In March 1999, four Webheads nailed 95 theses to the front door of the Internet cathedral and The Cluetrain Manifesto (www.cluetrain.com) was born. The document, authored by Christopher Locke, Rick Levine, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger, is a wake-up call to corporations that urges them to reshape their practices, reevaluate their mindsets, and make use of the attitudes and direct, informal ways of relating that have developed on the Internet as means to connect, converse, transact business, and create communities.
Creating Compelling Community
Although I applaud the authors’ use of the Internet as a means to connect, what most fascinates me about The Cluetrain Manifesto is its ability to name some key ingredients needed to create a compelling community. True, we all would benefit from better Web pages and more efficient use of e-mail and list-serves. But the manifesto goes further. In a succinct set of operating principles, it reveals how technology can be used to create a dynamic community of substance and action. These are principles that we in the church dare to ignore. After all, look what happened the last time someone nailed 95 theses to a door!
The opening paragraphs of the manifesto proclaim,
People of earth, a powerful global conversation has begun. Through the Internet, people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a direct result, markets are getting smarter . . . These markets are conversations. Their members communicate in language that is natural, open, honest, direct, funny and often shocking . . . Most corporations, on the other hand, only know how to talk in the soothing, humorless monotone of the mission statement… No wonder networked markets have no respect for companies unable or unwilling to speak as they do.
The Shoe Fits
The authors of the manifesto may be directing these words to corporate conglomerates, but the shoe fits our institutional church. Our congregations and national church bodies often speak in that same humorless monotone. Reading the last part of thesis 14—“To their intended online audience, companies sound hollow, flat, literally inhuman”—I change it in my head: “To potential parishioners, churchs sound hollow, flat, literally inhuman.”
How, you might ask, do newcomers experience the institutional church as speaking hollowly? As an example, the Episcopal Church has hundreds of signs around the country directing passers-by to nearby congregations. Each sign declares, “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.” Yet upon entering the sanctuary of these welcoming congregations the visitor frequently is expected to know the established practices and words of the liturgies, which of several books to use, and on what page to begin. Unless visitors know their way around the Book of Common Prayer and when to stand, sit, or kneel, they are more likely to feel embarrassed and awkward than included and welcome. Most congregations do provide worship bulletins answering those questions, but it is almost impossible to manage two or three books and a bulletin besides.
A Genuine Point of View
Imagine what our churches would be like if we took The Cluetrain Manifesto to heart. What if our institutional verbiage no longer sounded flat? What if our worship, our relationships, our committees, our newspapers, our newsletters, and our annual reports vibrated with genuine humanity? What if we truly listened to newcomers and learned about community through a sharing of their experiences? What if our congregations ventured into honest, direct, natural conversations with those not yet embedded in tradition? A new Reformation might take place.
Thesis 21 of manifesto proclaims, “Companies need to lighten up and take themselves less seriously. They need to get a sense of humor.” This though is expanded in thesis 22: “Getting a sense of humor does not mean putting some jokes on the corporate Web site. Rather it requires big values, a little humility, straight talk, and a genuine point of view.”
Like big business, many of our churches and denominations lack “straight talk and a genuine point of view.” McDonald’s serves burgers and we … save souls? Save souls how? How can we state clearly what we stand for? How can we talk straight when we have no easy answers? Where’s our humility and our humor?
The manifesto urges companies to be grounded in their communities: To speak with a human voice, companies must share the concerns of their communities (thesis 34). But first they must belong to a community (thesis 35). Companies must ask themselves where their corporate cultures end (thesis 36). If their cultures end before community begins, they will have no market (thesis 37).
Congregations too must share community concerns, continually seeking out opportunities to serve in neighborhood life. Block parties, food pantries, pet blessings, basketball games, ESL classes, Easter egg hunts, and community dinners and meetings all should routinely take place at the local place of worship. That way, people come to think of it as a vital extension of the neighborhood. Residents must think of the congregation as theirs, even if they are not members or do not attend regularly. The pastor should envision him- or herself as a neighborhood chaplain. Then, in moments of community crisis or transition, the local pastor and the local church will be the logical place to turn. Congregations that choose to remain aloof from the surrounding community run the risk of becoming declining social clubs or aging museums.
Countless numbers of people within sight of our congregations choose to spend Sunday mornings elsewhere. Imagine what would happen if our cathedrals and congregations suddenly took seriously the thousands of GenXers and Baby Boomers who live within spitting distance of our doors. Our worship experiences might then range from a refined, restrained evensong to a high-energy, multimedia spectacle.
Once upon a time, worship was spectacle; it was one of the basic forms of public entertainment. Now, rather than expanding worship opportunities to meet the needs of the people, we try to limit people’s needs so that they fit into the narrow framework of historical worship patterns. To expand the congregation’s outreach to unchurched people within the neighborhood, we need to reshape worship in order that God’s presence can be made known to all ages, not just to folks who happen to be accustomed to our well-worn worship practices.
Authentic, Accessible, Committed
Three points stand out for me as I read the 95 theses of The Cluetrain Manifesto. First, any business or institution that desires to continue attracting new members must possess a readily recognizable authenticity. Second, that institution must know that people not actively involved will be inherently suspicious of the institution. Finally, the institution must unabashedly stand for something—ideally something that major segments of the world find compelling.
