Spreading Unitarian Universalism Using New Media

1. Introduction

Hi, this is a workshop called “Spreading UUism Using New Media.” I’ll quickly introduce myself. I’m Dan Harper, and I’m serving as the minister of First Unitarian Church in New Bedford, Massachusetts. We’re a small church that’s trying to grow, and using new media is important part of our growth strategy. Before I became a minister, I worked in sales, and I also have a background in visual arts, and half a degree in creative writing.

Peter Bowden was also supposed to be here as my co-presenter. Peter is an independent television producer and consultant. However, last month Peter got a job working on a project for public television which is requiring him to work seven days a week, so he was unable to attend General Assembly.

What we hope to do during this workshop is tell you how your congregation can use new media — like Web sites, video, recorded music, and so on — to spread the word about what your congregation is doing, and what you stand for.

And I do mean “we,” because although Peter isn’t here, he is here — not in spirit, but on video. Peter created a video introduction to new media, which gives much (but not all) of the information I’m about to present; and the video also includes information that I’m not going to cover today. So while Peter isn’t here, you’re going to get two workshops in one — this in-person workshop, and a video workshop. The video will be available online at Peter’s Web site, www.uuplanet.tv — not only that, but the text of this in-person presentation will be available on my blog, www.danielharper.org/blog — in other words, we are not only telling you how to use new media, we are using new media to tell you how to use new media!

[Link to the video version of the talk coming soon.]

2. What is “new media”?

Let’s begin by describing and defining some of the new media that you can use.

A. Blogging

We’ll start with blogs. A blog is a form of content management system onto which contributors can easily post various kinds of content in reverse chronological order, and which is syndicated to allow subscriptions. Blogs typically (but not always) allow reader feedback through commenting and pingbacks.

OK, that definition is full of geek talk, solet me translate it into plain English so you can feel the true power of blogs. A blog allows users to easily post content, all kinds of content including text, photos, audio, and video — and when I say “easy,” I mean easier than using Microsoft Word. A blog is organized in reverse chronological order — that means the end-users always see the freshest content first. Blogs allow readers or viewers or listeners to subscribe — that means the reader or viewer or listener gives you permission to send your content directly to them on a regular basis. Blogs allow feedback and comments — that means that blogs are not a passive experience, they draw end-users in and engage them actively.

All this means that blogging is one of the best ways to get your message out to your intended audience.

In terms of spreading Unitarian Universalism, you need to know about three main types of blogs.

First, there are basic text-based blogs. This is where the blog owner writes some text and posts it on her or his blog. Right now, there are hundreds of Unitarian Universalist text-based blogs, ranging in quality from excellent to — meh.

Second, there are podcasts, or audio blogs. Here, the blog owner posts audio recordings which you can listen to online, or which you can download onto your portable mP3 player and listen to at your leisure. Right now, there are dozens of UU podcasts, most of which are audio recordings of sermons, and some of which are actually worth listening to.

Third, there are video blogs or vlogs. Most video blogs post short videos online, and by short I mean less than five minutes. To the best of my knowledge I’m the only person with a UU-themed video blog.

2 B. Music

We’ve talked about blogs, now let’s talk about online music. Unitarian Universalists tend to be very word-oriented, and so when we think about new media there’s this tendency to focus on word-based new media such as text-based blogs, podcasts of sermons, and the like.

But music is one of the most powerful ways to get your message out. Music engages a whole different form of human intelligence than word-based new media. When someone listens to a song or other piece of music, they are engaging both heart and mind — and good music has the potential to actually change the way we think. We can talk a bout UU values all we want, but when you hear a song by Utah Phillips or Pete Seeger, both of whom are Unitarian Universalist singer-songwriters whose songs embody UU values, those UU values sink into your soul in a whole ‘nother way.

So I have become a big advocate of spreading our values through music. If you do sermon podcasts, why not add a choir podcast? — and I’ll bet more people will listen to your choir podcast than the sermon podcast.

