Rethinking Facebook: Hospitality in your living room

EVERYWHERE we go, the ReadTheSpirit team is asked: “What are you doing about Facebook?” That’s a natural question. As innovative publishers, we are reshaping the way media is building positive communities—so men and women nationwide are interested in our advice in light of dramatic changes within Facebook.

Today, three of our experts respond.

How dramatically
is Facebook

This is an enormous shift! Since Friday (April 11), headlines in nearly all of the leading business publications are proclaiming, as Bloomberg Businessweek asks in a headline: Is this “The End of Free Facebook Marketing?” The biggest change is that, unless companies and other groups start paying Facebook to distribute their recommended links—those popular social media channels will be shut down to a minimal distribution. As few as 1 percent of your followers will actually receive what you are broadcasting in the “old” way so many Facebook pages have been operating.

Want even more bad news? (“Bad,” that is, if you are pushing “old” Facebook broadcast-style marketing.) News reports also are highlighting a second major change at Facebook. In an effort to weed out spammy manipulators of social media, Facebook now will search for and will punish those Facebook pages that explicitly tell followers and friends to go “like” and share their postings. In other words, if you try to work around the new limitations on distribution by aggressively and pointedly telling your audience to go spread your message—Facebook will even further reduce your reach. With the cap already heading toward 1 percent, this second reduction amounts to silencing activity on your Facebook page. In TechCrunch online magazine, Josh Costine’s current headline is “Facebook’s Feed Now Punishes Pages That Ask for Likes.” If you’re doing “old-school” Facebook promotion—ouch!!

And even more limits! On Friday, WIRED magazine’s latest headline is: “This is the End of Facebook as We Know It.” Ryan Tate—author, business analyst and one of WIRED’s senior writers—reports on yet another Facebook change. Depending on how widely you use Facebook on a daily basis, this may (or may not) be bad news for you: Facebook is shutting down the chat feature on its mobile app. Instead, you’ll be prompted to get another Facebook app just for messaging. Writes Tate: “Facebook, the company that makes billions from connecting people to each other, is about to make it harder to have a conversation. … In mature markets like the U.S., Facebook’s user base has essentially stopped growing.” In the future, Facebook will become more of a family of related apps, each with a specialized function.


Today at ReadTheSpirit, we are sharing this advice from three of our leading followers of social media …


Martin Davis, based in the Washington D.C. area, consults with businesses, nonprofits and congregations through his company and website: Sacred Language Communications. He also is a contributing writer at ReadTheSpirit. Two of his most popular columns focus on revamping church websites and church newsletters.

You’re probably saying, “Wait a minute! We’re still learning how to use Facebook, because you’ve been telling us that everyone needs to get on Facebook. You’re confusing me!” To be clear: We are not reversing our long-standing advice. Facebook still rules all forms of social media.

Now, we’re advising, first: Don’t worry. Much of the high anxiety in headlines this week is coming from media marketers who have built their bottom line on coaching clients to drive Facebook marketing campaigns in ways that worked very well in recent years. If you are a member of a congregation or another community group, primarily using Facebook for its intended purpose—friendly contact with others—then you’ll be fine in the midst of these huge shifts in the business world.

If you are reading this column, today, as the sole person charged with using Facebook as a bullhorn to blast information to your congregation or community group—then you definitely need to rethink what you are doing. This approach to evangelism is a pathway to … well, toward a rapid decline in your effectiveness.

Social media is truly social connection. Meaning you have to spend time cultivating people, talking with them, and nurturing them. This is what Facebook at its best does—and will continue to do. It allows you to engage your members and those in your community by sharing photos and video clips, offering up thoughts and articles for discussion or spiritual growth. Continue to easily share that information with others—and really get to know one another more personally.

The good news? That’s what congregations and community groups do best!


David Crumm is the founding Editor of ReadTheSpirit online magazine and books. To learn more about David and our work so far, visit our “About” page.

I agree entirely with Marty’s analysis. These huge changes in Facebook can actually benefit congregations and community groups—if you are focused on real hospitality, the ancient value that runs through all of the Abrahamic faiths and nearly all other global religious traditions as well. As Marty says, stop thinking of Facbook as a bullhorn.

Think of Facebook as your living room. When friends stop by, what do you? Offer a drink of some kind—and often food. You sit and chat, catch up on the news of the day—usually about what your kids are doing, the fun you had a local event the other night, what you’re planning this coming weekend. You talk. You listen. You show off your latest photos. At its best, that’s both classic hospitality (which is another term for the best forms of evangelism, or sharing good news). Facebook remains the most powerful network in America for doing that!

