What Would Google Do

@JeffJarvis on Data (for Presbyterians?)

A Jeff Jarvis book inspired this blog into cyber-being, and since then I’ve read his blogs and books ardently. His most recent book, Geeks Bearing Gifts, advocates a complete re-think of journalism and publishing for the cloud-based, connected world. It’s a great read.

Here’s a snippet that clarifies what I’m after in my desire for an alternative to The Presbyterian Layman for Presbyterians seeking information and analysis about our denomination (hint: it’s all about the data):

Data is a critical new opportunity for news organizations. What journalists have to ask — as with the flow of news — is how they add value to data by helping to gather it (with effort, clout, tools, and the ability to convene a community), analyze it (by calling upon or hiring experts who bring context and questions or by writing algorithms), and present it (contributing, most importantly, context and explanation). . . .

Lots of readers heard my earlier post as a plea for a progressive counterweight to The Layman’s right wing commentary, but commentary is not the problem I want to solve. Data is. The Presbyterian Outlook and the Presbyterian News Service are both reputable and reliable sources of data and analysis on a church-wide, institutional scale, but lack the distribution of resources needed to gather, analyze, and present data distributed across presbyteries.

I want there to be an instrument for

  • gathering data about what’s happening across the PC(USA), in presbyteries, synods, new worshiping communities, seminaries, and (fill in the blank),
  • analyzing that data (how is what’s happening with dismissals in San Gabriel Presbytery different from what’s happening in Heartland Presbytery? What data binds together churches leaving the denomination?),
  • and rigorously presenting that data in a digital format with an obsessive respect for facts and sources.

And I want to call it “The Main Line: News And Analysis for Presbyterians.”

Would you read that?


The Gospel of What We Don’t Know

I can never remember who, but some theologian of mission made the provocative suggestion that the best analogy the church has for evangelism is journalism. Telling the good news is a journalistic task: Christians are witnesses of real events that are unfolding in real time concerning the Kingdom of God and the salvation of the world. If anyone knows who that was, please tell me.

I  heard that a decade ago, and it’s had a grip on my imagination since. It’s why I subscribe to the Columbia Journalism Review and listen to On The Media and read Jeff Jarvis’ blog.

Jarvis wrote yesterday that, in the aftermath of journalists’ coverage of last week’s Boston bombing and pursuant manhunt, he’s convinced that journalism’s value lies in telling the public what we *don’t* know. Here’s the money quote.

The key skill of journalism today is saying what we *don’t* know, issuing caveats and also inviting the public to tell us what they know. Note I didn’t say I want the public to tell us what they *think* or *guess.* I said *know*.

Yes. Yes. And . . . Yes.

Let’s try that quote again, but replace “journalism” with “evangelism.”

The key skill of evangelism today is saying what we *don’t* know, issuing caveats and also inviting the public to tell us what they know. Note I didn’t say I want the public to tell us what they *think* or *guess.* I said *know*.

Hmmmm . . .

Here’s why this excites me: In the same way that journalism is an enterprise transformed by the modern avalanche of information and channels for the public to share information, the church’s witness to the gospel is coping with a public that is swimming in religious “information” and sharing that information with ease. The church has competition now for reporting on The Meaning of Life. It ceased a while ago to be the Great Grey Lady of how to be a good person and live a fulfilling life. Now there a Pinterest board for that.

What if we took this analogy seriously? What if we shared the gospel by saying first what we don’t know?

“It’s being widely reported that faith is no longer relevant to modern people, but it is unclear at this hour how people are measuring relevance . .  .”

“Witnesses describe widespread displeasure with the plight of the poor, but lived experience of poverty could not be confirmed . . . ”

“Sources say the Bible is anti-gay, but questions remain about the historical context of that stance, its literary function, and its effect on the lives of gay people today . . . ”

“We’re hearing that people are prosperous, autonomous, and happy, but at this hour we can’t account for the social isolation people are experiencing at the same time . . . ”

What do you think? Does the church have value to add to the world that consists in elevating what we *don’t* know?



What Would Google Do

Facebook Home: Revisiting Jeff Jarvis And The Church as Platform

Yorocko.com started in 2010 with a series of posts on Jeff Jarvis’ book What Would Google Do? Jarvis’s central assertion was that Google’s success derives from its decision to function as a platform rather than a portal, allowing developers to do their mapping and book publishing work on top of Google’s own infrastructure rather than creating its own mapping and book publishing software. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how this approach might be applied to the church.

