Monthly Archives: May 2006

New in the neighborhood

“New B International Market” opened up this week two blocks from our apartment, on Purchase Street near Union (in the Bristol Building). Carol and I stopped in yesterday as we were walking home.

A young woman was talking with the man at the cash register, as he rang up her groceries. They seemed to know each other pretty well. She was telling him about a trip she had just taken.

We walked around the store to see what they carried. They had just opened, so there were still empty shelves. Lots of Latin American specialities. Some nice-looking fresh fish at reasonable prices. A modest selection of produce. Milk and eggs. Some frozen food. I got a big jar of green olives for $1.89, a head of garlic for $.49, a box of tea bags. Carol checked out the cans of sliced jalapeno peppers and refried beans, but searched in vain for sangria-flavored soft drinks (her favorite).

The young woman was still talking to the man at the register.She seemed to know him well enough to call him by his first name, Jose. We didn’t mind waiting; it was a friendly kind of store.

The man rang up our purchases. Carol asked him when the store would be open. “Seven to seven, Monday through Saturday,” he said, and then apologetically, “one to six on Sundays. Do you live in the neighborhood?”

We said we did, and promised we’d be back, that we’d been waiting months for this little grocery store to open up.

“That store has a very particular selection,” said Carol as we walked away. “I guess it’s Cape Verdean, I don’t know.” It did look like the little flag behind the cash register was Cape Verdean.

“Yes,” I said, “but they have milk and eggs and produce and all the little things you need in the middle of the week but don’t want to drive all the way to the supermarket to get. And their prices are quite reasonable for a convenience market.”

She was just peeved because they didn’t have sangria-flavored soft drinks. We love being able to walk to buy groceries.

“Web 2.0” and churches

“Web 2.0” is one of the new buzzwords in Silicon Valley. Proponents say that “Web 2.0” is the next step in the development of the Web, moving farther in the direction of democracy, openness, and participation. Some cynics say that “Web 2.0” should be translated as “a new phrase to suck money out of venture capitalists,” and other cynics say that “Web 2.0” should be translated as “the news media are finally paying attention to Web development again.” The cynics are probably right, and at the same time there are exciting things happening on the Web that churches should pay attention to: blogging of course, and social networking, and tags. Let’s take a look at how “Web 2.0” might pertain to development of church Web sites.

According to Tim O’Reilly, one of the chief proponents of the term, “Web 2.0” is a set of seven “design patterns,” or ways to think about designing a Web site. [You can find O’Reilly’s seven design patterns for “Web 2.0” here.] So how might these secven design patterns apply to creating church Web sites?

What most interests me about “Web 2.0” is O’Reilly’s idea that “users add value.” Most church Web sites do not allow users to add value. And in the few instances where church Web sites have tried to make it easy for church members to, for example, post committee information to the site, there has been little or no response. Yet at the same time, the religious blogosphere has become incredibly active, and social networking Web sites have also seen activity by religious folk — so what’s going on?

Put it this way: a typical church Web site is not LiveJournal or Blogger or We occupy a different place in the Web. We should be thinking of church Web sites in terms of another one of O’Reilly’s principles, which points out that small sites make up the bulk of the internet’s content, content that “Web 2.0” applications are going to reach out to. O’Reilly calls this the “long tail” of the Web — and your church Web site is part of that “long tail.”

As small niche sites, the question we should be asking is this: what can we offer that makes it worthwhile for a big site to reach out to us? Most church Web sites will probably look no farther than their sermon archives as their primary store of unique, niche information. But churches have other niche information to offer: local theology, local history, local social justice information, genealogical data, biographical data, architectural information, social justice education, etc. Which makes me ask myself: is it enough to offer sermons? Perhaps a better question is: what unique data or information can we offer that will attract potential newcomers and further our mission in the world?

Let me go back to O’Reilly’s idea that “users add value.” O’Reilly also recognizes that most Web sites find that their users simply don’t bother adding data or information. O’Reilly concludes that Web sites should “…set inclusive defaults for aggregating user data as a side-effect of their use of the application.” I think of this as building in feedback loops to ongoing development of the church Web site. Because church Web sites are tiny, and serve tiny communities, much of the feedback is going to come, not through the Web site itself, but via face-to-face contact or via email messages. The principle here is to continuously search for ways to include feedback loops — with the assumption that the church Web site is not static but is constantly under devcelopment.

Finally, O’Reilly points out a technological fact that churches should consider: “The PC is no longer the only access device for internet applications, and applications that are limited to a single device are less valuable than those that are connected.” How does this apply to churches? The example that comes immediately to my mind is the newcomer who, while driving to your church, looks up driving directions on her cell phone. Which implies that we should start thinking about church Web sites that are readable on cell phone screens.

So is “Web 2.0” just another buzzword, or is it a radical new way of thinking about the Web? From the point of view of church Web sites, I think it’s both. On the one hand, it’s just another high-tech buzzword that comes with the usual array of acronyms like AJAX and PHP — stuff that mostly doesn’t apply to church Web sites. On the other hand, it’s a radical reminder that Web sites should not be static, one-way communication — that church Web sites should represent the ideals of Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the Web, who wanted to create a method to connect people together in meaningful, democratic, non-hierarchical ways.

Eat your vegetables

I got fresh locally grown rhubarb on Friday. Cooked up a big pot of it. Put some local honey in it, but not too much because I kind of like the bitter taste. Had stewed rhubarb on toast for breakfast today. Had a rhubarb sandwich for lunch. Had chilled rhubarb for a midafternoon snack today when the temperature got up to eighty-five. And I feel virtuous about eating what seems like a dessert three times today. Because rhubarb is really a vegetable. I’m just eating my vegetables.

