Where the People Are
By Rev. Robert Lamborn
It’s said that when Al Capone was asked why he robbed banks, he responded, “That’s where the money is!” Although I am not an “early adopter” of the latest technology, and my social media profile is relatively modest, I have been very interested in growing the church’s internet presence because that’s where the people are an increasing number of hours per day.
With this in mind I was blessed earlier this month to attend the e-Formation Conference at Virginia Theological Seminary, Alexandria, VA. I would estimate more than 200 people were there—clergy, Christian educators, and other parish leaders. The days of the conference were chock-full of helpful workshops of an hour and a half each, interspersed with 15-minute breaks. Trying to take in all the information was like drinking from a firehose! Yet I gleaned much of value and look forward to sharing it with different people at St. James the Less.
What I would call the first-generation use of the internet by churches has been for publicity. We set up parish websites to announce our services and events, to help people get to know our ministries, our staff members, and our lay leaders. While this is a well-established use of the internet, there are relatively simple ways to raise our visibility on search engines like Google and to configure our web presence to reach out to people with questions about life’s deepest questions.
A second-generation use of the internet involves content—putting material on the website not just to direct people to events at the church but for people to learn and grow from. Blogs are one type of vehicle. Posting Sunday sermons on our webpage (did you know they are there?) is a modest step in this direction, and I would like to see us grow significantly in this area.
It is a third generation use of the internet that I believe holds the most radical promise for churches. This is to integrate with and extend in-person offerings at the church. So links to online activities can be provided to the families of Sunday School students to complete together during the week. Parish youth can watch quality videos on matters of the faith on their own time, then come together as a group to discuss the issues with each other and their leaders. Periodic inter-generational parish gatherings can be supplemented with materials keyed to the different age groups in the parish, all focused on the same Bible story or theme in age-appropriate ways. And through social media tools, engagement with these materials can become interactive rather than one-way.
For me, church involvement on the internet will not become a replacement for face-to-face encounters with our flesh-and-blood sisters and brothers in Christ regularly gathered to worship and study, to care and to share. But I do believe that Christian life on the internet can enrich our learning and encourage us toward in-person participation and spiritual encounters that deepen our relationships with God and with one another.
Let me reiterate, from my June 24 letter to the parish, my deep gratitude to the people, lay leaders, and staff of St. James the Less for the ministry we have shared since February of this year. My last day here will be Sunday, August 9th, and if you are in town I hope I will see you then. We will be moving as a family the following week to Sewanee, Tennessee, where I will begin work as Rector of Otey Memorial Parish later in the month. It has been a joy and a privilege to serve God with you for these last six months!