You may think this month’s eBulletin looks like a promotional for our new children’s curriculum, Joyful Path, Year Two and you may be right. This children’s curriculum is the result of over three years of hard work and a budget of nearly $100,000. Yes, we hope and expect more churches and individuals will discover what so many folks have already discovered. This curriculum is an amazing tool for the spiritual growth for children and adults. We are very proud of the results of this huge undertaking.
But what I would like our readers to understand is that this eBulletin is more than an advertisement. It represents extraordinary changes our organization has gone through over the last eight years. More importantly, it may be an indication of the changes we foresee for the future.
Over eight years ago, I asked a good friend who owned a marketing company, if he would help us analyze the mission and marketing strategy of our organization. After some study, he and his employees told us we faced three challenges. First, there appeared to be no clear place for us, as an organization, to advertise our service or products. The social network advertising options like Facebook and Google were not an option then. It does seem a little ironic that today, with our extremely active website, message boards, our Facebook page, and our two weekly and monthly publications, we may now be the place we were looking for eight years ago. Second, they pointed out there was still very little clarity in the meaning of the term Progressive Christian. This is in spite of having created eight identifying principles and use of the term in our name, articles and publications since 1994. Third, their research showed that attendance in mainline Christian churches was in a rapid decline.
It slowly became clear that our original mission to create a forum for the exchange of information with churches trying to evolve into something new for the 21st century was not going to provide a sustainable business plan. While we still believe that posting on our website provides a marketing value for churches wanting to declare themselves as progressive, it was apparent this was not going to be enough to build a sustainable organization.
Over six years ago we received a grant to do an intensive one-year study that would result in a strategic plan for the future. Rather than asking the question, “Where are we today?” this organization asked, “Where do you want to be in five years?”
Prior to working with us, these consultants had no particular interest in religion or the church. They would have had little interest in the future of the church had they not noticed in their research what they identified as a major—even epic—shift in attitudes about religion in the Western hemisphere. They developed a growing fascination with this phenomenon. The team interviewed scholars, seminary presidents, pastors, lay leaders and executive directors from other progressive Christian organizations.
Among other things, their study showed that if mainline Christian churches had any hope for the future they would need new materials and resources for every element of congregational life. They needed liturgical materials, new forms for congregational worship gatherings and teaching curriculum for all ages. In particular, there was one need that was consistent with everyone they interviewed. There was a demand for a children’s curriculum free from the creedal restraints that hampered churches trying to be more progressive. They told us that almost everyone they interviewed identified this need as the most critical. One seminary professor observed that we may not be able to change our old churches. However, if we can teach the children a spiritual path based on the teachings of Jesus, those children may very well be the ones who form their own faith communities as adults rather than trying to conform to something that no longer makes sense to them.
As a result, we made a shift represented in today’s eBulletin. We became publishers. Three years ago we created our first full-year children’s curriculum. It is now being used in nearly 400 churches and by 200 small faith communities and families. Raising the kind of money it took to pay writers, artists, editors, printers, and videographers in addition to the intense management requirements for such an undertaking was daunting. Now we know this was one of the most important things we could have done. More importantly we realized our children would be losing something important if they did not have the opportunity to learn about the compassionate and inclusive message of Jesus within a loving community. It was our children who would suffer without having a viable path leading to a more compassionate life and quite possibly, a more compassionate world.
It was never our intent to become a publishing company. Frankly we recognize that the market base for courageous churches willing to make substantive changes is a relatively small one. There are nearly 300,000 Protestant churches in the US today and we have our curriculum currently in a little over 400 of them. In spite of the overwhelming excitement and appreciation these churches all share, we do not see that number growing radically in the near future. We do find it interesting that a growing number of people who order our curriculum are from small faith communities meeting in homes as well as young families who are home schooling. This may very well be a substantial part of our market of the future.
Our efforts to create curriculum is not limited to our children. The Study Guide for the 8Points is now going through its third printing. In two years we have nearly doubled the liturgical materials now available for free on our website. You will also find we have improved both the search options as well as the organizing categories in that section. We are constantly running educational articles and book reviews that are being used for adults groups. We have been publishing the John Shelby Spong weekly articles for over five years. In the last four years we have built a new website from scratch. It is full of educational and inspirational materials for all ages. It is one of the busiest religious websites in the country.
If someone had asked me where I thought this organization would be five years ago, I could not have imagined where we are. All of this has been accomplished with a small group of young, dedicated part-time staff, and their retired and sometimes tired volunteer president with no significant funding entity. Most of our income comes from small donors and sales. Every year we wonder if we can make it work again. We shuffle our work loads, staff sometimes agreeing to donate their time. We try new things, and admittedly I sometimes wonder if it is all worth it. Are we really making a difference?
Our overworked and underpaid yet still enthusiastic staff insists, however, that we are not done. One of them recently told me: “We are just beginning to fly. This is no time to stop flapping our wings.”
Have a great summer!