Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Trouble with Bookstores, Redux

A few months ago, as Borders closed some of its stores, I wrote this blog post.  This week we get the word that Borders is completely liquidating and will be no more. 

When I came to Jackson, Michigan, seven years ago, we had several small bookstores.  None of them were great.  Almost all of them are now out of business.   What's gone?  Best Books in Jackson Crossing, a small bookstore in a strip mall on West Ave., another small bookstore that was on West Ave. (I can't even remember their names), the Nomad Bookstore on Mechanic (which both came and went during these years), and now, we'll see the Waldenbooks in Jackson Crossing close, as well.

Where can you buy a book, other than online, in town?
  • You can buy textbooks at Baker College and Jackson Community College.
  • You can buy Christian books at Agape in Jackson Crossing.
  • You can buy children's books at the Toy House and a lesser number at Toys R Us.
  • You can buy comic books at Nostalgia, Ink
  • You can buy used books at the Jackson Book Exchange.
  • And you can buy bestsellers at Meijer, Target, and I think K-Mart and Wal-Mart (I seldom shop at these two). 
Honestly, our book selection won't be much different with Waldenbooks gone -- which perhaps was part of the problem.  The real loss was the Nomad, which carried a somewhat different selection from all the rest, although it was still not the selection I was usually looking for. 

But since we don't have much selection here, much less a bookstore with a comfy chair to curl up in, I did most of my book shopping in Ann Arbor or Lansing.  In Ann Arbor, there were three big Borders a year ago, and one Barnes and Noble.  I suspect that Barnes and Noble will become very overrun unless another big store pops up in town.  Ann Arbor, you would think, could support at least one more bookstore in town.  Hopefully Barnes and Noble or Books-a-Million will seize the opportunity.  Meanwhile, I may head to Lansing, which still has all of its big bookstores -- two Barnes and Nobles, and, even better, two Schuler's Books.  I've just discovered they have weekly online coupons, which makes them more price-competitive, and they're locally owned--like Borders once was.

*sigh*  I will miss it.  Goodbye, Ann Arbor institution.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Two Cents on the Justice GA

For the record, I'm not really opinionated about what is being called the "hot mess" -- the resignation of two members of the GA Planning Committee. I don't know enough about the internal politics of the GAPC or the UUA Board to really weigh in on the issue.  Kim Hampton's post about the roll of worship and the SLT in the Justice GA is informed and informative.  And I think Tom Schade is right on point to say, "It's always useful to remember that the future hasn't happened yet."

I am opinionated about the "Justice GA," on the other hand.  And I know for every person who was sitting in the Plenary Hall when we voted for a "Justice GA" there was a separate opinion, and not all of our expectations can be met.  Half of us probably think that there should be a Service of the Living Tradition, and half of us don't.  Half of us think there should be an exhibit hall, and half of us don't.  And the half that do and the half that don't for each item are a mix of those interested in the idea of the Justice GA and those that aren't. But I know this: there are a lot of people who've never gone to at GA before who are considering going to this one, because they understand that this year our denomination is doing something important and meaningful and different.  There are people who can only go a GA once in a while who are making a special point to be at this one.  The energy and excitement about the possibilities are high.

What we voted on was, to my mind, instead of doing business and usual and in lieu of cancelling or moving the 2012 General Assembly, to have a Justice GA where business as usual was minimized.  My fear is that "business as usual" will be taken to mean only the actual business of the General Assembly -- the business resolutions, Actions of Immediate Witness, and other such business of the plenary. 

On the other hand, I am also concerned that for people with mobility issues there will be nothing that they can attend if more and more is focused on off-site justice work.  I'm personally dedicating myself to starting to learn Spanish this year in preparation for the Justice GA, as suggested to us in one of this year's Responsive Resolution--this represents a real investment of both time and money, neither of which I have a lot to spare. 