Be a good host—just as you would in your living room. For example, pay attention to the optimal times when your friends want to sit down with you and share the latest news. Did you know that recent studies of social media show that between 1 and 4 p.m., each day, is the optimal time for Facebook sharing nationwide? That’s different than the optimal time range for Pinterest (8 to 11 p.m.), Twitter (1 to 3 p.m.) and Instagram (5 to 6 p.m.). Warning: These times may not be optimal for your friends, though. Ask around. When are your friends online? Be a good and timely host and conversation partner.

Rather than assigning one person in your congregation or community group to “do Facebook,” look at all the ways your organization can be offering material to help with the person-to-person hospitality. One of the biggest ways you can help: Make sure that someone attending each of your significant events is snapping photos and uploading to your website a wide-ranging album of their pictures. Get friends in the habit of looking through your latest albums for photos they are eager to share on Facebook.

Encouraging real hospitality—a major goal in so many groups today—is a pathway to lively sharing on Facebook.


Paul Hile is a writer, editor and project manager with ReadTheSpirit magazine and books. He also is charged with keeping a close eye on changes in social media and advising our authors on the best use of these online tools.

These changes at Facebook are not ideal for most organizations who have been using pages to promote links back to their website or to their events and products. But, it is important to note: The biggest changes only affect “pages.”  Most of our authors aren’t in jeopardy of exceeding their “friend limit” on their personal Facebook accounts, so I am advising them to make better use of their personal Facebook activity.

This is all the more reason to encourage writers to use Facebook and engage with friends in a natural, regular way. The more people talk and interact with us on a daily basis online, the more we’re in front of people. It’s important to remember that there’s more than one way to get attention on Facebook. One, of course, is to post content. The other is to have people talk about you. The more that happens, the better.

As Martin and David have pointed out: This is social media.

In my research, I am convinced that successful social media strategies depend on human, person-to-person interaction. When our public presence on Facebook is “just another page,” then we’ve lost the human relationships that are the real arteries of social media. When followers of “just another page” don’t have any sort of personal interaction—attachment and investment in whatever is being shared—the results of that sharing fall off sharply.

People want to to interact, explore and invest in real relationships. If we pay attention to that core value, then Facebook continues to be a vast and friendly public square for lots of healthy sharing.

(Originally published at, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

Sorting Fact from Fiction in Church Growth & Social Media

The following column was reported by Read The Spirit Editor David Crumm and nationally known church consultant Martin Davis. To read Martin Davis’s earlier columns in Read The Spirit, start with his recent columns on the challenges of change and on why your church newsletter may shock you.

TWO HEADLINES compelled us to help readers sort fact from fiction concerning the popular myth that church growth depends on widespread use of social media (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and the like). While Facebook, in particular, is a very valuable way to let church members share the richness of congregational life—the myth of explosive growth is perpetuated, we both agree, by a new report in the online Christian Post, headlined: Top 5 Churches That Use Social Media Best. Some truths, we think, come from a second new headline out of the Pew Research Center. Here is our report …


MARTIN DAVIS WRITES: There were no surprises in the Christian Post list. The winners were Mars Hill Seattle, Oklahoma-based Life Church, Tennessee’s Cross Point, Gateway Church in Texas and San Antonio’s Community Bible Church—five leading mega-churches with massive audiences, bulging budgets, and staff members dedicated to social media. “When it comes to churches,” begins the Christian Post article, “having at least a minimal digital strategy has become crucial in expanding Christian outreach even locally within their own communities.”

Here are three myths that I think the Christian Post article may fuel:

MYTH: Social media is the key to congregational growth. The view that social media is essential to growth is intoxicating, and wrong. Megachurches—if that’s the type of community you’re trying to cultivate—were around long before Facebook hit the scene. Social media in megachurches is more a reflection of the population served than a distinguishing trait.

MYTH: The purpose of social media is to produce growth. Here’s the real problem. By tying social media to growth, Christian Post overlooks the more important point: Electronic communications (e-mail, e-newsletters, etc) and social media (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc.) are first and foremost about communicating, not growth. As with any form of communication, executed properly, growth may be an outcome. But growth is not an indication of success.