The big issue around music is copyright. You may not record copyrighted music unless you pay a fee to or get permission from the copyright holder. Many of the songs in our hymnal are copyright-protected. But you can record music that’s in the public domain, generally including all music written before 1921 and other public domain music — that means you can record most classical music, spirituals, shape-note songs, and many old-favorite hymns. Or if you know a singer-songwriter who writes UU-friendly music, record some of their songs!

And you can distribute the music via your Web site — or better yet, on iTunes, or via MySpace or other musician-friendly sites.

2 C. Web sites

Another form of new media is the basic Web site. I’m not going to get into Web sites much — it’s a big topic, and there are plenty of resources out there on creating Web sites.

But I do want to make an obvious point. Web sites includes much more than official church Web sites. If our goal is to spread Unitarian Universalism, there’s no reason for us to limit ourselves to spreading UUism via official church Web sites. For example, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, is also a Unitarian Universalist. He has several personal Web pages on the Web site of the Wolrd Wide Web Consortium, the organization he works for, and one of the Web pages is titled WWW, UU, and I, where he tells why he believes the World Wide Web is just like Unitarian Universalism.

Yes, your church should have a good Web site. But don’t forget that you can also add Unitarian Universalist content to your own personal Web site.

D. Email lists

The email list is an old form of new media, and it is still useful today. But email lists are pretty limited, so you have to b e careful what you use them for.

Here’s what email lists do well:– email lists are very good at communicating short nuggets of emotion-free information. If you want to get a short reminder announcement out to lots of people very quickly, send that information via an email list — just be sure that what you send out is short, probably less than 125 words, and be sure that your subject line describes exactly what’s in the body of the email message. Remember that most of us who have email suffer from information overload — I will spend about one and one half seconds on a message from an email list. If you get permission to use someone’s email address to send out church announcements, use that email address as sparingly as possible — maybe once a month, or less frequently — so you don’t overload them!

The so-called listserv, an automated form of email list, used to be very popular. But recently, I’ve been seeing more and more people opting out of such automated email lists, with the unfortunate result that some of the automated email lists I used to enjoy now seem to be populated entirely by crackpots and cranks. I have to be honest with you — I don’t think email lists are a particularly good way to promote Unitarian Universalism any more.

2 E. Conventional video

Finally, although I’m mostly talking about new media based online, on the Internet, I want to be sure to mention conventional video. There are still lots more people who watch conventional television than who watch online video. Therefore, it is worth considering producing video programs for your local cable access channel. Some Unitarian Universalist churches videotape their worship services, and then edit it down to a 30 minute show including the sermon, some readings, and perhaps some copyright-free music. They then get this video aired on the local cable access channel. This can be a great way to reach certain demographic segments, and is worth considering.

The only downside to conventional video is that it tends to be more difficult to produce than other forms of new media. If you’re going to produce video worth watching on TV for 30 minutes, you should have good video production skills.

3. Case study of a church that has used new media to attract newcomers

Now that I’ve introduced you to different types of new media, let me give you a case study on how we have used new media to promote Unitarian Universalism at First Unitarian in New Bedford.

When I arrived at First Unitarian as their new minister in 2005, the congregation was quite clear that the church needed to grow. If we were going to grow, we knew that the first thing we needed to do was to attract visitors to come and check us out.

The congregation had a small budget for advertising. We decided that we would devote that ad budget to running weekly ads in the local daily newspaper. Additionally, we found a volunteer — a woman who had worked in marketing communications and as a writer before she retired — and this volunteer wrote up regular press releases for local newspapers and broadcast media. So we covered traditional media first.

Then I took a look at the church Web site. We didn’t have a volunteer to be the Webmaster, so I became the Webmaster. My first step was to commit to posting that week’s sermon title on the front page of the Web site each and every week, except when I went on vacation. I also spent one work day, eight hours, going over the site from top to bottom, to make sure all the information was up-to-date, and reflected who we really were at that time. Those simple steps caused traffic at our Web site to double in six months, and increase four-fold over two years. More to the point, the number of visitors coming on Sunday morning had increased dramatically, from not many, to an average of three a week this past year. How did those visitors hear about us? None of them had seen our ads in the newspaper. About half of them had looked at our Web site before coming to church — the younger the newcomer, the more likely that they found out about us through the Web. Even a crappy, home-made-looking Web site can accomplish a lot — if you just take the time to make sure the content is fresh and accurate.

