Sunday morning was bright and warm, as we walked toward the auditorium in South San Jose, Calif. Before we reached the door, we were handed a Polaroid camera and told to photograph ourselves and pass on the camera to the next person coming in. We took the photo, and went inside the building, where there was coffee, bagels and donuts.
A man was onstage in the auditorium, wearing a short-sleeved black shirt, shorts and Birkenstock sandals. There was an assortment of wooden picture frames floating above his head, and two large screens on either side of him ran a well designed PowerPoint presentation as he spoke.
Was it a high technology conference or demo? A spirited sales pitch or self-help workshop? No, this is The Journey, a nouveau reformed church that uses technology and rock music to help attract younger folks to the teachings of Jesus. And they are pushing the concept further, hoping to add Web 2.0 elements to allow parishioners to participate and help set the agenda of the church going forward.
I visited the church with my friend — and fellow Jew — Heather Gold, so we could see how a church in Silicon Valley might use technology to its advantage. The experience was pretty overwhelming and perfect for the ADD (attention deficit disorder) set.
The pastor, Jeff Wenke (pictured here), paced the stage with the demeanor of a caffeinated startup executive. The theme of his talk was “A Picture is Worth 1,000 Words,” thus the picture frames hanging from the ceiling, and he talked about Jesus’ view of the Jewish Temple. When he explained the story of Jesus being upset with the money-lenders, he said, “Jesus, he’s just ticked off! It’s like someone turning over the concession stands at the Santa Cruz boardwalk.”
Throughout the PowerPoint sermon, Wenke paced the stage, sprinkled in slang like “kick it forward” and had contemporary music by OutKast pumped in during short breaks. He was earnest and believing and light-hearted enough to make it work, playing off the crowd’s energy with perfectly timed humor.
At one point, Wenke asked people to write words on Post-It notes describing what they would want in the perfect, ideal church. They did, and lined up to attach them to a mounted picture frame and board. (One of Heather’s words, “snacks,” quickly came true when she discovered the donuts.) Wenke called out some of the words, and laughed along at one note that read, “a good-looking pastor.” He explained the basics of what the word “church” actually meant (from the Greek ekklesia for “gathering of the called out,” and not a building), and explained what Jesus thought a church should be (a house of prayer and spiritual foundation).
Later, Wenke gave way to a full rock band that performed inspirational songs, with the congregation clapping and singing along to lyrics that appeared on the overhead screens. The audience was pretty young, mainly in their 20s and 30s, though there was a good portion of middle-aged and older folks as well. It was like watching Dave Matthews Band kick it in front of an adoring crowd of true believers, but the message was clearly about spirituality. The whole shebang lasted a mere hour and 15 minutes, and never lagged for entertainment or eye candy.
Along with the sermon and live performance, The Journey is also having a month-long picture contest in August. The congregation is asked to capture the church in photos and upload them to a Flickr page. The Top 5 photos will be showcased in the service at the end of the month, according to Worship Pastor Vanessa Lombera (pictured here), who is in charge of the entire Sunday services, from graphics to PowerPoint to music. (UPDATE: Lombera corrects me on this, saying they use Mac presentation software KeyNote and not PowerPoint.)
Rebranding a Church
Was this the ultimate Web 2.0 incarnation of a church, if there is such a thing? Not quite. The Flickr contest and Polaroid photos were a nice start, but what would become of those Post-It notes and photos? How would those become part of the church and its direction? The grassroots/community idea behind Web 2.0 is that people are working more in collaboration, creating the media themselves and changing the top-down power structure to something more bottom-up.
It was indeed a radical notion for a church to change its traditional structure, as its roots clearly lie in a very top-down, minister-knows-all hierarchy. For a pastor to say, “My congregants know more than I do” — in an echo of Dan Gillmor’s “My readers know more than I do” — is a near heresy, because the truth and power has always come down through the hierarchy of the church. Even though the rise of Protestants helped decentralize power of the priests in Catholicism, there’s still a top-down power structure inherent in most organized religions.
But times are changing, and attendance in organized religious services is on the downward trend. So one day, Andy Gridley (pictured here), the former Worship Pastor at The Journey, came upon the Newsweek story about Web 2.0 companies, The New Wisdom of the Web. He brought it to The Journey staff’s attention, and a plan was hatched to add more interactivity to the church services.
After the service, Heather and I talked more about the church’s vision with its two full-time employees — Wenke and Lombera — along with Gridley and Brian Fernandes, the graphics guru. We learned that The Journey was launched in the style and language — and spirit — of Silicon Valley startups. Five years ago, the initial planners for the church met in a garage. They got seed money from an angel investor of sorts, had a business plan, and spun out from the Church of the Chimes in early 2002. Unlike a startup, however, the church gives 10% of its income to charity or projects in the community.