And at the same time, I'm worried that I won't be able to even attend GA because I don't handle a lot of heat well, nor a lot of walking and standing, and if everything involves a combination of the two, it will be extremely difficult for me.  This year and past years have been a "hot mess" for me when it comes to how we handle accessibility.  During one GA (Ft. Worth), I very badly sprained my ankle -- it dislocated and then popped back into place in the process.  I needed help with mobility.  The planning for GA didn't include extra scooters; I was very lucky that one person who had ordered one had never shown up.  This year, when our Standing on the Side of Love rally was a bit of a hike in the hot weather, I heard the announcement that if we needed to take a cab, we could get reimbursed later (already not the best system), and that cabs would be waiting outside the conference center.  I didn't hear that it was at a different door, so I followed the crowd out the side door -- no cabs.  I went back in and found out where I was supposed to go, and went out -- no cabs were waiting.  This was not a particularly well-orchestrated initiative, from my point of view.  It's very important for the Justice GA to remember that what is a "short walk" for one person in a huge obstacle for another, particularly in heat that many are not used to dealing with.

So, with all that said, here's what I, personally, would love to see:
  • No exhibit hall.  It's become more and more pointless anyway.  All of these agencies can be found online.  We can shop online, and we can see their justice issues online.  Instead, create a virtual exhibit hall that people can visit from anywhere.
  • A Justice Hall instead.  If people need downtime and a place to wander or socialize, give them small tasks to do, like letters to write to elected officials. 
  • One or two workshop slots only.  There may be some workshops that are essential to hold, or exiting lecturers that we really want to feature, and there can be a some large justice-oriented workshops on how to build a movement, how to do social justice, how to engage cooperatively with other organizations, ARAOM work, etc.  
  • Instead of workshop slots, we have justice slots.  As for the all-justice slots, I would like to see not just large social justice rallies in these spots, but places where small groups go off into different parts of the area to work with local organizations on different projects.  There needs to be great variety.  And this probably means a sort of schedule where we commit to what we're doing in advance.  And it means buses. 
  • I would like to see the following cornerstone elements of GA: the Ware Lecture, the Service of the Living Tradition, and the Sunday morning worship service (which I would love to be the SLT again, but that's a whole other argument).  I think all can be themed around this justice work, and all are important to what makes up a General Assembly.  For the newcomers to GA, they would give the important taste of what GA is usually about.
  • All Reports -- all reports -- given in written and video ahead of time and no reports -- no reports -- presented verbally during plenaries.  We can do our homework ahead of time.  
  • A single plenary session to deal with all remaining business that we haven't been able to put off or voted this year to do next year.
  • Yes, more worship.  When we can't be doing justice work, we should be praying, singing, and celebrating.
  • I would like to see Ministry Days themed around the Justice GA in the following ways: a Berry Street Address that's on theme; minimal business; a group action project; drop the "collegial conversations" element in favor of group social action; drop the usual conversation with the UUA President in favor of having him lead us in justice work as well.
Most of all, I want this experience to be meaningful and transformative for me and for our movement.

Obviously I'm not going to get all my wishes.  Nor is anybody else.  Meanwhile, let's have patience and understanding with the Board and Planning Committee as they do the hard work of creating a GA experience unlike any other.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Design Your Church a Mobile Website! - Maps Addendum

It turns out I was over-thinking the maps option.  I had created a page called "Directions" which had the address and phone number and an embedded customized Google map of  the church in it (200x300 pixels).  This was entirely workable.  Someone could change the size of the map and move it up & down and so forth, to see what they wanted to see.  It was pretty much like this:

View Larger Map

But this wasn't what I really wanted.  I wanted to click on it and have the option pop up of going to my navigation app on the phone.

I discovered that if I clicked on the (plain text--no hyperlink) address itself that I had typed above the embedded map, I would get such a pop-up asking if I wanted to do that.  But this wasn't intuitive enough and some people might not know their phones work this way (and some phones might not do it, for all I know).

Then this weekend someone sent me directions to an event using Mapquest. When I went to print the directions, Mapquest asked me if I wanted to send the directions by text message to my phone.  When I did this, and the text message had a simple link.  When I tried clicking on that link, I had the option of using my navigation app or going to the browser.  Unfortunately, when I clicked navigation, it didn't work right -- it didn't put in the address.  When I went to the browser, however, I was then able to go back over to the navigation app and have the address appear in there to navigate to.

