Digital Parish: Season 3 review

Our television viewing habits have changed a lot over the past few decades, and so have our needs and models for ministry. This session of Pastoring in the Digital Parish shares some A-ha moments from this past season and begins to cast a picture of the future of ministry in the digital parish.

The Episode

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Show Notes 

Catch up with the conversation and give your thoughts about season 4 in the Pastoring in the Digital Parish Facebook Group.

 
  • PDP Season 3 finale

  • Intro:

    • This is Pastoring in the Digital Parish, your resource and connection for ministry in the digital realm.

    • My name is Ryan Dunn, I’m the host of this podcast.

    • This episode is wrapping up some of the learnings of season 3

    • Which culminates into realization that is actually, dare I say, nothing new

      • That’s right. We learned a lot during season 3… as we have through all of our previous season.

      • But what has been really enlightening is the way recent events have accelerated a shift in ministry that has been in motion for decades.

      • So in this session we’re going to talk about what that shift is… why we’ve been a bit slow to adapt… and what the shift means for the future role of the minister–especially the minister who is trying to connect communities in digital space.

    • Whether our primary area of ministry is digitally-based or not, we’re all admitting that there has been a shift towards a more digitally-based center of faith connection and formation.

      • The shift into a more digitally-based ministry is actually reflective of something else.

      • It’s reflective of a shift that’s been happening in the church for quite a long time

      • One that when I first entered professional ministry 20 years ago, we were already aware of but struggling in figuring out how to adapt.

  • In order to describe this shift, we’re going to look at how our TV viewing… or TV consuming habits… have changed over the past several decades.

    • Let’s go back about 40 years

      • When our TV’s weighed 100 pounds because they were all tubes and glass.

      • We had to twist dials to tune into our TV channels.

      • And half the clicks on those dials were nothing but static and white noise.

      • Really, we had 3-4 choices for original content.

        • There were 3 major networks: CBS, NBC, ABC

        • We might have a local option… or something on the UHF band.

        • But most of that UHF stuff was a reproduction of shows that had already aired on one of the big 3 networks.

      • So we just had our 3-4 channels… who were set up for synchronous consumption.

        • We had to tune in at a specific time on a specific device in order to receive that content.

        • If the show we wanted to watch was Diff’rent Strokes, we had to wait until 7PM on Saturday and turn on NBC in order to catch that show.

        • If we missed it, we had to wait until the following week to catch it. 

        • And who knows when we could catch that episode that we missed!

    • In the 1980’s, things changed a little bit. Cable broadcast began to take over.

      • This meant that instead of counting on aerial receivers to catch our broadcasts, we had stations piped right into our TV sets through a coaxial cable.

      • We still needed to watch at specific times and on specific devices,

      • But we had much more choice.

        • There were a lot more cable stations

        • And some of them started to get very specialized.

        • So my parents could watch news whenever they wanted on the all-news channel.

        • And I could sing along to A-ha’s “Take on Me” nearly all day every day thanks to the all music video station.

        • Audiences were becoming much more niche.

    • About this time, VCR’s became household items, as well.

      • So we were a little less time-bound

      • And a little less device specific–our content became somewhat portable.

      • As long as we could figure out how to program our VCR’s to not only display the correct time, but then to turn on the record function at the designated.

      • And, hopefully, we had a tape that was appropriate… and we weren’t taping over our sister’s piano recital… ANYWAYS…

    • Even up to this point, though, TV engagement was tied to a time and place.

      • If you’re of a certain, distinguished age, you’ll remember NBC’s Must See TV.

      • That was their description of Thursday programming for most of the 80’s and 90’s.

      • I’ll bet you can even name the NBC Thursday Night Must See TV line-up from it’s hey in the mid-80’s.

        • Cosby Show

        • In the mid-80’s, that was follow by Family Ties

        • Then Cheers

        • Then Night Court!

        • Then shifting gears to a long-standing drama like Hillstreet Blues, LA Law… or eventually ER.

      • If you were to watch these shows, your rear was on the couch at the primetime hour.

      • I wonder if prime time is even really still a thing. 

        • I’m struggling to name any big prime time shows right now.

        • I feel like Big Bang Theory may have been the last of it’s kind.

        • I suppose now there’s Young Sheldon… but what else is carrying the prime time hours?

        • I don’t know… because my TV viewing habits have wildly changed… much like your’s, I’m sure.

    • ANYWAYS, continuing our timeline… in the 2000’s came streaming.