Cheap Yankee

Not that I’m obsessed with gas prices or anything, but….

My ’93 Toyota Corolla got 37 miles per gallon on the trip up to Cambridge and back. As a cheap New England Yankee, with gas prices hovering around three dollars a gallon, I’m feeling pretty good about that. Sure, a new Toyota Prius would get 44 miles per gallon (as tested in the real world by Consumer Reports), 19% better than my thirteen year old Corolla. But that new Prius would cost me well over twenty grand, whereas my Corolla cost six grand, used, in 1997. So I’m keeping a car out of the landfill, and saving gas, and saving money.

Oh, and I walk to work.

Here’s a case where being a cheapskate is pretty much the same thing as being an environmentalist.

Memorial Day weekend

I’m about to drive up to Cambridge to spend a couple of days with Carol, who has been working up there. I’ll have to fill my gas tank on the way up. Ouch. I can feel the pain in my wallet already. Carol sent me a link to a little online movie about the high price of gas. Be forewarned: the lyrics to the country-and-western soundtrack aren’t exactly polite in places, and you may not want to watch this with your kids. But I’ll bet you’ll be humming the chorus to yourself next time you stop at a gas station. Link


Rob sent email reporting a coyote sighting near Rural Cemetery here in New Bedford, not far from the Dartmouth town line. He writes that he followed it for a short distance until it disappeared into the housing projects nearby.

So the coyotes have definitely moved into the area. New Bedfordites, make sure your cats stay indoors at night.

Spring watch

The arrival of local vegetables defines late spring for me. Last Sunday, I had to drive from Chelmsford back to New Bedford, and I decided to use some back roads instead of getting right on the highway. I found myself driving past Verrill Farm, not far from where we once lived, and I could see that their strawberry plants were in full bloom. That could mean only one thing: it was asparagus time. I pulled into the farmstand.

There it was, right at the entrance to the farmstand. Asparagus: bunches of thin, tender stalks, slightly purple at the base shading into pale green and up to the dark green tips. My mouth started watering as soon as I saw the asparagus.

And rhubarb: long, gently curved stalks, a vivid vermilion with green undertones. I got three or four pounds of it. And early raspberries, horrendously expensive at six dollars for a scant pint, but I had to buy some anyway. And pea tendrils, an odd vegetable to be sure, but I was craving fresh greens so I got some of them, too. And I got some local honey to sweeten up the rhubarb.

So I’ve been eating well all week. I finished the last of the pea tendrils tonight. I’ll go out and get some more asparagus on Friday — none of that tough rubbery asparagus they fly in from California, you have to get it fresh and local, so fresh and tender you don’t even have to cook it. And maybe I’ll get some local lettuce, too.

Soon it will be time for local peas, and all kinds of greens, and then strawberries. And strawberry season marks the beginning of summer.

Resources for growth

Just got off the phone… I was talking with Susanna Whitman, the Growth Services Administrator at the Unitarian Universalist Association. I needed to order a big outdoor banner saying “Marriage Is a Civil Right,” which Susanna’s office handles, but in the process of ordering it we got to talking about church growth. Susanna pointed me in the direction of several great resources:

New Congregation and Growth Resources has links to dozens of resources.

Large Congregations Library is a new page of short articles on growth topics. Susanna pointed out that even though I’m in a small church, many of these articles are relevant to our needs, too.

Religious Hospitality is a new pamphlet written for lay leaders. Loosley based on the book Radical Hospitality, it offers a religious rationale for why we should welcome people into our congregations.


Yesterday, I exchanged pulpits with Rev. Ellen Spero, the minister at the Unitarian Universalist church in Chelmsford, Massachusetts — she preached here in New Bedford while I preached up in the Chelmsford church. I like pulpit exchanges because I get to check out another church, to see what’s happening there.

When I got to Chelmsford, I went down to the kitchen, and while I stood there sipping tea and chatting with a couple of friendly people, I watched a mom with two daughters walk into the room. The two girls were grinning ear-to-ear, and you could just tell that coming to church was a high point of their week. That seemed like a good sign. Later when I stood greeting people as they walked into the sanctuary, you could see and feel that really everyone was pleased to be there; another good sign.

When I stood up to do the opening words, I could see that most of the pews were pretty well filled up, yet there were still people coming in, so I said that perhaps people could move over to open up some aisle seats for the latecomers — and everyone just moved over without even thinking about it. You could just feel the good energy in that room, and you could feel that these were people who know how to care for one another.

The preaching part was just plain fun. Preaching, as any minister will tell you, is something that the congregation and the minister do together. The Chelmsford congregation did more than their share of the work, so I sounded better than I had any right to sound; a good congregation can do something to make even an average preacher like me sound pretty good.

I could feel an indefinable something in that congregation; something very good is happening there. Not that I want to go and be the minister in Chelmsford; I like our little church here in New Bedford. And I’m sure the Chelmsford church must have its own peculiar frustrations and challenges. But the last time I felt that indefinable something that I felt in Chelmsford was in the Watertown, Massachusetts, church a decade ago when they doubled in size in two short years. I’d bet the Chelmsford church is either going to grow in the next few years, or they’re going to have to work very hard to keep from growing.

All of which led to an interesting thought for me: there are churches where it takes more effort and energy to keep growth from happening than it does to let growth happen. Based on the limited sample size of the churches I have happened to visit, I’d say that is true of more than half our churches: i.e., in more than half our churches, I’ll bet it’s easier to grow than to stay the same size.

If you want to know if that’s true in your church, watch the children as they arrive on Sunday morning. If at least some of the children are grinning as they walk in, watch out — your church is ready to grow.