MYTH: Effective social media requires top professionals. Most leaders of small to mid-sized congregations—at least occasionally—cast longing glances at the huge staff rosters of megachurches. The five models held up by Christian Post suggest that experts are central for social media success. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Yes, communicating through social media requires our adjusting to these media; and, good advice and guidance helps. If you are a poor communicator in person, or have difficulty writing coherent thoughts, social media will only compound your difficulties. People who communicate effectively will amplify their voices through these tools. All good writers know that an editor helps. All great public speakers can name their teachers and mentors. Professional advice helps. Occasional training helps a lot. In fact, I regularly consult with congregations on smart ways to use websites, newsletters and social media.

But congregations do not need to go out and hire top guns to run their websites, newsletters and social media. In fact, doing so can often hamstring congregations with a distant webmaster who can’t communicate as immediately or as effectively as the people already leading the congregation.


DAVID CRUMM WRITES: This week, Joanna Brenner and Aaron Smith of the Pew Research Center are releasing an update on social media tracking that is causing another flurry of news stories. You can read their entire report via the Pew site. In fact, their latest headline—72% of Online Adults are Social Networking Site Users—may fuel assumptions that social media is a life-and-death issues for congregations. But, read the whole report. When I completed it, I found: Martin Davis is right.

Here are three truths—highlights from the latest Pew report, and the past year or so of Pew social-media tracking:

TRUTH: Twitter is a trap for congregations. Want to leave your congregation in the dust? Announce that, henceforth, you’ll mainly be Tweeting the latest congregational news. That seems like a reasonable move, doesn’t it? Every prime-time television show seems to be promoting Twitter hash tags these days. But, look at the data. Pew reports that Twitter usage is growing but has only reached 18 percent of the online population. Mostly, these Tweeters are aged 18 to 29—not the main demographic in most congregations. (It’s important to note that the ’72 percent’ and other percentages cited in Pew’s new report are based on people who already are Internet users. That group is huge, but it’s still only 85 percent of all Americans. That means each percentage cited in the Pew study actually is a smaller portion of the population as a whole.)

You may be aiming at young adults. You may think that Tweeting is an ideal way to attract 20-somethings, but people outside your community are not likely to see your Tweets among the zillions of 140-character messages flooding Twitter every day. And here’s the Achilles Heel for most congregations: Among 50-to-64-year-old adults—the life’s blood of most congregations—Twitter users comprise only 13 percent of people who already are online. Considering the population as a whole, that means you’ll be leaving nearly 9 out of 10 of your members aged 50 to 64 in the dust with your Tweets. The problem of heavily focusing on Twitter is even worse among 65-plus men and women. Only 5 percent of online users in that age range ever touch Twitter. For that big portion of your community, you can Tweet like crazy—but 65-plus folks will perceive that you’ve suddenly fallen silent.

TRUTH: By itself, social media is not a true open door to the community. These days, “Open Doors” is a mantra echoing in congregations coast to coast. By the thousands, church leaders have updated their signs and newsletters to de-emphasize denominational divisions and stress their wide-open civic appeal. Social media may seem to reach broadly across the entire community. In fact, among 20-somethings, virtually everyone uses some form of social media. The use of social media also is rapidly rising among men and women 65 and older. But—even with all of that growth—Pew reports that social media use by Americans 65 and older still has not reached the 50 percent mark among online Americans. Do you really want to leave half of your seniors behind by putting too much emphasis on social media?

TRUTH: We should dive into social media, and—right now—we should be swimming in the Facebook pool. Don’t misunderstand today’s column! Martin Davis and Read The Spirit both strongly encourage vigorous use of social media! The vast majority of Americans use some form of social media every day. If Anthony Trollope or Susan Sontag were still alive and writing, they would wryly describe social media with their now-classic phrase: It’s become The Way We Live Now. We must dive in!

But, drawing upon the past year’s findings from Pew researchers, this pattern is clear: Facebook is, for the moment, the closest thing we have to a new public square. Here’s a widely reported Pew conclusion: “People who use Facebook have more close friends, get more social support and report being more politically engaged than those who don’t.”

Facebook social patterns make a lot of sense—just use your own common sense. As in most public squares, Facebook has its gregarious communicators and greeters—and, Facebook also has its avid followers. In fact, as Pew reported last year, “Facebook users get more than they give.” What does that mean? Think about your own congregation. Some folks enjoy standing around after a service, greeting friends and making people feel welcome. Others enjoy taking part in this experience—but don’t initiate it. They look to a smaller handful of extroverted members to get things rolling. The same is true on Facebook. Pew found, for example: “only 40% of Facebook users in our sample made a friend request, but 63% received at least one request.”

