A Conversation with Larry Hollon
Surveys say some young adults leave the church because life changes and they move. Still others drop out of church because of religious, ethical or political reasons. And many abandon the institution because they perceive church members as judgmental, hypocritical or insincere. But, whatever research records as the reasons young people are not going to church, the bottom line is that much of the younger generation just isn't "getting" church.
Most religious groups are facing the same problem and it's a major concern for The United Methodist Church. According to the UM Congregational Leadership Survey conducted in 2008, only an estimated 11 percent of active participants in the 1,855 churches surveyed are between the ages of 18 and 34.
Leading the movement to reverse the trend by attracting more young people to the church is United Methodist Communications, the denomination's global communications agency based in Nashville, Tenn.
It's a tough job. The audience is broad. The social culture they must address is fickle. And the pace they must keep up with — and in some cases, set — is swift.
Yet, the mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world is constant. The message is powerful — that The United Methodist Church is a place where people can feel wholeness, where others see them as people of worth, where people worldwide are respected as children of God, regardless of economics and politics, and where they can make a real difference in the world.
United Methodist Communications recently announced a restructuring plan to realign personnel with changing priorities: namely an increased emphasis on reaching younger, more diverse audiences through developing content that speaks to younger generations and utilizing new forms of media to deliver that content. Communicating with younger persons means that the church and its agencies must connect and engage with them where they are-and where they are is on computers, cell phones, and iPods.
At the helm of the agency leading the church into the digital age is a man who admits that he still likes to read his Sunday New York Times off-line and would rather communicate face-to-face than virtually. The Rev. Larry Hollon, chief executive of United Methodist Communications from 2000–2015, is also a self-admitted "information junkie." Leading his agency by example, he tweets, yammers and blogs. Despite his fascination with, reliance on and promotion of technology, Hollon is aware that he and his agency must bridge the gaps between several generations — each with varying technological I.Q's. and different faith maps.
There have been some organizational and staffing changes announced recently at United Methodist Communications. What was the rationale behind those changes?
In order to position the agency as best we can for the future, we have to focus our work on the target audience the church must reach to change the current downward trajectory. If we do not re-engage with younger generations, our future is clear. We will continue to diminish and lose the capacity we now enjoy to offer a meaningful, vibrant community of faith to a world that is hungry for community, purpose and meaning. It is also essential that we continuously evaluate, analyze and adapt to the cultural and technological contexts in which we operate. These are dynamic environments that are rapidly evolving. If we are to remain relevant and beneficial to the church and to the greater mission of taking the Gospel to the world, we must update, upgrade and change.
How does the gap in demographics present a specific challenge for the church and for United Methodist Communications?
We are losing the "greatest generation" — folks that fought in World War II — at the rate of about a thousand a day. They are loyal to institutions and tended to join mass-membership organizations, as well as work in community groups in a formal structured setting. Today they are the core of The United Methodist Church and all mainline denominations. They helped pay for the hospitals and schools and other institutions that meant so much to our society. Boomers, on the other hand, are less institutional, but they continued mass social movements and participation in change. Now we are experiencing a transition to a generation of youth and young adults who don't have institutional commitments, and are, in fact, skeptical of institutions. They are looking for direct personal experiences and are likely to identify with movements and direct involvement in bringing about change.
How do we bridge the gap?
We have to fundamentally change how we reach out to people. We have to change how we carry the message of faith to people. We have to change how people experience the church in relationship to their faith journey. And we have to figure out how to communicate with them about faith because they don't talk about it in the ways we do.
With so much information overload these days, how do we cut through the communications clutter and manage to strike a chord with people, especially younger people?
As an agency, we cannot expect that we have a ready constituency, waiting eagerly to hear stories that convey our messages. We are in competition with every other means of communication, especially for youth and young adults who are not going to listen just because we are The United Methodist Church. Instead, they are going to respond to messages that interest and appeal to them and have direct relationship to their lives. Some they will filter out because they are not interested, but some will break through because the communicator has figured out a way to get to their interests. We've got to be in the marketplace delivering messages that penetrate and cut through the clutter.
How do we do that?
Being where they are is part of the challenge since they will not necessarily come to us. We will have to lean on our Wesleyan understanding. Wesley got outside the pulpit of the Anglican churches and went to the street corner because that's where people were. In digital media, we have to be present online in those places, with those search terms, or with that subject matter that will bring people to us. We have to be aggressive. A 19-year-old, unless he or she is very interested in what The United Methodist Church is doing about hunger, is unlikely to find us unless we approach with a search term or a story or some advertisement that addresses their interest in hunger.
United Methodist Communications is leading the "Rethink Church" movement. How is your agency rethinking how it communicates with the world?
When we talk about the mission of The United Methodist Church, we must rethink how we present our message. The media are different, the communication channels are different, the language is different, and individual understanding of faith, I think, is considerably different. The community in which we live today is far more individualized, fragmented and specialized than ever. The demographics are changing. The world's social environment is certainly more diverse. Rethinking church means rethinking how we reach out, invite and engage people.
How does United Methodist Communications' work as a global communications agency connect with the local church?
All that we do as a communications agency is intended to encourage people to be a part of a face-to-face community where they can have meaningful relationships that cannot be turned off, cannot be made anonymous, and are somewhat more difficult to be inauthentic than the online world. Social media can be one form of community, I believe, but it can be inadequate, and it has limits. It can engage people. It can provide helpful information and encourage entry into a more direct and personal relationship. However, people get support and affirmation and are held accountable and responsible in face-to-face relationships in a community that has redemptive quality. That is what we call a local church when it is at its best. Social media at its best should be used to encourage those face-to-face encounters.
Is social media the next media frontier for United Methodist Communications?
In the short term, it's social media, and the short term is really all I can project. A good example of how fast things are changing is Twitter. When we started dealing with Twitter about the time of General Conference 2008, it was pretty much unknown. Today it's all we hear about. These kinds of media are going to continue to be more integrated and comprehensive as we go forward. We are going to have to figure out how to be relevant with content in ways that right now we cannot even anticipate.
You talk a lot about United Methodist Communications serving a global community. Why is that so important?
This agency is an expression of a global community, of a global church. We are a node on a global network that is interactive, connected and sometimes disconnected. We participate in that global network, and it will move with or without us. We have to stay ahead of the curve and be as interactive as we can in order to be of value to the church and to ensure the church has a presence and a voice in that interactivity. So far, the mainline denominations have not been particularly adept at that. We must continue to be where the people are. Otherwise, I think the voice of the church, at least through our agency, is lost.