Private and public: where is the line? – Huron Church News February 2018

There is a very fine line between public and private and on Social Media which can be razor thin. Many of us have signed up for Facebook, Twitter or other platforms as private individuals. The terms of service of those platforms also clearly articulate that the content we post and the individual user controls who has accesses to that content.

However, when social media is used for professional purposes, the line between personal and professional can be blurred. When using “private” accounts to promote the churches and institutions to which we belong, that which may have been considered private becomes public. Once that line has been crossed, we cease to be private individuals expressing opinions. Our private opinions and accounts become extensions of the church or institution that we represent — for good or for ill.

Many professional clergy and church leaders use personal accounts to help further the overall reach of church’s message. It is a great way of living the Great Commission and being a visible sign of Christ. And I would encourage people to continue to live as outward visible signs of God’s reconciliation with the world. But acting this way also needs to come with a caution.

If you use your personal account for church business – or any business for that matter – – actions in your personal life can have consequences for the church or institution you represent. You cease to be just an individual, but a representative. This is important to keep in mind when you delete, censor, debate or silence comments you don’t like.

If you blend your personal and public lives, your actions no longer just represent you, but they represent your specific parish and the church in general. It is always best to take a step back from the keyboard or device before posting something in the heat of the moment and ask how your words reflect the church. Am I living and posting in a way that reflects the image of Christ? Is the Kingdom of God served by this tweet or comment?

As we head towards the season of Lent, now more than ever is a good time to reflect upon our social media practices, how we engage with colleagues, parishioners and the wider world.

Video? You never know how far it might spread! – Huron Church News January 2018

Recently Forest Hill South Park Church posted a video on their YouTube and Facebook pages. It can be found here.

The video is titled “Gratitude.” In it we are challenged to change our perspective this Christmas and give thanks for the big and little things in our everyday life. It is a little campy in places, but the message is clear: in life we have much to be grateful for, so celebrate those gifts.

The video is not a Hollywood production, with paid actors, set design or sound technicians. Its acting is cheesy and over the top. And it is clearly shot with everyday recording equipment. And yet, it’s message has struck a chord and it has been viewed over 7.4 million times!

Forest Hill South Park invested a little in recording equipment, many hours editing, lots of tape and wrapping paper and some playful energy and produced this video. I am sure they had no idea at the time it would go viral.

Video as part of a communication strategy is an underutilized tool in many churches. Yet it is a tool that reaches across all generations and easily accessible through Facebook and YouTube.

So whether it is your next youth group meeting, parish council or even wardens meeting, toss a few ideas out, grab your IPhone or camcorder, play around with iMovie and start using video to tell the story of your church. The video could be a parody (instead of All about The Bass, how about All about The Grace), a recap of an event, an introduction to your community for seekers or just a little bit of fun. You never know how far it might spread.

Create your own sermon teaser – Huron Church News December 2017

If you are like me, December 15th is blocked off on your calendar. The latest trailer in the Star Wars franchise from George Lucas was just released and to see Luke Skywalker standing in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon once again sent shivers down my spine. To say I am excited for December 15th would be an understatement.

The trailer is a means for Hollywood to generate excitement for upcoming movies. This is known as a teaser. Show just enough without giving the story or the ending away to encourage people to stand in line to see the movie at midnight on opening day.

This tactic is not just reserved for Hollywood. Silicon Valley makes great use of the teaser whenever a new product is to be released. And video game producers have jumped headlong into producing trailers for upcoming video games.

The premise is simple. Release just enough to tease and leave people wanting more. And the premise can be applied to sermons.

The sermon teaser is nothing new. Megachurches often tease their upcoming sermon series to get people interested and committed. The sermon teaser is not just for sermon series though, but can also be used for special sermons, feast days and can even be used weekly, although I tend to use it sparingly.

The idea is put out just enough of your sermon to Facebook or Twitter to get your followers interested. It is picking one idea, putting put it out there and leaving your followers wanting more. I often use what I think may be the most controversial line in the sermon to generate interest and drive traffic to the church’s front door.

For example, I would post, “It is the tragedy of the earthly city, the world around us, that we, the baptized, have been sent to perform the comedy of redemption.” Want to hear more? See you at All Saints’ on Sunday morning at 8:00 and 10:00 am.

One line is all that is needed to pique the curiosity of your followers and parishioners; one line to intrigue people to come to church; one line leaving them wanting more. The only restriction is that your sermon needs to be finished before Saturday night.

Looking for a better review of your church? You need Yelp! – Huron Church News November 2017

At the recent clergy conference in Niagara Falls, the guest speaker Nadia Bolz Weber spoke about the distrust of institutions that is prevalent among Millennials.