Furthermore, I have my own personal blog, and there’s a link from the church Web site to my blog. Newcomers and visitors have told me that they checked out my blog before coming to church; and this is especially true of newcomers under the age of forty.

Not only that, but our music director has a personal Web site where he has posted audio recordings of music he has played at our church — I don’t know how many newcomers have checked out his online music, but my guess is that quite a few of them do. Next fall, we’ll probably ask his permission to post some of his audio files directly on the church Web site.

A final example of how we use new media to welcome newcomers: We bought something like fifty copies of the Voices of a Liberal Faith DVD that the UUA put out, and we give them out to newcomers. They cost us less than five bucks a disc. And if you think that sounds like a lot of money, you have to realize that one crummy tiny newspaper ad in the local paper costs over three hundred and fifty dollars a week, and gets absolutely no response for us. If you buy in bulk, those DVDs go for two bucks apiece. So all we have to do is stop advertising for one week, and we can use that money to buy nearly two hundred DVDs. Those DVDs work, too — newcomers look at them, and like what they see, and they come back.

4. Making an online video about UUism in the workshop

Now, to show you how easy it is to produce new media, and to encourage you do do some on your own, we’re going to film an online video right here and now. The title of this video is “My UU elevator speech.” I’m going to ask for some volunteers to come up here and be videotaped while you give your elevator speech.

| Elevator speech #1 | Elevator speech #2 | Elevator speech #3 | Elevator speech #4 will appear Tuesday, July 1, 2008 |

And if you want to know more about making online videos — or more about podcasting, or just about any form of online new media — you should think about attending Podcamp. Held in many cities around the world, Podcamps are unconferences where you can learn about new media. Click here to learn about Podcamp.

5. Incorporating existing new media resources into current outreach efforts

Finally, if you feel intimidated by the thought of creating new media content yourself, I want to tell you that you don’t have to create anything yourself — yet you can still use new media to promote Unitarian Universalism.

I already told you how you can use the video “Voices of a Liberal Faith.” These DVDs are cheap. Why not buy half a dozen, and give them out to people whom you think might want to see them? For example, you could do what one person in our church did — she sent one of the DVDs home to her family to show what kind of church she had joined.

Or if you like to read other people’s blogs, why not take the plunge and start commenting on those blogs, and identifying yourself as a UU. For example, if you read a political blog, you could comment and talk about how equal marriage rights are important to you because of your religion.

Or when you find a cool online video about UUism, you could send a link to that video to your friends. So you could, for example, check out my blog and when I post this elevator speech video that we just taped, you can send the link to your friends and say, “Hey, check me out, I’m on this cool online video!”

Or you can promote UUism through your Twitter feed [my Twitter feed here]. Or on your LinkedIn [my LinkedIn page] or Facebook page….

In other words, you can promote UUism through new media in all kinds of fun and creative ways. Hey, what are you waiting for — go out and do it!

6 thoughts on “Spreading Unitarian Universalism Using New Media

  1. Lindsay

    This may be something you will actually cover at GA, but seeing as I’m a poor grad student that can’t make it this year, I was wondering if you have ever gone into the uses of new media for UU congregations in more detail anywhere else that I could look up. I know that the college/young adult population is one that is underrrepresented in our fellowships, and is probably the population that new media is most likely to reach. I have been thinking about how to incorporate new media into our young adult program (UU Fellowship of Athens, Georgia) beyond our current lackluster listserv and informative, yet very basic, website. Any ideas of where I should look?

  2. Martin Voelker

    First of all: wow! Thanks for offering this actionable list.

    Let me put on my evangelist hat, more specifically: my Mac evangelist hat.
    Many of people’s tech phobias are completely justified because they use the Dark Lord’s Windows platform and software.

    If congregations swapped their PCs for Macs they’d be instantly closer to heaven :) No, really.

