NPR exec to church educators: “Be present, be active, be yourself” online

Kyle Matthew Oliver
By Kyle Matthew Oliver (@kmoliver)

“NPR has a problem,” said Sarah Lumbard, vice president of content strategy and operations for the public media giant. “We are competing for habit … And every year, the average age of [our] audience gets one year older.”

She was speaking Saturday to a multi-denominational audience of church leaders who had gathered to talk about faith, technology, and learning. And it turns out that competing to be part of people’s routines and dealing with aging demographics aren’t the only work NPR has in common with your average mainline church. Lumbard outlined a framework for community and connection that any minister would recognize.

“Trust is created by being active, being present, being yourself,” she said. “And when you break itand you can do that digitallyit’s hard to rebuild. But we already knew that.”

In this case, “we” were a group of Christian educators, communicators, and other leaders gathered for e-Formation 2013, a conference on faith formation for a connected, digital world. Lumbard was the keynote speaker for an event that also included a Friday pre-conference skills bootcamp, a Friday evening plenary on the four eras of communication (oral, written, mass-mediated, and interactive), and weekend workshops on models and methods for using technology for faith formation in churches, at school, or in the home.

A major conference goal was to defray the anxiety that so often accompanies conversations about church and technology. In her role at NPR, Lumbard encounters plenty of trepidation about the process of interacting with an online audience. And yet the most important lesson, she said, is to recognize that good instincts about forming relationships are the most important ingredient for success.

“The digital world is an extension of our physical world. And everything that we expect of people in the physical world is true in the digital world, and it brings us the same joy,” she said. “You need trust in this world. That’s everything friendship and community is built on, and that’s all we’re talking about here.”

Lumbard told the story of generosity and trust fostering a tolerance for failure that is essential to success and innovation online. Indeed, she cited some prominent NPR misfires before sharing any success stories. She spoke of shows with lousy social media presence, blogs that never found a groove, and projects that weren’t successfully handed off from the interns who created them.

When she got to the success stories, they included lessons any church can use: follow up, have fun, tell the truth. One example was a reporting project currently underway by  NPR’s Planet Money team. The team knows that making t-shirts is one of the ways emerging economies step onto the global manufacturing stage, so reporters plan to follow the life cycle of a custom t-shirt and to share what they learn.

To answer the question “how many should we make?” they created a Kickstarter campaign to raise money and get listeners involved in the process of creating “the most technologically advanced t-shirt in NPR history.” Hilarity ensued, as well as the beginnings of some fascinating reporting. And the fact that NPR fans could help support the project only served to strengthen listener loyalty and connection. (Churches, take note.)

The event, sponsored by the VTS Center for the Ministry of Teaching included a follow-up session with Lumbard on Saturday and a series of “application workshops” on Sunday. The goal of those sessions was to help those in attendance begin to imagine how to use their new digital skills and strategies in the ministry work they do back home.

Perhaps Lumbard’s best advice for getting started with that work was to try not to get too overwhelmed.

“You don’t have to do everything at once,” she said. “In fact, you can just do one thing.”

Judging by the online follow-up this week, it seems a safe bet that many who attended will be doing much more than that.

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