Religion can be the enemy of God. It’s often what happens when God, like Elvis, has left the building. [laughs] A list of instructions where there was once conviction; dogma where once people just did it; a congregation led by a man where once they were led by the Holy Spirit. Discipline replacing discipleship. Why are you chuckling?
To translate, SEO is “search engine optimization,” the often-huckersterish art of tricking Google to display your website higher than your competitors in search results. “Usability” is the catch-all term for making your website easy to navigate and inviting to visitors. Companies with deep pockets often want to spend a lot of money on SEO, when most of the time the most viable long-term solution to ranking high with search engines is to provide visitors with good reasons to visit your site. What if we applied these principles to our churches and meetinghouses and swapped the terms?
Outreach gets people to your meetinghouse / Hospitality keeps people returning.
A lot of Quaker meetinghouses have pretty good “natural SEO.” Here in the U.S. East Coast, they’re often near a major road in the middle of town. If they’re lucky there are a few historical markers of notable Quakers and if they are really lucky there’s a highly-respected Friends school nearby. All these meetings really have to do is put a nice sign out front and table a few town events every year. The rest is covered. Although we do get the occasional “aren’t you all Amish?” comments, we have a much wider reputation that our numbers would necessarily warrant. We rank pretty high.
But what are the lessons of hospitality we could work on? Do we provide places where spiritual seekers can both grow personally and engage in the important questions of the faith in the modern world? Are we invitational, bringing people into our homes and into our lives for shared meals and conversations?
In my freelance days when I was hired to work on SEO I ran through a series of statistical reports and redesigned some underperforming pages, but then turned my attention to the client’s content. It was in this realm that my greatest quantifiable successes occurred. At the heart of the content work was asking how could the site could more fully engage with first-time visitors. The “usability considerations” on the Wikipedia page on usability could be easily adapted as queries:
Who are the users, what do they know, what can they learn? What do users want or need to do? What is the users’ general background? What is the users’ context for working? What must be left to the machine? Can users easily accomplish intended tasks at their desired speed? How much training do users need? What documentation or other supporting materials are available to help the user?
I’d love to see Friends consider this more. FGC’s “New Meetings Toolbox” has a section on welcoming newcomers. But I’d love to hear more stories about how we’re working on the “usability” of our spiritual communities.
Religious wars, religious dress, religious money – these are the real and yet superbly complex elements of our cultural existence. Scout any crack or cranny of popular culture and you find religion creating a glorious maze of topics for writers to discover and sift and sing to the masses.
But lately, I find that a repulsive plague of repetition and banality has swept over the disenchanted cybersphere. Each day I begin my religion news search with hopeful eagerness, sifting closely through mainstream and fringe outlets, hungry for signs of a new trend, movement, argument, study – anything other than what I consumed the day before. But I search in vain, and my doldrums have led me to take action.
People sometimes get pretty worked up about convincing each other of an matter of pressing importance. We think we have The Answer about The Issue and that if we just repeat ourselves loud enough and often enough the obviousness of our position will win out. It becomes our duty, in fact, to repeat it loud and often. If we happen to wear down the opposition so much that they withdraw from our companionship or fellowship, all the better, as we’ve achieved a patina of unity. Religious liberals are just as prone to this as the conservatives.
These are not the values we hold when talking about the natural world. There we talk about biodiversity. We don’t cheer when a species maladapted to the human-driven Anthropocene disappears into extinction. Just because a plant or animal from the other side of the world has no natural predators doesn’t mean our local species should be superseded.
Scientists tell us that biodiversity is not just a kind of do-unto-others value that satisfies our sense of nostalgia; having wide gene pools comes in handy when near-instant adaptation is needed in response to massive habitat stress. Monocrops are good for the annual harvest but leave us especially vulnerable when phytophthora infestans comes ashore.
It’s a good thing for different religious groups to have different values, both from us us and from one another. There are pressures in today’s culture to level all of our distinctives down so that we have no unique identity. Some cheer this monocropping of spirituality, but I’m not sure it’s healthy for human race. If our religious values are somehow truer or more valuable than those of other people, then they will eventually spread themselves – not by pushing other bodies to be like us, but by attracting the members of the other bodies to join with us.
God may have purpose in fellowships that act differently that ours. Let us not get too smug about our own inevitability that we forget to share ourselves with those with whom we differ.
A bit of a milestone – I finished the One Year Bible reading plan last night! I managed to stretch it out to 27 months but that’s alright. I started in January 2009 and initially kept the daily readings going till May of that year, when I feel hopelessly behind. I kept a mental note of the date and in May 2010 I started where I had left off. I kept reading regularly until the last week in December, when I was understandably distracted by the birth of our third son Gregory on 12/28. Knowing I wanted to keep the cycle going, I skipped that week and started again on January 1, 2011. It was only last night that I went back and finished up that last week – featuring Malachi and Revelations (which has the Lamb’s War metaphor so important to early Friends).
Thanks go to Gregg Kosela and AJ Schwanz for letting me know such a thing as one year Bible reading plans existed. I had never been able to stick to a regular Bible-reading regimen before. The grandmother who frequently declared me a Bible illiterate would be so proud! (Actually not, she’d find something else to critique, but her hangups around family and “Christian” living are a much longer blog post!).
It’s been great having a regular spiritual practice. I’m glad I can find my way around the Bible now and my understanding of Friends has deepened. The early Quaker writings are steeped in Biblical allusions and we miss a lot when we miss those references.
I’m writing this from the back of St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, a small church built in the 1920s in the small crossroads town of Malaga New Jersey. It was closed this past November, supposedly because of a broken boiler but really because the Diocese of Camden is trying to sell off its smaller churches – or any church with prime real estate along a highway. It was reopened without permission by parishioners in early January, while we were still in the hospital with baby number three, a.k.a. Gregory.
We’ve spent a lot of time here since then. It’s a 24 hour vigil and has been and will continue to be. In Boston there are vigils that have been going seven years. I try to imagine Gregory as a seven year old, having spent his childhood growing up here in this little church. It’s not an impossible scenario.
I also spend a lot of time talking with the faithful Catholics who have come here to protect the church. It’s a cacophony of voices right now – conversations about the church, sure, but that’s only one of the many topics that come up. People are sharing their lives – stories about growing up, about people that are know, about current events… It’s a real community. We’ve been attending this church for years but it’s now that I’m really getting to know everyone.
I sometimes ponder how I, the self-dubbed “Quaker Ranter,” got involved in all of this. Through my wife, of course – she grew up Catholic, became a Friend for eleven years and then “returned to the Church” a few years after our marriage. But there’s more than that, reasons why I spend my own time here. Part is my love of the small and quirky. St Mary’s parishioners are standing up for the kind of churches where people know each other. In an era where menial tasks are hired out, the actual members of St. Marys tend the church’s rosary garden and clean its basement and toilets. They spend time in the church beyond the hour of mass, doing things like praying the rosary or adoration.
The powers-that-be that want St Mary’s closed so badly want a large inpersonal church with lots of professionalized services and a least-common-denominator faith where people come, go and donate their money to a diocese that’s run like a business. But that’s not St. Mary’s. There’s history here. This is a hub of a town, an ancient crossroads, but the bishop wants big churches in the splurge of suburban sprawl. Even we Friends need places like St Mary’s in the world.