The social principles you already know so well in your community have moved into the heart of Facebook. Rather than rushing out to buy the services of a high-priced media professional, you’ll do far better by identifying men and women who enjoy extending greetings in your building—then encouraging them to extend greetings on behalf of the congregation, day by day, on Facebook.

Beyond “friending” and sharing greetings, what else do Facebook users love? Sharing photos. In your own congregation, what do members enjoy when they have time to sit and chat with friends? Sharing photos. Do you have members in your congregation who avidly snap photos? Why not share them on your church’s website so men and women can easily find photos of congregational life—and share them further via Facebook.

This isn’t arcane science. These are the social principles you know so well in your community—moving online.


FROM MARTIN DAVIS and DAVID CRUMM: Much of our communication with family, friends, co-workers and neighbors already is digital. It’s The Way We Live Now. Facebook use dwarfs the readership of all congregational bulletins and newsletters put together. Do you feel pulled in too many directions? Want to skip Tweeting your congregation’s news? Go ahead!

But the basics of congregational life—the truly timeless spiritual treasures within our faith communities—remain the same. The majority of Americans seek God’s love in community with similarly inspired men and women and, then, we feel moved to share these experiences with others.

And, that’s … Well, from both of us: That’s the truth.

Want more?

Want Martin to help you? That’s easy! Visit the website for his courses and consulting: Sacred Language Communications. You can contact Martin Davis via this page within his website. Martin plans to regularly publish helpful columns in Read The Spirit through the autumn and winter.

Agree with our analysis? Then, take action on what you’ve just learned: Please, share this column with friends by clicking on the blue-”f” Facebook icon or the envelope-shaped email icon. You also can email us at [email protected] with questions.

Trying to steer your congregation? Try a stunt kite!

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Martin Davis: Growing Your Church through Communication

Welcome back Martin Davis, a well-known congregational consultant. He’s good at answering the nuts-and-bolts questions people are asking nationwide, especially about communication. Please, click on a blue-”f” Facebook button to suggest that friends read this column along with you. Want Martin to help you? See the note at the end of this column. Here’s Martin …

Of Kites and Communication


Our week at the beach in North Carolina was a family vacation—but I came home with more than a tan and fond memories. I came home with a fresh insight—and it all began with a promise I made like so many fathers:

“Kids, while we’re on the beach, we should fly a kite!”

With the exception of Charlie Brown, there are few people who don’t enjoy kite flying. I learned the activity in the Boy Scouts—we won’t discuss what year; just know it was before the ’80s—where I learned to make and fly these wingless birds. A simple, relaxing activity. Place it on a string, get it airborne, and watch it soar.

To the local kite store we went. The kites of my youth—one string, one tail, and some plastic wrapped around two crossed sticks—were nowhere to be found. Instead, we were greeted with an array of shapes, colors and sizes.

We picked one out, carried it to the beach house, unwrapped it …

… and spent the next hour figuring out how to get it together.

Then it took another 20 minutes to unlock the mystery of connecting two separate lines to the kite—standard on today’s “stunt kites.”

It was a humbling experience. My youngest used to believe I was all-knowing, invincible. Alas, no more! At least, I consoled myself: It happens to all parents sooner or later. After all, my colleague Benjamin Pratt just admitted to the whole world: “I’m only a father!

In those first hours with this new kite—I repeated that line! Putting the kite together was easy, as it turned out, compared with learning to fly it. Initially, the kite spent more time knotted and doing nose dives in the sand dunes than sailing gracefully beside the ocean.


But by mid-week, our experience was quite different! I began to get the hang of controlling two sets of strings instead of one. Of learning to read wind directions and currents based on the feel of the lines, and compensating by pulling the appropriate string.

Before any of us thought possible, we were not only flying the kite, but we were making it dip and dive, weave side-to-side, and complete 360-degree turns. We learned to read wind currents, and to marvel at how we could watch the birds’ paths and learn from them by mimicking their flight paths with our kite.

How similar kite flying is to how many congregations must feel about communications today.

Before electronic media (email, e-newsletters and the like) and social media (Facebook, Twitter, and Google+, among many others), congregational communications were like an old-school, one-line kite. Attach your information to the end of a string—the traditional print newsletter—and wait for the wind to take it where it would. Sometimes it would catch an updraft, sometimes not. Either way, there was little you could do to control it. All you could do was build it, let go, hold onto the string for dear life, and hope the kite flew.