She proposed that the locus of authority has shifted from institutions, like the church, to individuals. As such, individual opinions and reviews can have a bigger and greater impact than any institutional message. This is why Yelp reviews, according to Nadia, are key to the Great Commission and church growth.

While I was a little distressed to learn many in the room didn’t know what Yelp was, her talk was an insightful way to consider the church’s role in a society where the Internet has democratized authority.

Gone are the days when we can control branding and messaging through advertising alone. Now anyone can leave a review of your church on social media channels or review sites such as Yelp and drive seekers to – or from – you.

This new locus of authority means that before stepping into your church, potential newcomers will Google you and read the reviews, if there are any. Having none is better than having negative reviews, but it may also indicate an inactive community and does little to encourage seekers to visit.

Who can leave a review of your church on Google, Facebook and Yelp? Anyone, including you. You are, after all, the biggest cheerleader or evangelist for your own church. Taking the few minutes to rate your church on Facebook, Google and Yelp and leaving a few comments about you like and find interesting can go a long way to encourage a seeker to take that next step and give you a try on a Sunday morning.

We no longer have to wait for the institution to provide the new marketing campaigns or billboard ads. The power to reach the locus of authority is now in your hands and on your keyboards. Take a few minutes, write a review and live the Great Commission.

Cloud Based Note Keeping, Huron Church News October 2017

I have a habit that may horrify some of you, and to which others will relate. I write in, dog ear, and highlight my books with complete abandon. Whenever I find a good quote, illustration or sermon idea, I keep a note of it. Then, months later when I want to reference those notes, I find myself staring at a bookshelf full of equally marked up books trying to remember which book holds that one quote that would bring out the Gospel message on a particular Sunday.

To combat my office floor from being littered with books every time I desperately try to remember that one specific sermon quote or illustration I have adopted cloud-based notekeeping. Evernote is my platform of choice, but Google Keep, and One Note are also great options and provide similar functionality.

Evernote is a cloud-based cross-platform application. It syncs across multiple devices so I can take notes on my phone or tablet and access them later from my laptop. I can create a text note, an audio note or even snap a quick picture. I can include attachments to my notes and even can set a reminder to alert me when the note might be relevant. Say, the beginning of Easter, or before the sale ends on the item I just snapped in a store.

Being able to store and search my notes easily gives me the freedom to take notes wherever and whenever I want without worrying about losing them or remembering to look them up when necessary. And, since my notes are on the cloud, I can share them with people; from sharing service ideas with clergy colleagues, to a shopping list with my wife. As much as I love post-its, they just can’t compare.

Evernote certainly hasn’t stopped me from marking up my books, but it has helped me organize my thoughts, sermon illustrations and seasonal ideas in a quick searchable notes that I can quickly access wherever I am. And most importantly, it has helped me avoid stubbing my toes and tripping over yet another pile of books in my office.

Tips on how to garden your website, Huron Church News April 2017

Throughout this series, I’ve written in detail about how your website is often the first and sometimes the only impression a church gets to make.

But websites are like gardens, they must be regularly tended and updated or else they get overgrown and unappealing. So it’s important to take stock every now and then.

Here are a quick five things you can do to ‘audit’ your website to keep it fresh and well weeded.

Keep the pages well structured. Common elements such as headers, footers, sidebars and menu items should be consistent on every page. Your home page can be an exception to this rule, but a visitor must be able to find their way around.

Keep the text short and well structured. I try to remove 50% of the words from my first draft. Readers disengage if they have to read too much to find your point or have to wade through too much jargon. Your website is your first point of contact with those un-churched. Words like Eucharist, Compline and BCP and BAS have deep meaning to those inside the church, but to many, it is confusing jargon.

People tend to scan when they read online. Break up your text into short sentences and paragraphs. Make liberal use of bullet points and headers and include an image every 250 words to keep people engaged and illustrate your point.

The menu should be short and concise. If you need more than 7 items, consider sub-menus so visitors can quickly find what they are looking for.

Have a clear and distinct call-to-action that drives visitors to fulfil the goal of your site. If you don’t know the goal of your website, now is a good time to think about it. For a church community, you likely want to increase attendance at your weekly services, solicit donations for your ministry, recruit volunteers, or collect contact information for potential members. Once you have identified your goal, your website needs to make it simple and easy for visitors to do it. A large “register for our newsletter” button or “newcomer information” page may suit your needs. Just make sure to keep it clear and concise.