Just this week I had a conversation with a nonprofit executive who’s interested in partnering with churches to start community farms. Churches would offer up their property as a literal platform on which a local organization can do good work. A good thing–even a gospel thing–gets going at the church, yet the church doesn’t develop and run it; it merely functions as a platform for others to do it. It’s pretty exciting.

It gets tricky, though. Ownership becomes a critical question, and fast. Consider the announcement yesterday that Facebook is developing an app to run on Google’s Android mobile operating system, an app that will completely take over the device, transforming it, effectively, into a Facebook device. It’s a blatant exploitation of an open platform.

If a church wants to function as a platform and invite committed communities to do their good work on top of the church’s own infrastructure (both physical and relational), this ownership question is going to surface. How do churches maintain ownership of the platform? Should they?

What Would Google Do

Jeff Jarvis, Maggie, and The Walk (part 2)

I blogged yesterday about Maggie the Magnificent and her really stellar leadership of our church’s involvement in a local hunger walk.  Maggie is a high school student who is “disconnected” in programmatic terms from the church’s youth ministry activities. But she’s doing good work in the world, and it made me sad that the church wasn’t positioned as a platform for her to do some of that work. So I invited her to lead the walk efforts, and she killed it. She totally killed it.

Another thing that emerged, though, from this year’s walk effort, was that the youth at our church who participate in it are not necessarily the same ones who come to youth group.

In the past, Sunday youth groups would be cancelled on the day of the walk, since our youth would presumably have already done something that day. I had my doubts about that presumption.

So this year we held youth groups on Sunday night per usual, and, as I expected, that was exactly zero overlap between the students who walked for hunger and those who came hungry for Sunday night community. Ze-ro.

The walk involved the same number of youth as regularly come to youth group gatherings, but they were (this week at least) a totally different group of youth.

This is an emerging attempt on my part to put into practice Mark Oestreicher’s Youth Ministy 3.0 contention that there’s no such thing as a youth ministry, in the singular. Instead, churches have ministries to different groupings of youth. Trying to craft a comprehensive program that will attract all manner of students is foolish. It’s also kind of lazy.

Of course, it’s also a continued grappling with Jeff Jarvis’s thoroughgoing What Would Google Do? with its unambiguous answer that Google would create a platform for youth to do what they already want to do.

My next question, then, is this: if a hunger walk gives youth a platform to do good work on behalf of needy people, then what are youth groups a platform for?


Books, What Would Google Do

Postcard+Email+Text+Letter=Get A Life

My students know about upcoming youth group meetings and special events. Of all the teens not participating, not one of them  claims ignorance.

They know about the youth ministry. They’re choosing not to participate. And my shotgun publicity strategy is succeeding only in giving them more and more opportunities to choose against the church, to say, “no,” by deleting the unread email or tossing the postcard in the driveway trashcan.

Doesn’t all this communication reek of desperation, anyway? I mean, if something’s worth going to, I’ll find my way to it; I don’t need a letter, a postcard, an email, and a text message to tell me to go. One of those will suffice, and I may not even need that. It’s as the web-conditioned news consumer told Jeff Jarvis in What Would Google Do? “If the news is important enough, it will find me.”

Perhaps the more formal communication I receive about something, the less important I’ll deem it to be. And don’t kid yourself: texts are just as formal as a piece of mail, especially when they’re sent by a youth leader to a student. At least, they’d better be. If they’re not formal, they’re creepy.

The kids who come to the weekly youth group like what’s happening there. They’re coming, postcard or not. The ones who don’t come have other things they’d rather be doing. I’m fine with that. What I’m not fine with is the realization that my nonstop communication with these non-attenders, apart from being hopelessly ineffective,  is most likely intrusive and counterproductive. Each week I invite them to repeat a ritual: pull the neon-colored postcard out of the mailbox, glance at it for just a moment, and decide for the the 33rd time since September, “Nope. Not for me.”

What Would Google Do

Sin Boldly: What Would Google Do? pt. 5

We are ashamed to make mistakes–as well we should be, yes? It’s our job to get things right, right? So when we make mistakes, our instinct is to shrink into a ball and wish them away. Correcting errors, though necessary is embarrassing.