    I’m currently preparing a how-to guide that shows how any congregation can put their service onto youtube, distribute it on DVD, CD or mp3 within 15 minutes of the end of the service. Using the free and simply iMovie program this involves a short and simple routine anyone can learn in two minutes. It really is that simple.
    (Yes, individual software for Windows exists with similar functionality but nothing compares to the integrated and simplified approach takes by Apple.)
    Here’s a quick preview of the process for creating a video:

    A Mac (laptop or iMac suffice) hooked into a video camera or soundboard. No cost software: iMovie comes with any Mac.

    Hit record in iMovie and hit stop once the service is over.
    Delete parts you don’t want (eg joys and concerns, announcements, the terrible choir – just kidding)
    Add chapter marks to make segments (welcome, sermon in 10 min intervals)
    Those edits take about five minutes, and less once you’ve done it a few times.

    With a click of a button, export it to ipod (which works perfectly to upload to youtube). The export typically takes as long as the segments in real time (eg 20min for a 20 min sermon).

    Next: upload to your own website or to youtube.

    Then using iDVD and a once prepared church template burn a movie disk and duplicate it in a duplication tower, using preprinted (or hand written) DVDs.
    If you have 2 services the disks will be ready after the second service.

    For those content with just the audio the process is even faster but similar: record, chop into segments, burn a CD (and convert to mp3 for web use), and feed that master disk to a duplication tower. If you prepare blank disks ahead of time by printing today’s service title and church logo you’ll be able to SELL DISKS 15 minutes after the service has ended.

    A Macbook costs $1000. A duplication tower for 5 simultaneous disks costs around $400, a robotic disk printer that does 20 disks by itself costs $750. If your sanctuary or pulpit is well lit almost any miniDV camera will produce great images ($200 and up) Panasonic has superior 3chip camcorders for $600. Quality blank Cds or DVDs are <30 cts. If you manage to create a demand (I suggest: by making recordings very cheap) such a system pays off within 6 months.
    You can contact me for more details through my own blog http://juuggernaut.wordpress.com/ but I’m not quite done with my how to document as I want to include more sophisticated setups for dual camera work that makes for more watchable footage.

  3. Ron

    Dan, looks like (yet another) snubbing of the online forums…the so-called message boards…and the variety of things that they potentially can offer in spreading the word in this information age. As one who makes a diligent effort to build on that format, it’s pretty frustrating that not even a passing mention is given to forums such as ours. It’s no wonder that people do not know about us, much less participate!

    Ron Stevens
    Summerville, SC

  4. Dan

    Lindsay @ 1 — I sent you email about this, but I also want to mention that you should check out http://www.podcamp.org — find a Podcamp conference near you, and attend — you’ll be able to attend lots of excellent workshops on creating new media.

    Martin @ 2 — Thanks for the detailed overview. One comment — iMovie ’08 sucks — go to the Apple Web site, where you can download the previous version of iMovie, which rocks.

    Also, is there a Linux user out there who could tell us how to do this with free open source software?….

    Ron @ 4 — Yup, we snubbed online forums. There was only so much we could fit in to an hour-long workshop, and to be honest with you, online forums just don’t get the kind of traffic that YouTube does. So we spent much more time on online video. But really, the point of this whole workshop is to follow your heart — if you love online forums, that’s a great place to promote UUism.

  5. Martin Voelker

    You’re right about iMovie08, I’m using 06 for all my basic needs.

    One more thing about online forums. I wish we had one here at JUC but I was told these things work well during normal times, but as soon as there is strife people start writing ugly and irresponsible things, and policing them is no fun.
    While there is certainly real experience reflected here I also can report that forcing people to post under their own full name eliminates much of that. Furthermore, today’s built in features to flag, ban or waitlist posts injects health and reason pretty efficiently even where no moderator is there at all times.
    My idea would be to automatically assign each new member or friend an account to get them started. Unlike email lists that are hard to manage a board is one stop shopping and makes you aware of all the activities going on around the church.
    PS: I was just on Cape Cod on Sippewisset Beach where my wife once lived while a post doc at WHOI. I gazed over the water (which, btw, was warm as a tub) and wondered where exactly New Bedford might be.

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