      • And things got crazy.

      • Because we now had the power to decide the what, the when and the where of TV consumption.

      • TV is not something that happens in a specific place at a specific time now.

      • TV is relative to the individual… free of the bonds of time or location.

      • I will decide what I want to watch, when I want to watch it, and where I want to watch it… thank you very much.

  • Church is not TV.

    • It is not something we consume in the way we consume TV content.

    • Church is community, right? It is people.

    • We’ve been reminding ourselves of this fact in church-world for a long time.

    • But there have been aspects of our communal operation in which we behave much like the TV programmers of old.

      • In this mindset, we are very bound by time and space.

      • The central practices of our community draw people into connection at a specific time and a specific place.

        • In many churches, let’s face it, that central community program is a weekend worship service.

        • Sometimes we hear churches claiming it is a small group gathering.

        • By and large, however, it still boils down to the worship event for most faith communities.

      • We’ve been doing it this way for decades, right?

    • Of course, then pandemic hit.

      • And one of the crises we faced in the church was a crisis of model.

      • Since we often modeled our community life into drawing people together in time and space.

        • We had the Must See TV, Primetime television model.

        • But it’s like this cat burglar called COVID stole the TV sets and couches out of everyone’s houses.

        • Our ability to observe time and space together was gone, right?

        • We sought a new model in its place… and this “new” model was really a model that we were well aware of and had been slowly, slowly wandering towards for several years..

    • I talked about a shift that we noticed in church practice 20 years ago without specifically mentioning what that shift was.

      • At the time, in the churches I worked in, we were becoming aware that our community life in church was very much driven by programs.

      • We hosted a program-driven ministry.

        • That means that when we thought about what we did as a faith community, we thought in terms of events and programs.

        • If we wanted to do evangelism, we put on an event that we would invite people to.

        • If we were trying to get people into small groups, we would do a kick off event.

        • If we were focusing on discipleship or accountability, then the ministry leaders would devise a program that usually involved drawing people together in specific places at specific times.

        • Sound familiar?

      • The shift we were aware of but not sure how to adapt to was a shift from a program focus to a relationship focus.

        • We knew people were hungering for the relationship without the program.

        • But in our churches we were designed to focus on programming, so we struggled with how to facilitate relationships in our communities without leaning more into programming.

        • And some new ideas came out of this whole movement.

          • Movements like Dinner Church and many Fresh Expressions models.

          • Small groups were becoming increasingly important.

          • Anything that displaced the center of church community from the sanctuary or classroom and to another location–like a home or coffee shop or… gym… they all captured imagination.

      • So this was one of the big shifts we were facing when the pandemic hit: people longed for more relationships but less programming.

        • And then, of course, the pandemic took away our programming.

          • We were no longer about being in a specific time and place.

          • And, this was fascinating to me: Even when we did events online, these events were often assembled asynchronously.

            • In our worship experiences, the pastor recorded a sermon segment.

            • The worship leader recorded special music.

            • An exhorter or announcements person recorded a welcoming segment.

            • Then someone assembled all these independently produced segments into a unified experience.

            • But it was months before we saw most churches try to do a live experience.

            • Instead, the worship experience said:

              • “We’re going to be welcomed into our lay leaders’ living room and she’s going to provide a lens or mindset for how we can engage with the content which is about to be presented”

              • Then we went to the music director’s spare bedroom where we were invited to engage with song and contemplate.

              • Then we went to the children’s director’s kitchen table for scripture reading.

              • Then to senior pastor’s home office for a reflective sermon.

          • We were ushered from virtual space to virtual space for stand-alone pieces of content. 

          • I think that’s fascinating, because often the center of religious experience was relocated from formal space into personal living space.

            • That’s a telling aspect about the future of ministry.

            • It’s also telling, though, that these different elements of worship came across time.

              • They were not privileged to a specific time.

              • Really that means that people were sharing the same experience no matter time they engaged with the content presented.

            • The fact that these elements were so often pre-recorded lent towards that feeling of displaced time. No one was sharing in the live experience so no one was missing out on the live experience.

        • Just as streaming has displaced must-see TV primetime viewing…

        • The network TV model of content distribution and engagement mirrored in our churches was effectively killed by the COVID experience.

        • And now, as we’ve eased away from quarantines and social distancing, we’re still finding that people are not warm to the older models of programming that are tied to a specific place and time.

          • In TV viewing, as people have been exposed to the freedom of streaming, they have no urge to retreat back to the days of Thursday Night Must See TV.

