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Communicators Should Tell Stories, Start Conversations To Reach Youth


130 People Attend Second Going Barefoot Conference in Winnipeg

May 27, 2009
John Longhurst

WINNIPEG, Man. -- When it comes to marketing, Jesus was the best in the trade.

“When Jesus was on earth, he spoke to people in their own place and in their own language,” Mike Tennant told 130 church communicators and editors at the May 15 Going Barefoot Conference at Canadian Mennonite University (CMU) in Winnipeg.

Tennant, a long-time marketer, communicator and co-creator of the popular CBC Radio show The Age of Persuasion, went on to say that Jesus “took time to understand his audience” and “attended to their wants.”

He also was a “viral marketer” whose “infectious ideas were spread by others.”

God also put a face on his brand, said Tennant, a member of the Kitchener, Ont. Mennonite Brethren Church.

“God could have communicated without coming to earth as a person,” he said. “But he didn’t.”

Jesus also understood the power of events, he said, using the Passover in Jerusalem to make an entrance and gain maximum attention. “He had a sense of occasion,” Tennant observed.

Speaking to the conference theme of Reaching the Facebook Generation, Tennant said that communicators can follow a similar approach to reach out to young people.

“Our gentle, loving God wants to meet us where we are,” he said, adding that the way God reached out to humans “underlies all good communication.”

Tennant went on to describe the changing media climate, noting that while traditional media was based on a “push” philosophy—a few major media delivering content to the audience—today it is a “pull” world.

“People sit down in front of the computer and pull in what they want,” he said. “It’s no longer ‘you talk, I listen.’ Now it’s ‘I talk, you talk back.’”

In this media culture, communicators need to provide meaningful messages that “people will want to pull to themselves,” he stated, adding that churches and other groups need to know who they are, be true to their core values and be authentic.

“Superlatives are a cheap commodity,” he stated. “If you are inauthentic, the Facebook generation will see through it.”

Adding to the challenge for communicators is “media clutter,” he went on to say. “Every message in the world is your competition,” he stated—not just messages from other church groups.

Even though young people have lots of media choices today, they are still hungry for stories.

“We need to release our inner story tellers,” he said. “There is such a shortage of them right now.”

Social media like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and others are places to “start conversations,” he concluded, adding that the goal is “lead people to longer ones . . . to take them to another level.”

It won’t be easy—even Jesus wasn’t always successful, Tennant said.

“The Facebook generation is very much like the rich young man who asked Christ what he must do to have eternal life," he said. “When he didn't like what he heard, he changed channels and left.”

Also speaking at the conference was Gayle Goossen, founder and creative partner with Barefoot Creative of Kitchener, Ont., who shared the results of a survey of 1,200 Christian youth commissioned by Going Barefoot.

The survey, which was conducted from November, 2008 to March, 2009, showed that “teens are online,” she said, noting that 77 percent of respondents use social media like Facebook. Forty percent say they never use regular mail.

When they need information, most youth turn to the web. “They didn’t even consider books, encyclopedias or textbooks an option for information,” said Goossen, adding that 40 percent of respondents indicated they had read a local newspaper in the previous month, while 15 percent said they read their denominational paper.

When asked to identify the top five issues that concerned them, respondents named poverty, the environment, global warming, the economy and war.

Noting that 80 percent of respondents were regular church-goers, Goossen stated that their media use—Internet, social media, books, movies and music—was very similar to non-church going young people. “We saw much alignment between the youth in Christian contexts with their peers in secular society,” she said.

Reflecting on the findings, Goossen said that teens “largely use the internet for social interaction. They expect the internet to be interactive. They anticipate that they will provide some of the content they engage with.”

They are interested in acquiring information, she added, but they “control the conversation. If they are bored, another page is just a click away. They read in short, 60 second blurbs. They are fast-paced, short attentioned and focused on personal needs.”

Churches and other groups that want to reach out to youth shouldn't try to copy what youth are using, Goossen stated.

“What’s cool today will change,” she said, noting how My Space, which once was the most popular social media site, was eclipsed by Facebook.

Groups should know their audience and be up to date with media trends, she said, but the key is to be “true to your mission and values. Do what you are good at, and people will find you.”

Going Barefoot is a biennial conference for church communicators who work for denominations, church-related organizations and other non-profit groups. The 2009 conference was sponsored by Canadian Mennonite University; Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Canada; Mennonite Church Canada; Mennonite Church Manitoba; InterChurch Communications; and the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches.

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