This from What Would Google Do? by Jeff Jarvis, the book I’ve been exploring here, here, here, and here.

Churches hate making mistakes. Pastors hate making mistakes. Mistakes in business mean you’re a bad business person. Mistakes in church mean you’re a bad person person.

One of What Would Google Do?’s key contentions is that, “Corrections do not diminish credibility.”

In other words, in the Google age, the maxim really is true : “It’s easier [and better!] to beg forgiveness than ask permission.”

Churches rarely say they’ve been wrong. The pull of traditional Christianity is toward stasis and consistency, so that to change one’s mind  is not encouraged. Liberal and conservative churches alike spend a lot of energy defending the rightness of the way things are right now.

So we want to have all of the i’s dotted and t’s crossed on a program before we take it public. We won’t announce a new small group until we know we have the people to support it. We poll our membership before taking a public stance on something controversial.

We understand our church programs and activities as products that  will be judged against every other product in the church marketplace. Worse, their success or failure will reflect on our merit as believing people. We need to put out high quality products.

“Today, on the internet,” Jarvis insists, “The process is the product.”

So, I want my church to help college and post-college students make meaningful connections. The product could be a “young singles group.” There’s a ton of unanswered questions about who will lead it, what it will actually do, how much time it would require, and on and on and on. And of course, there is a very real chance that it could fail.

But why not start the process of making some of those connections, open up to the world about what we’re trying to do, and, if it is to fail, help it to fail magnificently.

Won’t that be more credible in the end?

What Would Google Do

The Apple Church Is Just That Good: What Would Google Do? pt. 4

So I’ve been hearing these rumors about an iPad . . .

Another Apple product launch, another cultural phenomenon. Cupertino’s lovers love it. Their haters hate it. It’s success is indisputable. When was the last time a consumer product captured the cultural imagination like this?

Oh yeah, the iPhone.

Apple is the anti-Google, and their reign over all things networked really has no serious challenger. So why wasn’t this event called, “Theology after Apple?” Why not, “What Would Apple Do?”

In fact, Apple is the only anti-Google Jeff Jarvis could come up with. Not even God, he insists, is “immune from the power and influence of Google.” Evidence? How about open-Source Judaism, inspired by Douglas Rushkoff’s Nothing Sacred (“wasn’t the Talmud the world’s first wiki?”)?

No, only Apple seems to be exempt from the consequences of refusal to collaborate, to design platforms, open up, eschew advertising, and think distributed in the post-Google world. Jarvis ticks off the offenses:

Apple is the opposite of collaborative.

Apple still spends a fortune in advertising.

Apple is the farthest thing from transparent.

Apple abhors openness.

So why, if such Google-intransigence has buried entire industries, does Apple get a pass? Why does the brand still kill its competition? For Jarvis it’s simple: “It’s just that good. It’s vision is strong and its products even better.”

You’ve been to the Apple church, right? Impeccably manicured grounds; stirring worship aided by professional sound and lighting technicians; clear, concise, simple sermons with easy-to-use life application; unequivocally “Biblical” theology; a lifestyle niche small group ministry; slick branded merchandise, from Bibles to bumper stickers; youth recreation facilities to make Leslie Knope green with envy.

The Apple church is just that good. It’s has a clear vision articulated by a revered and unchallenged  executive. Its products are simply excellent.

That’s a straw man of a setup, I know. You’re meant to start pointing out the Apple church’s flaws. But, like Apple, it doesn’t care about its detractors. It’s thriving, and the future is bright. And for those of us trying, from within Emergent or mainline Protestant or Catholic traditions to get our heads around a “Googley” church, the success of Apple church is an unsettling counterpoint.

What Would Google Do

Who Cares? What Would Google Do? pt 3

What Would Google Do?

Who Cares?

That’s the answer some are giving to Jeff Jarvis’s tongue-in-cheek question. We’ve already kicked a couple of the book’s tires here and here, but now I want to take a step back and ask if churches should even care what the Google-mobile is doing.

In the words of another blogger, “What would Google do?” is the wrong question. “The question,” he writes in the comment thread, “Should begin with the purpose of the church.”

“Hear, hear,” says Jarvis. “Know what business you’re really in,” he writes more than once in WWGD? The church ain’t a business, but the point stands. If churches spend themselves trying to “be distributed” or “be a platform” without a clear sense of mission and purpose, then only cosmetic changes will likely result.