At All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Chicago, attendance has quadruples in the past eight years, largely by putting into practice the principles of The Cluetrain Manifesto. All Saints’ is a congregation made up of overeducated, underpaid people who are left of center theologically, socially, and politically. The average age in the congregation is 36; a third are gay or lesbian. Almost all who attend are college graduates, and most have graduate degrees. The adult population is primarily Anglo but, since more than half of the children in the congregation are adopted, there is great racial diversity
among the children. All Saints’ is a place where many who attend regularly are mildly embarrassed to admit that they are encountering God and have their spiritual needs met within the confines of the institutional church. Yet they continue to come and to invite their friends to join them. This is a church, they say, that takes the surrounding community seriously without taking itself too seriously.
Simple, Energetic Liturgy
At All Saints’, worship and Sunday bulletins are free from rarified church-speak. Instead, the liturgy is simple and energetic. The rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer do not bind worship; instead they are used to create accessible, interactive services that invite people to join in at their own level of comfort. The Wednesday night Taizé service asks little more of who attend than to sit, waitch the candles flicker, offer a few prayers, and join in several of the mantra-like chants. The 8:00 A.M. Inclusive Language Eucharist on Sunday morning is quiet and extremely intimate. The 10:00 A.M. worship service, with seating in the round, is lively, spirit-filled, and whimsical.
In each service the person officiating is authentic—in his or her beliefs, fears, hopes, doubts, and joys. The officiant and preacher neither hide nor captialize on their emotions. Instead, emotions are present and acknowledged.
Pink Flamingos For Feast Days
ALl Saints’ is able to poke fun at itself and the institutional church. On major feast days the church lawn is graced with a flock of pink flamingos, usually arranged in a cross formation and inevitably led by a flamingo adorned as a bishop with a purple clergy shirt, a pectoral cross, and a white mitre. On high holy days, intead of a dry red wine the congregation uses champagne for Communion—the officiant pops the cork at the offertory. People who are new hear the unmistakable sound of the cork popping and turn toward the altar in astonishment. The champagne overflows the chalice, and every single person in the room knows that it is a holy feast.
The service with the second largest attendance, surpassed only by Easter, is the annual Feast of St. Francis Pet Blessing. Modeled after a similar service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, pets of all sizes are invited into the sanctuary for the main Sunday service, Ferrets, cockatoos, and retrievers sit, pant, and drool next to one another throughout the liturgy. The choir comes in with their cats under their arms or their dogs on leashes. Scripture readings are done pet in hand, and the rector’s dog is listed as the guest co-preacher. The coffee hour following the service features dog biscuits, kitty bonkers, and gerbil treats, as well as animal crackers and milk for the humans. Water bowls are distributed liberally throughout the sanctuary.
Games and Groceries
This is a congregation with a highly developed sense of ironly and play. Its members, most of whom are either GenX or Baby Boomers, have encountered God in a local congregation in spite of their best efforts to remain somewhat distrustful of the institutional church.
Whimsy aside, the congregation is clear in articulating and living out its beliefs. People at All Saints’ believe that the gospel is not worth a rat’s tail if it doesn’t change peoples’ lives. As a result, the members are committed to embodying God’s love for all people both in and outside the church’s walls. On Tuesdays the congregation hosts a community night featuring pizza, piano playing, and games for anyone in the surrounding area. Following the social time, bags of groceries from the pantry are available to any adult who needs assistance with food. Both congregation members and neighbors pack the bags. At the end of the evening thee is an equal chance that the personwho packed a bag will be eligible to take it home. On any given Tuesday night, more than 75 people gather to connect, do a good deed, and feed their families. It is this sort of involvement in community that the authors of the mainfesto invite readers to consider.
What Are We Passionate About?
In the United States today, people have countless ways to spend their time and money. Their time and money, however, are limited. As a result, people are becoming more and more selective—they want to know that with their limited resources they are making a difference. People who are suspicious of the institutional church want to know how the church will change their lives and how its existence and their participation will alter their community. They want to know how this huge institution will make a concrete difference in this place at this time. Will the church make my child’s life better? WIll it help make me a better person? Or will it just eat up my time on boring matters about which I do not care? The manifesto’s 23rd thesis says, “Companies attempting to ‘position’ themselves need to take a position. Optimally, it should relate to something their markets actually care about.”
For the last five years, the Protestant mainline denominations have made gay and lesbian issues a major whipping post for their anxieties. Human rights for all people are indeed important, but why has this topic received such enormous attention, by conservatives and liberals alike, to the near exclusion of other concerns? Why not world hunger? Why not hunger in the United States? Why not stewardship of our planet? Why have we not spent countless media hours bewailing the ecology of our planet or the poverty of our children, rather than arguing over how two consenting adults are allowed to love each other and make a public life together? The Protestant mainline denominations might have a stronger influence on the greater good if they reoriented their priorities and concerns.
The Cluetrain Manifesto is an interesting document—potentially a Reformation-making one. It is time for our institutional churches to step away from the ways we have done things in the past and discern what we are most passionate about at this moment. Then we need to deepen our roots in our communities. Having done that, we need to have some humor and humility as we introduce ourselves to those who may be interested in joining with us to create spirit-filled, dynamic, interactive communities who live out the gospel and change peoples’ lives.