Reaching People in a Time of Change

Hello! I’d like to do a little experiment right now to make a point. I want you to walk away from your desktop, laptop, or whatever device you are reading this on and go find the nearest 45 rpm vinyl record in your office, home or apartment. Go ahead. I’ll be here when you get back. Let me know how long it takes you.. . . . OK, great. You back? I’d imagine for some people this hunt for a 45 was difficult, but not impossible. Sure, the 45’s are in a cabinet under the stairs but it didn’t take that long to dust off the cabinet and discover an old favorite. For other folks, I’d imagine it took a little more time because the 45s are packed up with the other stuff that is never used but still in storage for nostalgic value. Perhaps you had to go to the attic and move around boxes. And for some, you’ve never owned a 45 record and finding one would have involved going to a relative’s house or to the thrift store.

The world we live in now is not a world of 45 rpm records, no matter how important they were to pop culture a half century ago. Delivery of music, which used to be a tangible thing, is no more due to technological advances. Sales of physical copies of CD’s have cratered. Few people buy hard copies of music any longer. Streaming and mp3’s now own the market. Recently,  Chance the Rapper  made history by being the first person to win a Grammy with a streaming-only album and without a major label recording contract. Clearly, the world of pop music is different from days of jukeboxes and turntables.

So, why am I telling you all this?  I think the change in the music industry parallels many of the changes we are experiencing in our churches. Think about it. For many years, if you wanted to hear your favorite song, the main option was to trot down to the music store, hand over some money to the clerk, and bring home a 45 to listen to on your record player. During that same time period, if you wanted to experience God, you went down to a church where you saw your friends/neighbors, gathered together, heard the Bible lesson and worshiped God. The church was the only game in town. But today, like streaming, people are experiencing God in multiple ways over multiple ‘platforms.’  Audiences for hard copies of music and for traditional forms of experiencing God are both down. Many churches are still selling 45s in a digital environment.

Practically, what does this mean? Those who work in the music industry have seen their profits dry up in sales. So, they have adjusted their business model to reach people in a different way. I believe churches need to start thinking in similar ways to professional musicians.

Consider:

  • Physical Merchandise: Musicians have learned the value of one on one relationships. Direct sales to customers are vitally important to their business model. So, any time they play a show they have physical copies of CD’s to sell or t-shirts, posters, and the like. Does your church have something (book, coaster, flier, bookmark, Bible, comma pins, stickers) you can put in people’s hands every time you and your members go out?  If not, why not?
  • Digital Merchandising: Some musicians now sell or give away wallpapers for the desktop of your computer.  Do you have a beautiful picture of your sanctuary, neighborhood or your congregation in mission?  Why not make it available to folks as digital wallpaper for their computer?
  • Lessons: This is a time-honored way for musicians to pay their bills. What would it look like if UCC congregations began to offer lessons in mindfulness, the Examen Prayer of Ignatius of Loyola or lessons in experiencing God’s presence. Church folk often complain about people who say they encounter God hiking in the woods or on the golf course but what if we invited those same folks into a deeper relationship to God, using their initial God-encounters as a stepping off point?
  • Crowdfunding: Do you have a ministry that you think will benefit the neighborhood (and not just your congregation)? Why not ask for help?  Adopting a highway, maintaining nature trails, planting a community garden, distributing food to the hungry are all worthy projects that go beyond the walls of the church. Approach people, both online and (especially) in person, and see if you can crowdfund a ministry. Be sure to thank donors and have a plan for following up! Maybe even a thank-you gift?

This type of thinking isn’t easy. It’s taken the music world a long time to adjust to the realities of streaming and the industry is still in the midst of some growing pains. I see the same type of growing pains for our churches. Yet, recognizing a world in flux, and thinking about how we can impact it in Christ’s name, is a goal we can all look forward to.

Joseph HeddenRev. Joseph Hedden is Pastor of Emmanuel Reformed (Hill’s) United Church of Christ in Export, Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh. He serves as Dean of the Penn West Conference Academy for Ministry and also chairs the Global Missions Team for the Conference.

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