So I tried just putting a Mapquest link to the church on the mobile Directions page that was like this:  MAP.  My phone, when I clicked on it, didn't offer me the navigation app option.  So much for that. But it did take me to a very nice little Mapquest mobile version (which I do have to say seemed to offer more choices than Google's). 

So then I went back to Google, wondering what would happen if I just linked to the map rather than embedding it, like this:  MAP.  Success!  Clicking on it offered me the directions of going to Google's very nice mobile version of their map, or using my app.  I switched my directions page on the Mobile home page to be linked to the map, rather than linked to a page with the link on it, and it's done! 

Moral of the story: Whether you have a mobile version of your church webpage or not, instead of embedding the map, it would be good to provide a link to the Google map (or do both).  That way mobile users--at least those with Android phones like mine--will have the option of getting their navigation app to give them directions on how to get to your church as they drive there.  And even if it doesn't, Google will automatically route them to a mobile version of their map, which will be sized more appropriately for the phone than your embedded map is.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Design Your Church a Mobile Website!


Some time ago I installed a button from Extreme Tracking on the bottom of my church website, inconspicuously, I hoped.  I don't pay for the service, so I only get the free version, which tells me about the last twenty people to visit the website.  At the time, I was noticing the diversity of browsers people were using--the usage had changed from almost exclusively Internet Explorer to a diversity of browsers with Explorer representing the largest percentage, but less than half, and Firefox hot on its heels.  The big question then was how to design a page such that it looked good at different resolutions and through different browsers.  That was just a couple of years ago.  Earlier this week when I looked at data on the last twenty users, six were from mobile phones (one of which I could rule out as mine).  With one-fourth of the users looking at the website from mobiles, I knew I needed a church webpage that was friendlier to mobile usage.  I suspect that mobile phone users are more likely to be "seekers" than members, but I have no data to back that up, except that I could see search terms and know that some were coming from Google, some from my blog page, and some were going to the site directly.

So this week I've been working on a mobile version of the webpage.  It's available at http://www.libertyuu.org/mobile, if you want to check it out.  (Our regular page, for comparison, is at http://www.libertyuu.org, although I hope to redesign it next week because I'm pretty unhappy with its look currently.)  I suggest you check the mobile site out on a phone, as that's what it's made for, and it looks strange on a PC.  I don't yet have the script in place that would automatically route mobile users to it, but am working toward that goal.  And there's a big question about iPad and other tablet users, whether they should be directed to the mobile site or the full site.


I don't have any digital video or audio capability at my church, so both webpages are heavily text-based, and the mobile site more so, since I didn't want to direct them off too often to outside pages.  The goal here was to keep information as brief as possible, and put up the things that seekers would most want to find.  Brevity is not my strong suit, as anyone who knows me can attest to, so I'm still working on trimming it down.  But I finally settled on nine links: Sunday Services, Directions, Religious Education, Social Justice, Newsletter, Beliefs, Shop, Phone, and More Information.  I figured that what seekers want to know is when, where, and what they'd be getting from us, so "Worship" tells the "when," "Directions" (and "Phone") tells the "where," and all the rest are the key pieces for the "what" -- worship, religious education, social justice, and newsletter.  The "More Information" lists staff members and the church e-mail and phone (again).  "Shop" lets people go through our Amazon Associates account to shop on Amazon.com, guessing that some people might do this from their phones (although maybe, like me, they go through their Amazon apps, so this might have little appeal).  There's a lot on our regular webpage that there's no link to here -- staff bios, church history, sermons, forms, by-laws.  All that is stuff I'm guessing the average mobile user doesn't need.  But I do intend to go back and add a link to the full site.  And then, at the bottom, I have links to our Facebook page, Twitter, and all the icons that usually appear to tell people we're welcoming, accessible, etc.  The other icons are all linked to a page that explains what they all are.

