’s article seems quite fair to the outcome of the survey itself, with a couple of areas that were significantly unmentioned, in my eyes.  Meacham did his job, and I am not criticising him at all.  But his article did leave me with some impressions that analysing the survey modified in some ways.

First of all, the survey was not a 2 part survey taken in 1990 and 2008.  It was a three part survey taken in 1990, 2001, and 2008.  the numbers can be compared between 1990 and 2008, and they should.  But leaving out the middle survey leads to one significant false impression.

When I read the Newsweek article, I was alarmed to the growing crisis of faith our country is now having.  When I read the ARIS survey, I realized that even though the numbers are striking, the real striking change did not take place between 2001 and 2008.  the really big change mostly took place between 1990 and 2001!  In almost every case, the change between the first and second survey is striking, and the change between the second and third is a slowed continuation of that trend.

Take for example, the biggest statistic quote of the article, that the numbers of Christians have decreased from 86.2% in 1990 to 76% in 2008.  That is true, but the 2001 number was 76.6%.  This means that in the 11 years of the first survey, the number of Christians decreased 9.6% in America.  That is .87% a year.  Between 2001 and 2008, the number decreased .7%.  That is a decrease of .1% per year.  This means that the Christian slide has been decreasing as of late, not rapidly increasing.  The increase in those with “no religion” also has followed a similar pattern.

Of course, this doesn’t make the survey good news.  It is bad news…very bad news.  It does mean that this is not a sudden and new trend.

Another thing that is worth noting is that the Christian slide is not across the board.  The article interviews a Baptist leader, and the Baptists have a whole lot to be worried about.  They are in steady decline.  There is no real slowing of the curve between 2001 and 2008 for them.  The “Mainline Christian” group (which includes Methodist, U. Meth, AME, Lutheran, Presbyterian Episcopal/Anglican, U Church of Christ, Reformed, DoC, Moravian, Quaker, and all of the Orthodox groups) have fared even worse, with their numbers declining even more in the 2001-2008 leg than the one before.

But, the “Christian Generic” group (containing those who would only answer that they were “Christian,” “Non Denom Christian,” “Protestant,” “Evangelical,” “Born Again,” and those who said that they were Pentecostal or Charismatic) actually increased in each survey period across the board.  Some of these numbers were striking.  Non Denominational Christians almost tripled between 2001 and 2008.  They increased by almost 6 million adherents in that time period.  that is amazing, compared with all of the other trends.

Those that list no religion have outgrown every other group in every single category, though.  Their geographical and demographic information is very interesting as well.  The Pacific Northwest is no longer the center of irreligion in the US.  That title is now held by the Northeast.  Vermont is particularly noteworthy, where No Religion is now the largest religious group, when catholics and protestants are separated.  They have  a population of 34% who claim to have no religion.

The No Relgion group has the largest disparity of any group between the sexes, as well.  Twenty percent more men than women (60-40) claim this category.  Every other religious group has more women adherents than men (Baptists with the biggest disparity that way at 14%), except for Muslims, Eastern religions, and the off-brand religions (wiener-dog worship, etc) who have more male adherents.

A lot has been said about rapid growth of Islam.  Statistically, it appears to be largely from immigration, and it is almost solely from unmarried men.

The biggest thing I noticed about the survey though, was how stratified it was according to race.  When race is factored in, black people are holding to their faith largely, and Hispanics are mostly shifting from one Christian group to another.  But Asians, and even more markedly whites, are leaving faith for agnosticism/atheism at huge rates.  While Asians (it must be noted that Asian includes any group from the continent of Asia—something that we need to stop doing—there is no way a Chinese person has that much in common with an Iranian, or Indian) are the largest group with no religion at 27%, the whites without faith doubled between 1990 and 2008, with the vast majority of that growth between the first and second surveys.