Make your website accessible. You want your website to reach as many people as possible, so make sure it can be read with different devices and browsers. There is now more mobile traffic than desktop traffic so your website should be mobile-friendly at the very least. Ideally, you should also consider users using accessibility software such as screen readers for those who are colour blind.

These simple five tips can be used when designing your new website or auditing your existing site. If you discover your site needs a little work, don’t worry; even the healthiest garden is never maintenance-free. But by knowing what needs to be done and keeping on top of your content, layout, and goals, your site will help your community fulfil the Great Commission and make that first point of contact memorable, in a good way.

Email – central to your parish’s communications strategy, Huron Church News March 2017

Email is King. All hail the king!

I know that sounds flippant, but in P2P communication no platform has yet managed to supplant email. As popular as Facebook and Twitter have become, the largest P2P communication channel remains email.

In 2015, 205 billion emails, on average, were sent each day. Meanwhile, only 23 billion text messages are sent each day, 500 million Tweets and 55 million status updates are created on Facebook. The numbers are staggering, I know. Yet, the volume of emails dwarfs all others players in the field.

The power of email cannot be understated. While some people may resist signing up to Facebook or Twitter, or undertake a Lenten fast from social media, the one channel that even the latest adopters usually have is email. This means email is central to any parish’s communication strategy.

My current favourite application to help with email and parish ministry is MailChimp. The Forever Free plan at Mailchimp allows for up to 2000 subscribers and 12,000 emails to be sent each month free of charge. The multiple list feature allows for different communications to reach different audiences. Customizable templates can be updated with a parish logo, pictures and text, or, with a little HTML knowledge, you can create your own.

Regular communications like announcements and newsletters can be created easily and unexpected messages such as obituaries and emergency announcements can be quickly shared with the entire community or just a small group. MailChimp can also be integrated with tools such as Facebook, WordPress, Raiser’s Edge and more.

This free platform allows churches to use email to build community and fellowship and keep in touch with those that may otherwise only connect a few times a year. By having the entire parish list only a click away, communities are able to come together in times of crisis and share the Good News of God’s Spirit working in the world.

You can read more about how MailChimp can help manage your church communications by reading their guide for nonprofits here:

Too many friends? Know your limit! Huron Church News February 2017

Recently, I saw a news post on my Facebook feed and I realized I couldn’t remember who the ‘friend’ who posted it was. Obviously, not one of my closest friendships. With upwards of 1100 friends on Facebook I find it difficult to maintain all these relationships and keep straight who is who.

This got me thinking about the 150 rule, or Dunbar’s number.

Dunbar’s number is the suggested limit to the number of people with whom it is possible to maintain stable social relationships. Within a group that does not exceed this number, you know who each person is and how each person relates to all others within the group. Robert Dunbar, the British anthropologist, first proposed this number in the 1990s.

The 150 rule wasn’t exactly new though. Hutterites, a Christian farming sect related to Mennonites, create new daughter colonies when the original colony surpasses 150 people. The communal lifestyle of the Hutterites becomes endangered as the size of the group grows. Relationships drift and a sense of accountability to the collective is lost. A colony, at its absolute maximum, may have up to 250 people. Once that upward threshold is reached, 10 to 20 families leave the colony to plant a new community, leaving 150 people in the original colony. Hutterites have been engaging in this practice since 16th century.

The same principle is also true for our worshipping communities. Once membership reaches 150, social connections begin to break down and familiarity is lost. There is a certain magic about small churches. They have that family feel of knowing everyone and belonging which comes from not exceeding Dunbar’s number.

Social media lowers the bar for ‘maintaining’ relationships which allows us expand our network well past Dunbar’s number. This is both good and bad. Social media allows us to reconnect with people we have lost contact with, and maintain connections that might otherwise drift or dissolve. However, as the Hutterites have known for centuries, it can be extremely difficult to keep so many relationships in order, no matter the medium. While it is nice to reconnect with that high school friend initially, it may become more draining than it is worth.

Recently, I found Facebook becoming too much. Overwhelmed with messages from people that I was having difficulty placing, I decided that something had to be done. I found myself going through my friends list and realized I didn’t know who many of my ‘friends’ were. I could easily have gone on the great Facebook cull of 2017 and un-friended 500 people. Yet I had made these connections because I had, at some point, thought they would be worthwhile so I was hesitant to throw it all away.

Facebook allows you to ‘tune’ your feed so you can see only what you want. You can unfollow someone while remaining friends, or make sure close connections are surfaced at the top of your feed. This feature has allowed me to de-clutter my Facebook, while maintaining all the loose connections I want. My news feed now only contains those relationships I want to strengthen, and allows the others to become acquaintances: people to which I am available, but not overwhelmed by. And while I am nowhere close to Dunbar’s number, the noise has diminished and my news feed is much more manageable.