The purpose of the church is too heavy a load for this post to carry (you could do a lot worse than this as a starting point, though), but I don’t agree that churches can’t make any use of Jarvis’s query.

Churches model themselves after other forms of organization. They always have and they always will. The earliest Christian congregations were modeled after synagogues of the day. Most churches in North America today are reflections either of mid-20th century civic organizations or late 20th century business and and self-help and leadership movements. These models affect everything. Worship, education, polity, dress, outreach, marketing: everything churches do reflects models borrowed from other sectors of society.

“What would Google do?” is a useful question for churches to grapple with, for sure. Google (and Facebook and Flickr and Salesforce and Zillow and on and on) is revealing–and shaping–patterns of social organization that churches are foolish to ignore.

Churches are already operating on an answer to a different question, whether it’s “What would Rotary do?” or “What would Tony Robbins do?” What would Google do? isn’t just defensible for churches to ask; it may be essential.

What Would Google Do

The Church as Platform: What Would Google Do? pt. 2

I blogged earlier about one of key insights about Google in “What Would Google Do?” by Jeff Jarvis. Google distributes itself all over the place instead of expecting customers to come to it.

Here’s another nugget from the book worth considering: Google is a platform that helps communities do what they want to do.

Example: Google Maps. Google provides a mapping platform that users can build upon and enhance for free on their own sites. That helps Google and it helps Google’s users. Google wants to collaborate and wants to help others thrive. It cares less about what “consumers”are supposed to do with its technology and more about what communities of “users” are actually doing with it.

Is there something here for churches to think about? What do communities use churches as platforms for?

The congregation I serve charters a Boy Scout troop. That’s a community that wants to serve God and Country. Our church helps them do that by giving them a meeting space. But could we also invite the troop to take the lead on a church-sponsored community service?

I frequently am required to chase off skateboarders from the church property for insurance and liability reasons. Yet are these skaters not simply using the church as a platform for what they want to do, which is not just skate but also hang out and connect with one another? To protect ourselves, we have to chase them away; doing so may actually be causing us harm.

Communities aren’t waiting around for permission from churches to do their thing; we ignore the great stuff they’re doing at our peril, because, if Google is right, helping them helps us.

What Would Google Do

The Distributed Church: What Would Google Do?

I snagged a free copy of Jeff Jarvis’s “What Would Google Do?” at the Theology After Google event earlier this week. I want to interact with some of the main ideas in the book and extend them into church life and practice.

One of the major things that Jarvis praises about Google is its distribution. Google makes 1/3 of it’s revenue from sources completely away from Google.com. The company puts itself in the middle of lots of other networks and lets its users to its work for it. That’s by way of contrast to the AOL’s and Yahoo’s of the media landscape who still spend lots of advertising dollars trying to persuade consumers to come to them, to their sites and their products. Google just goes to them.

So church isn’t a business (let that be the last time I say that). But Jarvis quite consciously includes “religious organizations” alongside businesses, schools, and other cultural entities that should take a cue from the red-green-yellow-and blue. What does Google-style distribution look like in churches?

For starters, if we’re looking for it in churches, we won’t find it. That’s the point: distribution is away from whatever is doing the distributing.  So how about this: the parent of a middle school youth tells the Youth Pastor that his daughter has said she “never wants to go back” to the youth group. The last time she came she brought some friends to an advertised “game night,” carrying her own board games with her. Only, game night turned out to be physical running/tagging/throwing games, and she and her friends just aren’t into that sort of thing. She was embarrassed.

If the Youth Pastor is like Yahoo, he will hone his publicity of events and make sure that future game nights include both athletic and non-athletic games. Those are important changes to make.

Only, if the Youth Pastor is at all like Google, he’ll also want to know about this middle schooler and her community of friends. He’ll ask how he and the church can participate in that community. Perhaps he reaches out to this student and asks her to organize her own kind of game night with her friends (and their friends . . . ).

There’s a whole host of objections that should be raised here: the middle schooler doesn’t need the church’s permission to play games with her friends. And youth pastors shouldn’t go nosing around kids’ social lives in order to influence them to come to “regular” church youth events.

But Jarvis’s whole point is that communities are already out there doing what they want to do. Google has invested itself not in influencing those communities to come to Google, but in going to those communities itself.

Surface, you have been scratched.