          • And as our post-pandemic participation numbers in programs have not neared our pre-pandemic numbers, we’re witnessing that people are unwilling to go back to a program-centric model of faith community.

            • This doesn’t mean they’re not spiritually hungry.

            • As people of faith, we know that there’s a Divinely imprinted hunger there, right?

            • But we are seeing that people are looking for different ways to engage spiritually… something that exists outside of a programmatic model.

  • Alright, so what is the new model?

    • One might say that it’s all of it.

    • It’s asynchronous events and programs.

    • It’s relationships fostered outside of time.

    • It’s both and

    • Or we might say that we don’t know.

    • We’re still figuring it out.

    • I think one thing we infer is that new models will be somewhat individually tailored.

    • And that one faith community does not encompass one’s entire faith experience.

      • So NBC dominated Thursday nights in the 80’s–you watched the whole slate of shows on one channel.

      • But today’s Thursday night viewer is going to catch their latest episode on HBO Max, then cruise to see what’s new Netflix… and watch part of an episode that night and put the rest on pause for the next night.

    • OK, I think my television analogy is starting to break down, but you get the final idea: there’s a lot more “consumer choice” in today’s digitally-driven marketplace of spiritual ideas.

  • And this is where I’d like us to remember back to the conversation we had with Dr. Jeffrey Mahan during this season of Pastoring in the Digital Parish.

    • Dr. Mahan shared with us the arising model through which people are creating or forming personal meaning.

    • Our new models of meaning-making mirror our space of widened consumer possibilities.

    • So an individual is much less likely today to ascribe to one singular system of meaning making.

    • Instead, they’re much more likely to take bits and pieces of many systems and integrate into something that makes sense to them.

      • So it’s not uncommon to find a Christian who often engages in Buddhist meditation practices.

      • Or another who loves the writings of Rumi and peruses them regularly for meaning making.

      • Or a parishioner who is a metho-costal-palian because they find meaning in all these various traditions.

    • This suggests that ministers in the new ministry landscape are becoming more mentor/guides then they are as direct conduits for traditional meaning.

      • Dr. Mahan suggested that ministers will do well to shift from a mindset of saying: I’m going to help you be Methodist… nor Baptist… or Lutheran

      • To adapting a mindset that says: “I’m influenced by Methodist thought… or Episcopalian, Anabaptist… Latvian Orthodox… whatever your tradition is… I’m influenced by this tradition and here’s a resource that has been meaningful in my own meaning-making.

      • So we, as ministers, become witnesses to our own journeys of faith formation.

      • IN a big sense, we are influencers.

        • And if we think about what social media influencers do… they act as living advertisements (for a lack of a better word) for the items and ideas that impact them.

        • The ministerial role of the future is to be an influencer for the sake of Christ by bearing witness to the items, content, practices and ideas that influence our own lives. 

        • Of course, we do this most openly by embracing the opportunities of being present and available to people through digital spaces.

      • And that means the future minister will be a digital storyteller, willing to share their own faith experiences on the digital media.

  • And that’s where our conversations with Nicole Reilley, Chris Wilterdink and Nathan Webb become important.

    • Because they all touched base on aspects of being a ministerial presence in digital space.

    • Once upon a time, it was the role of a communications person to represent our faith community online.

      • The communications person might have built the church website

      • And created a church Facebook page.

      • Then populated those spaces with communications about the church.

    • If we’re going to lean into the new model of meaning-making and recognize that a lot of that meaning is created through digital means, then it’s imperative that we view digital space not just as a communications venue, but as a ministry area.

    • That means we’ll entertain ideas of how we extend ourselves as pastoral presences in digital space.

    • Chris and Nathan helped us recognize ways we can do that responsibly and with boundaries, as Nathan shared his online ministry’s guidelines for safe boundaries and Chris shared how we safely relate to youth in digital space.

    • And Rev. Nicole Reilley talked about being that pastoral presence even when you’re the senior pastor or solo pastor of a church.

      • This is a pressure point.

      • Because we can easily let this devolve into a situation where we are being pulled into a multi-campus ministry… where we have the in-person congregation and a digital congregation. 

      • In some ways we can sidestep this by allowing the digital area to be the way in which we spend time in our congregation.

        • So it becomes the third space replacing the coffee where we used to hang out in order to meet parishoners and the community.

        • It’s also a space where we can meet a whole different group of people that we might never connect with through programmatic ministry.