The numbers in these surveys are very bleak for Christianity, on the one hand.  It might be good for Christianity on the other, though.  This might force American Christians to re-examine the orthopraxy, one they realize that their orthodoxy doesn’t need to be changed.  Further, the old mainline denominations are rapidly deteriorating, while the more outside the box non-denominational groups are actually growing.  It must be noted that throughout the 90’s and 2000’s the mainlines were characterized by large theological battles over liberalization of theology, while the charismatics and non-denominationals did not have these struggles.  I do not think there is much doubt that these struggles factor in significantly to the trends shown in this survey.  It appears to me that theological and social appeasement has not led to increased adherents, but large exodus to other Christian groups.  –Ryan Shinn

copyright-notice

What Makes a Good Church Web Ministry (Part 2)

See part 1 here

Starting with the next post. I’ll start to get to where the proverbial rubber meets the road.  I am doing this quickly in this course of this blog because I believe that practicality is the name of the game.  We could discuss paradigms of effective communication in the Internet Age all day long and it won’t give any church an increased ability to do ministry online more effectively.  It might be best to look at some examples and then maybe pull back and see why what works.  I think that this might be more effective because of what I call the People/Code Dilemma.

codeThe People/Code Dilemma works like this:  The people who are usually great at developing websites are the people who like to look at code.  To them the WordPress tagline, “Code is Poetry,” rings true.  They like to look at numbers and formulas, and prefer things to be neat and logical.  These are not usually the people who are in church ministry.  Church ministry people are very often people people.  They realize that people are emotional and often illogical.  Looking at formulas is usually the last thing that these people want to do.  Sometimes, it is difficult for these people to communicate together in a way that makes an effective website.

To illustrate this further, I often work with a particular company that manages the CMS (Content Management System) for many of our company’s clients.  I am in a really unique relationship with them because I am a retail partner with them, and I am a user of their system through my own ministry.  Though I am definitely not a programmer/designer, I have realized as of late that my ministry uses their CMS at a level that is far above any of their other clients.  In fact, in a recent call one of their service guys told me that I know more about the CMS than any one person that they have.  This is not to say that I am brilliant.  It is just that each one of their programmers knows the code and functionality of one specific piece, but those people don’t know how to relate what they do to the whole of the system, or one particular customer’s need.

This means that in your average church, the people who have a vision to do ministry online don’t know anything about how to implement it.  The people who know how to implement the ideas often don’t have the people knowledge to connect the code to actual ministry application.

So what is the solution?  I would love to say “Do this and it will solve all your problems.”  I’d be lying.  There is no quick fix.  There are some general best practices that work well.  I’ll be listing and explaining them as they come along.  But, I will start out by saying this: Whatever you can do as a church to get your online ministry out of the hands of the techies in your church, and into the hands of the people of the church, the better.  No, you (pastor) are not going to be blogging weekly on your site and adding new picture galleries.  You may think you will, and you might for the first couple months, but then life is going to happen, and you’ll stop.

Like anything in ministry, whatever you can do to get the ministry of the church to be done by the people in the church and not just the paid staff,  will lead to success.  If you have hospitality food ministry, you need people in your church to take ownership of that  Otherwise, the pastors will get burned out, or other things won’t get done.  It is the same for the web.  Techies are nice and valuable people, but we do not need to burden them with things they can’t handle.

[A guy right behind me at the coffee shop just spilled coffee all over his laptop while I was writing this—but I think it is OK]

copyright-noticeRyan

Check out Part 3 of this series

10 Ways that Churches can Improve Communication

communicate It seems that the Information Age has been one of the most aptly named epochs in history.  The popular meme may be true, that the average American accesses more information every day than was accessed by our grandparents in their entire lifetimes.  But even if it isn’t, no one can deny that everywhere we turn some advertisement, announcement, print ad, or electronic message is vying for our attention.  The advent of the Internet has done nothing but make matters worse.  Now, instead of a couple dozen pieces of junk mail in my mailbox, I have an email box full of “cheap replica watches,” “free iPods” and unmentionable others.  Unfortunately, the church is doing a worse job at communicating that most of these spammers in my inbox.  Here are 10 ideas for your church to improve communication. Continue reading “10 Ways that Churches can Improve Communication”