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Have mainline Protestants lost the ability to create “buzz”?

Have mainline Protestants lost the ability to create “buzz”?

Michael G. Maudlin, executive editor of Harper One, says the relatively quiet reception of Barbara Brown Taylor’s new book, demonstrates that mainline Protestants have lost the ability to create buzz.

He writes:

When Rob Bell and the controversy surrounding Love Wins became a Time cover story in 2011, it felt like the crest of a giant wave of media attention surrounding this important debate on hell. And now Barbara Brown Taylor, writer, professor, and Episcopal priest, has been featured on Time’s cover for the publication of her new book, Learning to Walk in the Dark. Plus, like Bell, she was then included in the very next issue as one of Time’s “100 Most Influential People of the Year.”

And then—not much.

He adds:

[T]he ability to create buzz is a very real measure of one’s ability to influence culture.

Which does not bode well for the mainline Protestant church. … Remember, this is a community who has been told for decades that they are in decline, disappearing even, and almost all media coverage has been negative—splits, controversies, failure. And here is one of their own, an ordained clergywoman, getting noticed simply on the strength of writing such a surprising and deeply wise spiritual book. What would one expect as a reaction? Relief, cheers, pride, a desire to trumpet this achievement. But silence?

And that takes us to an even more troubling thought: Let’s say the mainline Protestant community indeed wanted to applaud and trumpet Taylor’s achievement—how would we know? How would we hear of it? What progressive Christian channels of communication are large enough or broad enough for most of us to hear those voices?

What do you make of Maudlin’s argument?

I think there may be some particular reasons that account for the tepid response among Episcopalians to Brown Taylor’s book. She antagonized many clergy with her last book, but beyond that, many of us are deeply familiar with her work, and the fact that she has a new book out may strike us as less newsworthy than it does first time readers.

In general, however, I think Maudlin makes some good points. The mainline Protestant churches don’t have a channel of communications that commands a wide audience, and we have become captive of the narrative of decline. This diminishes our ability to shape the wider culture.

What do we do about that?


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Jonathan Jennings

I agree, Jim; church times is effective because it is close to but totally independent from the main church organisation.

I wonder whether there might be scope for someone to create a ‘media central’ operation to link to the best & most creative stuff already being done in the Anglican Communion … needn’t be complex; needs to be independent … Ship of Fools model of organisation, but not quite as narrowly focussed …

Nurya Parish

Hi Jim, I completely agree with you in regards to the need for an independent journalistic multi-media website. Have you seen Vox? ( Wouldn’t it be fascinating to do something like that with a focus on the mainline and an explainer corner that had theological content?

Jim Naughton

Jason, Mike Barwell, who used to handle public relations for Bishop Robinson, was named the PR person of the year for his handling of the events around Gene’s election and consecration. There have been some gaps, but NH has actually done quite well in this regard.

I endorse your rubric wholeheartedly.

Jason Wells

I suspect part of the reason that we don’t get buzz is that we rarely do anything to create buzz. When was the last time that your congregation wrote a press release?

Here in NH, the Roman Catholic diocese is much larger than the Episcopal one. We have just recently hired our first part-time communication director. The Roman Catholics have had a full-time communication person for a long time.

It’s no wonder that the local paper goes to them. They’re the ones inviting the media in.

On Ash Wednesday, our new communication person invited the local media to our Ashes-to-Go. Not only did we get the press, the photographers all expressed relief at not covering the same Ash Wednesday Mass they’ve always covered at the Catholic parish. They just needed the invitation.

One large parish has a professional photographer who volunteers to submit parish and interfaith events to the paper. They are hungry for photos and I routinely see him credited with pics of the local Episcopal church’s Palm Sunday, Easter, etc. liturgies.

Could our rubric here also be “go where the media are” rather than “let them come to us?”

Jim Naughton

Hi Nurya, I think we need a well-funded independent publication/website with at least a few professional staff people to do in the US what the Church Times does in the UK, only for the mainline as a whole. Unlike Christian Century it will have to be journalistic in its orientation and have a firm commitment to multi-media storytelling. Additionally, I think we, as Episcopalians, need a communications strategy that is a) more analogous to that of a university in focusing on the activities of our version of faculty and students and b) more committed to developing communications skills within the church.

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