Purpose, Achievement, Measurement

Yesterday was Social Media Sunday in the Episcopal Church.  So, with about half my Facebook friends list being made up of various Anglican clergy around the world, and a significant chunk of those being ordained Episcopalians, my newsfeed for the last few weeks in the run-up was sprinkled with all kinds of stuff in anticipation of the great event.  There were announcements about workshops on what churches might do for Social Media Sunday, all kinds of recommendations of what to do (Take a Selfie in Church! Live Tweet the Sermon!  Make a Video of the Congregation Singing Hymns!), and the appropriate places to which one might link all of this, so that others might see what is going on in your church.

Loads of recommendations for things to do and venues to make it known.  But the rationale for it was, in the most generous terms possible, thin.  And ways of assessing what had been accomplished were almost non-existent.

There is, I’ve noticed, in Christian circles, a lot of talk about mission (what is supposed to be done), and vocation (who is supposed to do what). But I don’t see that there is a great deal of talk about purpose (why this needs doing), achievement (what is supposed to happen as a result of all this doing), or measurement (how we are supposed to know if we are doing the right thing, or doing it well).

My guess is that for most Christians, purpose seems self-evident:  if we say we are doing something for the church, it must be a good thing and not in need of much examination.  And just the fact that we are doing something “for Christ” is all the rationale necessary.  (I beg to differ.  There were these things called Crusades and the Inquisition). And to ask for achievement to be measured in any identifiable way brings one as close to committing heresy as a 21st century Episcopalian might hope to come.  The measure seems to be “if even one person/congregation is helped [helped not being particularly well defined], it will have been worthwhile”.  That, to me, seems a bit close to what happens on the Jerry Springer show.  I get my time in the spotlight, and if one person comes to church, one  congregation gets an idea, all the hype–and the cost in time and money of clergy and lay leaders going to workshops, and putting a lot of energy into promoting this–is justified.

It hardly seems an appropriate hijacking the Sunday closest to the feast of Sts Peter and Paul. Those great early Christian martyrs were first and foremost evangelists, spreading the gospel through whatever means available to them in their day (mostly, as a seminary professor once used to joke, “travel by shipwreck”). And that’s what we are doing too, in our own time with the resources available to us. Or, at least, that was the reason given to designate this particular instance of the Lord’s Day as Social Media Sunday.

Except, let’s look more closely at it. Because closer examination raises uncomfortable questions.

What, really was the point?  Certainly, the ACNS article is not convincing as far as the idea that Social Media Sunday had a thing to do with reaching people who do not normally come to church, or have never “heard the Good News.”  It had to do with a narrow band of (primarily) US-based Christians connecting with each other and seeing what other churches in their denomination were up to on a Sunday morning.

If there was a moment’s thought given to “evangelization” in this, to reaching those outside the churches who might possibly be persuaded to explore the Episcopal Church as a spiritual base-of-operations (I hate the term “church home“), it would have been apparent that Sunday is not the day of the week to do it, and pictures of worship (not really interesting to anyone who does not already worship, except perhaps cultural anthropologists whose specialization is ritual studies) will not be much of a draw.

The two women whose brainchild this was had the intention that Social Media Sunday would “go viral”, and encouraged Episcopalians to make that happen.  How silly.  Something “goes viral” because it interests, amuses, delights, or shocks people beyond its immediate participants–mostly because it is unexpected.  The video of the orchestra flash mob in Sabadell “went viral” because it was a thing of great beauty that demanded to be shared on a number of levels. The chain reaction of putting a coin in a street musician’s hat that led to the performance of one of the great works of western art music. That same great work of music being performed in a somewhat unconventional venue and manner.  The reaction of a child to beauty beyond words and understanding. The refreshment experienced by adult passers-by getting this infusion of near-divinity in the midst of their daily life and work.

That can’t be planned, engineered, commanded. Okay, it was a bank commercial.  But it took on a life of its own well beyond anybody who could possibly open an account at a local branch of Santander.