As we come closer to Lent, maybe it is the time to de-clutter your Facebook as well. Instead of a social media hiatus for 40 days, those 40 days can be spent de-cluttering. Prioritize those relationships that are important. As much as we all want to be liked, nobody can be friends with everyone, or, as it turns out, more than about 150 people.

Don’t push content upon your followers but interact with them, Huron Church News January 2017

The road to Emmaus is one of the best biblical accounts of how social media works.

I find it striking that in this 2000-year-old account of a resurrection appearance of Jesus Christ we have the very fundamentals of social media. But then again should I be surprised? The Gospel is, after all, always astonishing.

In this passage, Jesus appears to the disciples, although they do not yet know who he is. He walks with them along the long and dusty road. He comes into relationship with them. Jesus dialogues with them and lets them open up to him about themselves and what has just transpired in Jerusalem. Jesus does not force the conversation or push “content” upon them. Instead he builds a relationship.

After a time, once a relationship has been established, Jesus continues to dialogue with them, but he also begins to offer His own content. He opens their minds to scriptures. This is tricky of course, because this is the moment when we would want to push more content on people, but Jesus demonstrates that the time is not yet right. Instead, He focuses on building the relationship, understanding a subject (namely the scriptures), and walking with his disciples.

On the road to Emmaus, Jesus demonstrates something fundamentally important about relationship building that we lose at times in social media. We push content on the web: posts, blogs, sermons, images, tweets, etc. We push content in the hopes of gaining new followers and new “likes”. We purchase ads to further our reach and further the reach of our communities. But by doing so we can forget what Jesus talked about so long ago, and that is to come into relationship with people.

Pushing content seems natural to us. Having something new on our Facebook pages and websites seems critically important in a world increasingly based on consumption. Yet, I think that on that long and dusty road, Jesus demonstrates that instead of consuming, we ought to be coming into relationship with one another.

So while content is important, so also is it important to stop, engage and interact with those that like, comment, or share our posts. Take time in your day to read what others share on their social networks and work on building relationships. Enter into dialogue, discuss, and get to know one another.

In today’s media savvy world, it is critical to not only use social media tools, but to use them effectively. Social media is just that: social. Effective use requires two-way dialogue and engagement. And remember we count success not in number of likes, dollars on the plate or even growth. Success is best measured in spreading of the Gospel message and coming into real relationship with those we encounter.

Encouraging Tech Ed while protecting and guiding our kids, Huron Church News December 2016

Youth spend much of their time online and with their eyes firmly affixed to a screen and with the growing importance of tech in education, social circles and professional demands, it’s unlikely that will change anytime soon. When was the last time your teenager actually used a phone to call someone?

Knowing these realities, how can we encourage the positive aspects of the digital world while still protecting and guiding our kids? Especially as the family computer in the living room disappears and is replaced by private devices that can be difficult to monitor or control?

It is important to note that the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) in the United States prohibits sites from collecting information from or making available information about users under the age of 13. Since many of the most popular social networks are based in the U.S., these sites cannot legally allow those under 13 to open accounts. Either you or your child would have to lie, and I wouldn’t recommend that approach. (Ex 20:16)

Some sites, such as YouTube and Whatsapp have older age requirements to create an account (18 and 16 years old respectively) and some are more proactive about enforcing the restrictions than others. In many cases, it is very easy for a child to lie about their age. Aside from legal restrictions, many sites have mature content and the age restrictions should be considered when deciding if having an account on a given service is appropriate.

Beyond basic age restrictions, here are a few strategies to help you and your kids navigate the digital world safely and confidently.

  • Before signing up for any site, both parents and kids should understand how the platform works, how data is stored and shared, what privacy settings are available, and what kind of communication is possible.

  • Establish usage guidelines. Be clear about what kind of use is acceptable – including the kind of communication, communication partners, what kind of personal information can be shared, and the frequency or time of day that access is permitted.

  • Be aware of who your kids are communicating with and what kind of content they are viewing.

  • Trust but verify. Many parents require knowing account passwords or to be given access when requested as a condition for use of certain applications or sites. This requires a lot of two-way trust but it can be a good way to keep your kids accountable and ensure that you can check on them if you absolutely need to.

  • The digital world offers amazing opportunity to connect with friends, learn and share ideas and share our lives with others. As we read in Proverbs (20:6), “Start children off on the way they should go, even when they are old they will not turn from it.” A secure safe foundation for our kids will help develop technical skills and the confidence to navigate the digital world.