How to Do This:

The biggest question for me in doing this wasn't the question of what content to put on the page, but how to make what I call "the box" -- how to size my page correctly so that it's the right size for mobile phones.  This is particularly complicated since mobile phones have a wide range of screen sizes.   My father, William Landrum, is my tech support, but he hadn't done this before either, so we went through some trial and error before we got it to where I think it's right for most phones.  It turns out it's not so much about creating a page where we create everything in a small box.  When we did that, we got a phone screen where all the date was in a smaller box on the corner of the phone screen.  The key is having a piece in there that tells the phone that this is designed for it.  In the code, before head, even before where it says html, it says:
{?xml version = '1.0' encoding = 'UTF-8'?}
{!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//WAPFORUM//DTD XHTML Mobile 1.0//EN" "http://www.wapforum.org/DTD/xhtml-mobile10.dtd"}
except that { and } are lesser-than and greater-than symbols -- I can't seem to type them in my blog without it becoming the code.  I'm too lazy right now to figure out the work-around which I assume is pretty simple although complicated to Google, so I'm going this route. If you look at the code on the page, you'll see everything easily.  It's in pretty-straight-forward html without bells and whistles.  Anyway, that code does the trick, and the webpage is sized correctly.  As long as whatever tables (and the cells in the table) you're using don't have a specified width or height, everything will wrap to fit on the mobile screen.  Then it's just a matter of designing it such that you're not putting too much text up there, so that people don't have to scroll too much.  You do want fonts and icons bigger than usual to make them easier to tap on.  I'm going with font sized 5 (18pt), and it's workable, although perhaps still on the small side for larger fingers.  My icons on the bottom are sized about 32 pixels high, and again they're on the small side to easily tap on. 

One trick we've learned is that just like you can make a link on e-mail addresses that opens up an e-mail program to send mail, you can make a link that will have people's phones go straight to their dialer.  This is something that often really irritates me when browsing the web on my phone, that I can't just tap on the phone and have the phone dial.  It turns out it's because people haven't coded the phone number to do so, because they're assuming browsing from a PC, where you can look at the number and pick up your phone and dial it while still looking at the number.  I can't count the number of times I've had to search for something to write on while holding my phone, so that I could dial and look at the phone number at the same time (no, I can't remember a ten digits easily, and that may be true for more people than you think, especially with a small child in the back of the car making all sorts of noise).  So even if you don't design a mobile webpage, go to your existing page and hyperlink your phone number, people.  Inside the angle brackets just type something that looks like a href="tel:5175294221", only with your phone number instead of my church's.  It's that simple.  Can you believe that every company isn't doing this?  Ridiculous, when you think about it.  But, like many of us, they're not realizing yet that a) a lot of their traffic is coming from phones and b) those people want to call for information or reservations or something, and c) it's this easy!  Yes, if you're using an app to find your restaurant or other business, the app will often do this.  But sometimes people search through a browser, too--and maybe more often for a church than for a restaurant. Can you tell I feel strongly about this?  Nobody is clicking on your phone number from their phone hoping to be able to write it down on paper and use it later.  They're happy it goes straight to the dialer, where they can hit "send" or they can save it in their contacts for later.  Trust me.

Now, if only I could figure out how to link the address such that it opens up their navigation app, I'd be set.  And, sadly, the Twitter and Facebook go to the mobile browser version, not to the often nicer apps.  I want to put a link up for Gowalla and Foursquare to our locations, although this will have the same issue.  And I'm thinking adding a "like" button for Facebook and a "+1" button for Google wouldn't hurt, either, although then I'm getting into space limitations again.  And then if the church gets a Google+ presence, there'll be that to deal with, too.

Ironically, what takes up the most space is the name of my church -- Universalist Unitarian Church of East Liberty.  It wraps to take up three lines of space once I put it next to a chalice picture.  For a seeker site, I don't like the acronym option, so I think I'm stuck with it, but it's wasted space on a phone.  That's something that, for example, Micah's Porch or our local nondenominational Westwinds has right.  I remember when the first church I served, the Northwest Community Unitarian Universalist Church, whose acronym is nearly as long as "Westwinds," took a vote, which narrowly failed, to change their name.  I can't remember for sure what the other option was (a lot had been discussed, and this is ten years ago now), but I think it was "Harmony Church."  I'm guessing when any of you are designing a mobile page you'll be wishing, as I do, for a name more like "Harmony Church" and less like "First Unitarian Universalist Society of Eastern Suburb of Big City."  I appreciate the desire to have our heritage and denomination present in our naming of ourselves, and I wouldn't propose going through a name change, having seen how difficult a subject it is, but never has it been more awkward than in designing for a screen about 200 pixels wide.

