Back in 2003, I attended a big convention focused on issues in the emerging church. To my dismay, the first question many people asked after “Where are you from?” was “Do you blog?” I didn’t, and to be honest I found the suggestion that I might want to pretty creepy. I had two main associations with blogs (a term derived from “Web logs”). There were political blogs that seemed mostly like rants from the left or the right (something I had little interest in reading) and there were personal blogs that seemed way too intimate or way too tedious to read. Were all these nice young Christian leaders really posting their personal diaries on the Web for everyone to read? And if they were, why?
I went home with a list of Web addresses for blogs written by some of the people I had met. I read around with more and more interest. Rarely had I found a medium that fit the message better. Most of the authors were people who were trying out new things—new thoughts, new ways of doing church. And their blogs embraced that newness. They were places to try on ideas, describe experiments, muse out loud, celebrate successes and be honest about failures, while all the time asking for the support of friends.
Five years later the “blogosphere” feels a lot more mainstream. Clergy are blogging, but so are a number of people in our pews. And people aren’t just ranting, complaining, or divulging personal secrets. Some of the most creative, most thoughtful writing about faith is appearing on blogs before it ever appears in the print media. The websites of Christian Century, Christianity Today, and the Alban Institute now all feature links to recommended blogs written by a wide variety of independent authors.
All of this buzz led me to wonder, what if my congregation added its voice to the conversation? I knew we had things to say to the world. Would anyone listen?
Where It All Began
According to a Wikipedia article on the subject, blogging began in the late 1990s when people began writing and reading online diaries. But the format really took off in 1999 when several online tools (LiveJournal.com and Blogger.com, for example) were created to make it easier to keep an online diary and to connect with other writers. Many of the users of these tools wrote under pseudonyms, so they could talk about their workplaces, their relationships, and their beliefs without risking the consequences that might come from exposure. Of course, clergy, seminarians, and others involved with religious life were among that group.
The highly authentic voice of the early blogs was so engaging to readers that they exploded in popularity. Other individuals and groups who were looking for ways to attract interest quickly took notice and adopted the format to communicate their views on a particular topic, or about the values of their organization. Now every single presidential campaign has a blog, as well as just about every newspaper columnist, novelist, and rock band. In some cases these groups or individuals are keeping a daily journal of sorts, chronicling events from a tour, etc. But just as often they are seeking to engage readers with their views and values using the same disarming tone of a personal journal.
In each case, the people blogging have decided that they want to make use of the Web not just to give people information about themselves—that’s what they can do with a website alone. By linking their website to a blog, a candidate (or author or artist or pastor) is inviting the world not just to listen to him or her but to interact.
Comments Are the Key
Why are blogs interactive when websites aren’t? Think of the last website you read. If there was something written on that site that you disagreed with, thought was incorrect, or wanted to give your support to, your only option (if you had any option) was to find the “Contact Us” link on the website’s toolbar, which would link you to an e-mail message that you could send to the owners or creators
of the site.
In contrast, most (though not all) blogs have a feature that allows readers to write comments in response to an article and post them for the whole world to read. A popular blog may have dozens or even hundreds of comments in response to a single post, and often times the comments involve an ongoing, wide-ranging debate about the issue presented. The author of the blog can also respond to comments (by making a comment on his or her own blog) and thus engage with readers about an issue or idea.
The difference, in short, is akin to the difference between a speech and a conversation, or perhaps between a speech alone and a speech that is followed by a question and answer session, which might be four times as long as the original speech and which allows questioners to respond to each other as well as to the presenting speaker. That later option, while
potentially chaotic, is certainly more engaging. We all know that once the question period begins, a speaker tends to move away from the carefully crafted phrases of a prepared speech and begins to speak more from the heart, sharing more of his or her authentic self.
About a year ago I started to notice how much this trend toward making Web content interactive has spread. Companies and organizations that used to just have Web pages are now linking to a blog as well. Have you noticed, for example, that Amazon.com now advertises the “Amazon Daily Blog” in the upper right-hand corner of its home page? Even more delightful is the blog sponsored by Graco baby products (www.gracobaby.com), where “members of the Graco family” share stories and tips about parenting. My all-time favorite is the “Kleenex Let It Out Blog” (www.kleenex.com), which takes the promotion of tissues to its logical extension and promotes the free expression of emotions in general.
My friend Jen Lemen (who blogs at www.jenlemen.com) explained this trend to me. As she sees it, more and more businesses are recognizing that traditional marketing is basically falling on deaf ears. “People want to be engaged, not just informed,” Jen told me. “We want to be a part of the products that we’re using, and blogs make that possible. They open up possibilities for collaboration and conversation. They make it possible for me to form a relationship with a company or organization that isn’t just about consuming their product. Now it’s about building a sense that we’re in it together—whether we’re parenting or eating or shopping or just being human.”
So Why Not Us?
That conversation with Jen finally convinced me to start a church blog. The church I serve has had a website for a number of years, and we’ve tried different formats to make it interesting as well as informative. But as much as we’ve worked on it, the website doesn’t really capture the spirit of our community. We’re a creative congregation with an interactive worship style, and we place a high value on building authentic relationships with God, with each other, and with our neighbors. I became convinced that in order to communicate those values on the Web, we needed a format that was more interactive, more dynamic than a website. We needed a blog—not just a personal blog, authored by me, the pastor, but a community blog, authored by multiple members of our church community.