  • We heard at least two tales of that happening this past season. 

    • In both cases, pastors started doing a form of ministry online because it was something through which they could express their own creative passions.

    • One of those pastors was Brad Laurvick. 

      • Rev. Brad has built a ministry reaching thousands through TikTok.

      • He has a passion for puppetry. And, obviously, a talent for pastoral care.

      • So he utilizes his puppets on a TikTok channel to speak words of pastoral care and encouragement.

      • And people tune in by the thousands to his weekly live segments. 

      • He’s doing this as a creative expression of ministry, supported by his congregation, but not necessarily as an extension of it.

      • This is a niche ministry. 

        • It is a ministry built for a specific segment of people.

        • In this case, young people on TikTok who are at risk, in crisis, or spiritual seeking. 

    • Another pastor expressing something new in digital space we heard from is Mark Lutz of Lux Digital Church.

      • Mark started the community because he was building connections with gamers over digital meeting spaces.

      • He was doing this while he was running ministry in a local church.

    • So these pastors were both working in a bit of a split campus scenario, but in a way that was life-giving to them… partially because they were creatively expressing themselves and ministering to a segment or demographic that was not a part of their church demographic.

    • That’s a witness that many of the communities built in digital space are niche communities… meaning they’re very specific in regards to what they’re about.

      • And this builds on some ideas we’ve come across in previous seasons.

      • Where we heard this idea that well-articulated boundaries led to intimacy in online groups.

      • And where a clear articulation of values and mission really served as a campfire around which people are willing to connect.

        • Specifically, I’m thinking of our session with Steven Adair where he shared about the growth of his congregation, Glendale UMC.

        • Glendale’s social media presence dares to speak on some controversial subjects.

          • And yes, that turns some people off.

          • But it also connects heavily with like-minded folx who are willing to say “this is my kind of community.”

    • Our digital communities are not going to be as broadly connected as our in-person communities formerly were.

      • They’re going to be more interest-based.

      • This is for better or for worse.

      • But it’s a reality of the user-choice, consumer-driven aspect of digital space.

      • Our online communities are not going to all things for all people.

      • That said, the church is for all people… but our online expressions in ministry are going to be more niche than the Church universal.

      • To connect with people online we’ll need to take the step to be definite about who we’re trying to reach and what our boundaries are.

      • It seems the more focused we are, the more likely we are to connect with our target community. 

      • Define your niche… whether be Jane Austen fans or opponents of capital punishment or Jane Austen fans who oppose capital punishment. 

      • Drill down to your niche. Everyone is welcome. But you’re not trying to reach everyone online… because you can’t

  • That wraps up my big, big learnings from season three. 

    • They all really have to do with the future role of the minister… especially as it relates to digital space.

    • First, we’re going to assume the role of mentor-guides and influencers, offering testimonies of the practices and ideas that help us make our own meaning.

    • Secondly, digital presence is going to be less about communications and more about pastoral presence.

    • And thirdly, the future is niche.

  • What about you?

    • Did you have an A-Ha moment this season?

    • We’re talking away on our Facebook group, Pastoring in the Digital Parish.

    • I don’t know what I’m to say to close us out, I’ll say it anyway.

    • Shying away for this season.

    • We’re going to TAKE ON (me) a little break over the next several weeks.

    • I’ll be gone to an annual conference or two through the summer months.

    • So needless to say we’ll revamp and get to work on season 4 of Pastoring in th Digital Parish.

    • But I’ll be stumbling away and waiting for your feedback, questions and ideas on our Facebook Group.

    • Extra points if you include the lyrics to A-ha’s Take on Me… as I’ve been doing… so sorry.

    • Slowly learning that life is OK.

    • Comment away, knowing it’s no better to be safe than sorry.

    • Thanks to ResourceUMC for making all this possible.

    • I’m Ryan Dunn, it’s my pleasure to share this time with you and I’m so grateful that I get to explore all these topics. 

    • I’ll be coming for you anyway… in another season in a couple months.

    • In the meantime… I’ll be gone.

    • I’ll show myself out.

 

 

 

 

 

On this episode

Ryan Dunn, co-host and producer of the Compass Podcast

Our proctor/host is the Rev. Ryan Dunn, a Minister of Online Engagement for United Methodist Communications. Ryan manages the digital brand presence of Rethink Church, co-hosts and produces the Compass Podcast, manages his personal brand, and obsesses with finding ways to offer new expression of grace.