Well, that's all there is to it.  I appreciate comments & suggestions for improvement, and am happy to answer questions if I know the answer.  I've often felt like saying, however, in my best Bones McCoy voice (if I had one, which I don't--really), "Damn it, Jim, I'm a minister, not a website designer!"

Evolving Worship in the Social Networking Age - Part 3: Possibilities & Opportunities

In Part 1 of this series I wrote about a proposal being generated through blog discussion about shorter sermons tied to social media in new ways.  In Part 2 I wrote about some of the limitations as I see it.  The main take-away there is that while some populations of some churches may be ready for this, others are not over the threshold yet.  The problem is that we're on a cusp right now, where some "digital natives" are ready for something different, not everyone is comfortable with the use of it.  As you go up by age/generation, a smaller percentage of people are using social networking. 

So what can we do?  Well, there's still a lot.  I think for now it still means that for many congregations, having a physical space in which one holds worship is still necessary, and the cornerstone of that service is still the sermon.  And, at the same time, the UUA General Assembly changed the definition of congregation such that this is no longer the only way (except for CLF) to be a congregation. The possibilities of what that can look like are endless.  And social media is evolving so quickly that whatever one creates right now has to be dynamic and flexible.  This week, for example, I got on Google+ for the first time.  Will it make other social networks obsolete?  Will it be a big failure?  Only time will tell. 

What I can do, right now, is dependent upon what will be supported by my congregation and has the most ability to be attractive to newcomers, as well.  We don't have a critical mass on Twitter or MySpace, and responding to blog posts is sporadic but increasing.  Facebook conversation, however, is plentiful.  So what is possible is putting out, primarily through blog and Facebook, a conversation starter leading into the worship service that helps shape and inform it, and after the worship service putting out some summary that continues the conversation.  This could be tied into a way to also have this conversation in a physical space before and after, for those wanting the face-to-face connection.  We have no way to record audio or video digitally at the church--when we do, it's with borrowed equipment--so that remains in the future dreams list.  The degree to which social media shapes the worship, then, is the degree to which people participate in these types of forums.

What I think is that for a time, this is going to look like not much happening.  But eventually, it has the power to shape and transform worship.  What it amounts to now is just an opening up and demystifying of the process--less of me going into the office and shutting the door and emerging with a worship service like Athena coming fully-formed out of Zeus' head, and more like writing with a bunch of people chatting around me in a coffee shop and sometimes stopping by the table.  Can I write that way?  Time will tell.  I've gotten lots of practice by having a child popping in constantly -- about ten times while writing this blog post alone.  Having constructive adults popping into the conversation should be a welcome change.

Phil Lund suggested we turn the sermon inside-out.  I'm not doing that yet, but the first step to turning something inside-out is opening it up and showing the center.  That's where I propose starting for now.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Evolving Worship in the Social Networking Age - Part 2: Limitations & Expectations

So in my last post I talked about a proposal being generated to look at worship, particularly the sermon, in a new way in the light of social networking.  I think it's worth noting that the authors of the three posts I cited are all people who are not full-time solo ministers with the corresponding preaching schedule that such demands, and that Dan Harper, who comes the closest to that role in his role as Associate Minister, is in a large church with presumably some staff, and in Silicon Valley, as well.  What he describes seems less doable in a small country church such as I serve.  So here's what I see as the limitations to the model he proposes:

1.  Podcasting/Live streaming/any audio or video component -- Much as I love the idea of it, I don't have the technology for it.  And should I have the technology, I still don't have the tech support that I personally would need.  I could acquire the know-how to do it all on my own, given the technology, but right now that's beyond me.