Setting up the blog was easy. I was able to do it in about 10 minutes with minimal computer expertise. I went through the website Typepad.com, which provided step-by-step instructions and a free, three-month trial. There are a number of similar websites, including Blogger.com and WordPress.com, which allow you to do exactly the same thing. You just pick a name for your blog, choose one of a wide array of predesigned formats, and up goes your blog. Writing on the blog is also completely self-explanatory when you use one of these sites, as is editing, inserting photos or links, and so on. For more money, you could get your own “domain name” (something like www.ourchurchblog.com) or have a designer give your blog the same look as your church’s website, but in my experience, neither of those things is necessary.
What took a little more doing was explaining to my congregation why we should have a blog at all—and why they should read it and write for it. To start that conversation off, I invited my friend Jen to come to one of our Spiritual Education Evenings with Dinner (SEED) nights and give an hour-long talk about what a blog is and how to read one. Especially for the older folks in the congregation, no information was too basic.
I quickly ran into a hurdle that I hadn’t anticipated. Our congregation, like many others I know, has made use of community e-mail lists—one for announcements, one for prayer concerns, and one (called the “KC Thought” list) for just about anything else—such as movie recommendations, comments on current events, or com-plaints over the choice of hymns for worship. When I suggested our church start a blog, several members of the congregation quickly pointed out that the KC Thoughts e-mail list essentially served the same purpose.
I didn’t see it that way. KC Thoughts only went to members of our community, and only those members who subscribed. The blog, on the other hand, would be open to everyone in the world to read. I thought that would answer the question about why we should blog, but it turned out it only provoked the question more. Why should we put our church’s conversation on display for the whole world to read?
Why Go Public?
That’s when I realized that by establishing a blog and inviting the whole congregation to read it and write for it, I wasn’t just suggesting a different format for doing something we already do. I was nudging the church to open up our conversations with each other and to invite the world to listen and respond. Certainly there are some topics that remain “in-house” discussions, and our KC Thoughts e-mail list remains a good tool for those issues. But many of these discussions touch on broader issues as well, and those can become excellent topics for blog postings. For example, I kept a discussion about the amount and frequency of Christmas carols sung during Advent on the KC Thoughts list. But after Christmas, I wrote several posts about music in worship, reflecting on the role of “heart songs” in our spiritual lives and the different associations that different generations have with certain types of music. It was my hope that, by doing this, I was helping the congregation to consider that the issues that we struggle with internally connect to issues that many other churches,
and our culture in general, have to reckon with.
When I started to think about how the blog helps our church connect to wider conversations, I began to take hypertexting a lot more seriously. (“Hypertext” is the term for a feature that is used on websites and blogs where a word in a text is highlighted, indicating that if you click on that word you’ll link to another website with more information, an illustration, etc.) The website that runs our blog makes it very easy to turn any word in a posting into a link to some other site. So, for example, when I recently wrote a post about a new initiative in our county, I was able to link to the county’s website where there were more details on the initiative. When I write about a book that I’ve found useful, I can link directly to the amazon.com page where a reader can purchase the book immediately. I’ve used this feature more and more to reinforce the idea that the issues that concern our community are issues that concern the world, and the issues that concern the world are concerns of our spiritual and religious lives as well.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Our church’s blog has enabled us to both open up our communication and also to streamline it. Within six months of starting our blog, we stopped publishing our printed newsletter, which had been limping along for years. Between the blog, a once-a-week e-mail of announcements, and printed announcements in our Sunday morning bulletin, the newsletter had become completely redundant and no longer worth the administrative time spent on developing it or the cost of printing and mailing it.
Our goal now is to increase the number of authors and readers of our blog. While I had initially thought I would train members of the congregation to post their articles directly to the blog, I soon found that most people preferred writing their thoughts in a familiar format, like an e-mail or a Word document, then sending them to me to post to the blog on their behalf. This requires very little time from me, and even the senior members of our community have become, by and large, comfortable with e-mail. Now when someone tells me about a book they loved, a movie that touched them, an event they attended that made them think, I immediately suggest they write me an e-mail about their thoughts so that I can post it on the blog. More and more people are taking me up on that suggestion and are delighted when other church members, and people they don’t even know, respond to their post with an appreciative comment.
When our blog had been up for about nine months, I began my report to our Church Council by saying, “Guess what? One hundred and twenty-seven people stopped by our church yesterday!” Everyone was stunned, and when I explained that that was how many people had read our blog, they all started to smile. They knew that people have begun to use the Web to find information about churches in the community, but since our website is largely static, once a person has read what is on it there is not much of an incentive to return. But our blog is so dynamic and so engaging that people come back to it again and again. When visitors who have first met us through the blog come to worship with us on Sunday, they often tell me that they feel as if they already know us. They come knowing that our community is a place where they want to engage in conversation—in part because they have already heard us talking to each other, to the wider community, and often directly to them as well.
Questions for Reflection
- Do you think your congregation might be ready to start a blog? What benefits do you think a blog would have for your community? What concerns or objections do you think people might have about a congregational blog?
- What forms of communication does your church currently use? What forms do you find to be most effective for communicating “in house”? Do you have any communication tools that effectively reach beyond your congregation?
- Do you know of any bloggers in your congregation? Have you made it a practice to regularly read and comment on their blogs?