Social Media Sunday is unlikely to “go viral”.  Fungal, maybe.  It might help a lot of Episcopalians (about 1% of the US population) see what others are doing in church on a Sunday morning, but it isn’t likely to go beyond that.  Because, if the hundreds of photos and videos that showed up in my Facebook feed yesterday are any indication, what they’re seeing other Episcopalians doing is mainly a recognizable variant on what they themselves are doing.  Which might feel very nice, but beyond a little bit of in-group bonding, has no major value. Mainly, what I saw was a lot of very conventional church participation, which is fine, but for anyone not of your church, it’s not exciting.

“Going viral” is not in itself a purpose, or, unless you are an extremely egotistical attention seeker, it shouldn’t be. And if you are an extremely egotistical attention seeker, you’d know that conventional church participation has already “gone viral” (for hundreds of years, and mainly without the help of the internet). You need an angle; naked church participation might do it. But for something to “go viral”, it needs a much more modest purpose, and then, if it is done really well, it takes on a life of its own. Wanting to “go viral” as your main purpose is a little like wanting to be “famous” without having any talent or achievement standing behind the fame. Oh, wait, yes–that does happen.

It might possibly fulfill another stated purpose of helping people in the churches to learn how to use social media better.  But that, too, is sort of a snore.  If they can participate, they use social media well enough.  So, purpose accomplished before the activity even takes place.  I see dozens of photos, links to audio of sermons, videos of what is happening in parishes every single Sunday already.  And I don’t even attend church regularly. (I get them mainly because I studied alongside, taught, and worked with, quite a number of clergy in the US and UK.) I wonder how many people even look on the Facebook pages of churches they don’t attend–even if they attend their own local church.  I’m almost sure most unchurched, let alone de-churched, people can’t be bothered.

So, it’s a bit like fishing in the aquarium.  Good if you want easy results. But if you keep doing it, eventually your aquarium empties out.

I raised some questions about purpose on a now-former Facebook friend’s page, someone with much more clout than I have, because he is the editor in chief of Episcopal Café. And by doing so (I will admit, I was rather sharp in my wording), I was sneered at from having a view from my “lofty heights”.  And then, I got the oddest blocking I’ve ever gotten on line.  For several hours, although I could not respond, I could see that people were saying some pretty snide stuff about what I had said.

That is a win. People got uncomfortable because they had not examined their assumptions.  They just, as someone else said to me, played along as expected.

Church needs to be better than that. A lot better.

On my own Facebook page, I put up the following status:

To my Episcopal clergy friends whose churches participated in Social Media Sunday, can I ask a few questions?
1. What was the purpose?
2. What did you do?
3. Why did you do it?
4. What do you think was achieved?

Sixteen hours later (and I have seen about 60 posts from Episcopal clergy since then–and if I’m seeing their stuff, they’re seeing mine), I have not had a single response.  I know that Social Media Sunday must have been as exhausting an event as Holy Week or Christmas, but it does appear that the ministers of religion have had a chance to put their feet up for a time and recover from the immense spiritual effort it entailed.

I can only draw a few conclusions.

The first is that people ignore what others have written, and only post their own thoughts.  (I know I don’t do that, which is why I occasionally get un-friended by people who idolize agreement.)

The second is that we can’t talk openly about the “why” behind the “what”.  I suspect that is the real problem.

I know of no other institution on earth where purpose does not drive activity and measurable achievement is not expected.  When I was teaching, especially in English higher education, every “module” (course to my American colleagues) had to have clearly stated learning outcomes.  The link between assignments and the expected outcomes had to be articulated in writing.  Clear criteria for assessing how well or poorly the outcomes had been achieved were included in the “handbook” (syllabus), and adhered to.  And an external examiner came in periodically to make sure that everything was in sync.

Every enterprise–commercial, charitable, for profit or not–other than the church has to do something similar.  They have to articulate the why behind the what, and constantly assess and adjust to make sure that their activities contribute to their purpose. 

I have rarely seen such an incoherent relationship between activity, purpose, achievement and measurement as I’ve witnessed from the sidelines of Social Media Sunday.

And it could only happen in the church.



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