2.  Level of feedback/discussion -- right now, when I do post a sermon on my blog, or just on blog posts in general, I'm getting one or two comments, at most, and often times none, from members of my congregation.  I think that some would be interested in the types of discussions Harper suggests, but it'd be hit or miss on participation.  In a small church there just might not be the critical mass to have this kind of discussion going.

3.  Receptivity -- My cell phone has no bars at my church.  Now, I'm on the comparatively lousy Sprint network, and I know some church members have better coverage at my church, but not all of them.  So Twittering during the service is narrowed down from just the people with phones that can tweet to people with phones that can tweet who aren't on roaming.

3.  Accessibility -- I'm guessing about 75% of my church is on e-mail and Facebook, and another 10% are on e-mail but no other social media, but the other 15% (mostly seniors) are not online at all.  (All numbers pure guesses, although I could go person-by-person and get real stats later.)  If the entire nature of a sermon is changed such that it doesn't feel complete without online participation, what does that mean for the 15%?

This brings me to the expectations.  Both Lund & Wells talk about the changing expectations for a sermon.  Wells talks about thinking that if he were to give a 20-minute sermon that people would be fact-checking his data on their smart phones.  I regularly give 15-20 minute sermons (I think my average is more like 15 minutes, really), and have yet to have someone whipping out the phone and telling me my information was wrong.  Sure, I do occasionally get a fact wrong.  But that culture hasn't pervaded the sanctuary yet.  The assumption of both Lund and Wells is that people are wanting something different out of their sermon than the model we've been using for hundreds of years.  I think that they're right for the percentage of the culture that is digital natives, but the question is when has an individual church reached that point?  My church, I'm feeling, is not there yet.  People generally seem to like the longer sermons (to a point), and when the sermons are shorter and there are more other elements in the service, I get more complaints.  So my reality is not matching with what the new media guys are suggesting. Of course, and here's the rub: maybe the people who want something different are not coming, and our adherence to old forms is limiting growth.  Is it?  Quite possibly.

And so, with those limitations & expectations  in mind, next I will address what I think the evolving model could looks like, and what I think is currently possible in a small, low-tech church.

Evolving Worship in the Social Networking Age - Introduction

An interesting conversation has been going on in the UU blogosphere starting with Scott Wells at Boy in the Bands, then with Dan Harper at Yet Another Unitarian Universalist, and finally Phil Lund at Phil's Little Blog on the Prairie.  All three are UU ministers--Scott Wells works for the Sunlight Foundation; Dan Harper is the Associate Minister for Religious Education at the UU Church of Palo Alto; Phil Lund is on staff at the Prairie Star District of the UUA. 

Diving in--the original notion that Scott Wells posted is that in a digital age, the sermon is too long.  He writes, "It made sense in a education- and resource-poor (and frankly, entertainment-poor) age, but if I held forth for twenty minutes or more every Sunday, I expect to be regularly challenged (perhaps mentally, and in an unspoken way) by people who would Google for facts during my oratory."  Phil Lund echoes this: "Thing one: settling into a cozy pew for an hour or so to listen to a ripping good sermon may once have been considered a relatively inexpensive way to be entertained on a Sunday morning, but nowadays if I want to listen to someone talk about something on Sunday (or any day), all I need to do is logon to the interwebs and visit TED.com…for free."

Scott Wells suggests a different model: "It might make sense for a minister to preach briefly — tightly, eloquently, perhaps around a single point — to the “live congregation” and have it spelled out later in another way. Not print necessarily, but perhaps a podcast or video, or forgoing these perhaps a live event more in common with an interview or discussion than fighting with hymns and prayers for attention."  Dan Harper spells out some concrete steps he's proposing in response: posting a reading on a sermon blog on Thursday; on Sunday before worship post the text of the sermon, along with links; give a hashtag for twitter conversation for during and after worship; stream the worship service live; continue conversation after on the blog.  Phil Lund shares these thoughts and suggests turning the sermon inside-out, a process he promises to describe soon in an upcoming post.

That's all by way of background.  I'll post my response soon, as well.

*amended 8:31pm 7/8/11 to reflect Harper's title correctly.  Sorry!