Pastor Wenke was open about his costs — in between bites of a quesadilla — saying his rent was up to $3,000 per month for office space, and that the church had done well financially until recently, as it sought to expand and take itself to the next level. “Are you going to do an IPO [initial public offering]?” I asked jokingly. They laughed, but actually, they had a plan not for offering stock but for doing a January “relaunch” with an updated logo, revamped website and new branding, according to Lombera, who also sang during the service.
“We’re wondering how can we do it even more or better than we have been,” Lombera said. “We’ll do it with some kind of campaign, but we don’t want to do it the same way. We want a foundational shift, we’re already doing it with some of the stuff we did today…with the Post-Its and Polaroids. And there were lines of people putting those words up [with the Post-Its]. I was in the booth, saying ‘Yeah! It works, they’re doing it!’ So we can go ahead and design it all, we have a great team. But how can we get input from 200 people in a Web 2.0 manner?”
The Emerging Church Movement
The Journey is not the first church to rebrand itself for the 21st century and reach out to younger folks — just like old media companies are striving for hip digital makeovers. There’s also The River in San Jose and Vintage Faith church in Santa Cruz, home of pastor Dan Kimball, who wrote the book, The Emerging Church. These new churches are reaching out to what they call a postmodern audience in a post-Christian world.
The blurb on Kimball’s Vintage Faith website explains how these new churches are breaking from the past. “While many of us have been inside our church offices busy preparing our sermons and keeping on a fast-paced schedule in the ministries and internal affairs of our churches, something alarming is happening on the outside,” the blurb reads. “A great transformation is happening in our own neighborhoods, schools, and colleges. What once was a Christian nation with a Judeo-Christian worldview is fast becoming an unchurched post-Christian nation.”
Web 2.0 companies such as Flickr, YouTube and Six Apart aim to empower people to shoot and share their own video and photos, and write blogs — user-generated content — that often questions and breaks from the traditional media infrastructure and norms. So too, the emerging churches are looking to break from traditional church structure, focusing less on a church as a holy edifice and more on the church within each congregant.
The Journey plans to delve even deeper into popular culture by helping launch MallChurch — yes, a church with a mall storefront that includes an Internet cafe, books and informal discussions about Jesus. The MallChurch site explains its vision in this way:
Oakridge, a Westfield Shopping Town right here in San Jose, sees 800,000 guests in a typical month. Now imagine if those 800,000 guests happened by a new kind of store.
A store that had the warmth of Starbucks, the technology of Apple, the broad appeal of Target, the resources of Border’s, the opportunity of Craigslist and the message of Jesus. Coffee, music, conversation, plasma screens, community service opportunities, books, T-shirts, CDs, interactive displays…you get the picture. Not a place to sing songs and get preached at, but a place you can connect with people and explore the possibilities of living the life Jesus made possible.
Of course, there’s a danger in this postmodern approach to people, if the spiritual becomes subsumed by secular trappings. The religious message can get watered down or people might feel like Jesus is being sprung on them like a Trojan Horse dressed up in a mall. Postmodern people are notorious for being skeptical about flashy marketing messages.
The overall question is whether people are really open to the message these new churches are bringing, and whether the congregants do have the power to influence the direction of the churches. The Journey does have myriad groups to join for congregants to get involved, including the Leadership Roundtable that includes dozens of church members who help set the direction of the church, according to Wenke.
My friend Heather has been preaching her own style of Open Source Management for tech companies, helping them include their customers in the process of planning and building products. She told The Journey higher-ups at lunch that there was still room to embrace people’s ideas within the prayer service and beyond. She noted that there are different ways to make people feel welcome in a public setting, whether it’s including their opinions during the PowerPoint presentation or giving them an open forum on the church website.
ReligionLink, a site that helps journalists cover religious issues, has a fascinating background page on emerging churches. Under the heading, “Why It Matters,” is this passage:
Participants in emerging church may help reshape faith groups’ relationship to their communities and to traditional church structures. That, in turn, can affect the way churches participate in addressing social problems and public issues.
So maybe the idea of bringing Web 2.0 thinking into these re-imagined, postmodern churches is more than just cutting and pasting a cliche from the tech world. Maybe The Journey can open up its PowerPoint presentation in a limited wiki where congregants could edit it before that Sunday’s service. Perhaps the audience could take turns on the microphone singing or sharing their own personal stories. If managed deftly, the possibilities are endless.
What do you think? Can the ideas of citizen journalism and Web 2.0 translate to new non-traditional churches and synagogues? Do you see overlaps there, and what ideas do you have for a church to reach people in new, empowering ways? Share your thoughts and ideas in the comments below.
[All photos by Mark Glaser, taken with the PPC-6700 cameraphone.]