Today, the range and variety of electronic communications are more akin to the world of multi-line stunt kites. Each electronic platform has not one, but two strings that allow you not only to send information out, but to read how well that information floats on the currents of your congregation and adjust your message accordingly.

It takes a little time. Generally speaking, we’re good at pushing information out, but we’re must less equipped to read how well that information is playing with our audience and to adjust to that information.

Once you learn it, however, you’ll never go back. After all, better to learn to dodge the kite-eating tree with the new communication tools than to continue crashing into such barriers over, and over, and over again.

Want Martin to help you?

That’s easy! Visit the website for his courses and consulting: Sacred Language Communications. As this column is published, an online class is starting soon—and an in-person conference is scheduled in Virginia. Visit the Sacred Language Communications Events & Registration page to learn more.

You can contact Martin Davis via this page within his website. Martin plans to regularly publish helpful columns in Read The Spirit through the autumn and winter. Please, share his columns with friends by clicking on the blue-“f” Facebook icon or the envelope-shaped email icon. You also can email us at [email protected] with questions.

Congregational consultant Martin Davis: Your newsletter may shock you—and these possibilites will excite you

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Martin Davis: Growing Your Church through Communication

Read the Spirit is proud to introduce columnist Martin Davis, a well-known congregational consultant. He’s good at answering the nuts-and-bolts questions people are asking nationwide. One of his specialties is helping congregations rethink the way they communicate. Please, click on a blue-“f” Facebook button (top or bottom today) to suggest that friends read this column along with you. And, keep in touch with Read the Spirit for more stories like this one by clicking the green “Subscribe” button in the upper-right and signing up for our free weekly newsletter. Here’s Martin …

Successful Newsletters
Are More than
Artful Designs


When Chancellor Baptist Church decided to launch an e-newsletter, the staff’s excitement was palpable. Everyone would want this, they reasoned, so it would go a long way toward ending communication problems in the church. If events and information are in the e-newsletter and in the printed newsletter, no one will miss them. After all, everyone reads the printed newsletter—and surely everyone would read the e-newsletter. Right?

The reality was shocking to all involved. Over the first three weeks, only about 50 of the congregation’s 250 regular attendees signed up for the e-newsletter. And over the first month, no more than 15 percent of readers actually clicked a link in the newsletter.

Such is the reality of online newsletters. Whether you are pondering launching your first e-newsletter, or looking to improve an existing one, it’s essential to “keep it real” when setting your expectations for success.

According to MailChimp—an e-newsletter service that sends out billions of newsletter emails each month—the average open rate (emails opened in a window), un-open rate (emails never opened), and click rate (emails in which a user clicks at least one link) for e-newsletters within the realm of religious media are as follows: Open rate, 29.6%; un-open rate, 69.0%; click rate, 3.7%.

Shocked now? Think about this: If you have 100 members in your church and everyone signed up for your e-newsletter, you could expect 30 people to open it. (That means that they click to open your newsletter from their email program, or the email appears in their email program’s preview window.) But remember that final statistic, the click rate. About 30 people may “open” and see your newsletter—but that does not mean 30 people will spend time reading it—and only a few will follow those links that you so thoughtfully placed in your e-newsletter.

Keep in mind that these are national averages. My experience shows that congregations can reasonably expect a somewhat higher click rate. I estimate about 10%. And, if effectively trained newsletter editors are at the helm, those numbers can push higher—upwards of 30%-35%.

As you start, consider the shock value of the real-world numbers I have shared here. This is the time for you to contact friends in your congregation who care about the way you communicate. Talk about how surprisingly little impact you may be having through your long-trusted newsletters.

In a minute I will share some good news about how to begin breaking through this wall of missed communication. But, first, I’ll start the process of honestly talking about this problem.

Church Newsletters:
How We Tackled the Challenge

Chancellor Baptist Church is my home congregation in Virgina and we were excited about launching an e-newsletter. Then, we were surprised by the harsh reality of the real-world statistics on e-newsletter readership. But the next insight was an even greater surprise. Many of us had assumed that “everyone” was reading our existing printed newsletter.

The truth is: In congregations nationwide, the majority of men and women are not reading print newsletters—and they probably never have. A simple test of your own reading habits suggests why. If you receive snail-mail newsletters and magazines, how often do you read them cover-to-cover? At all?

Consider a Bureau of Labor Statistics report on how Americans use a typical five hours of leisure time per day. Mainly, Americans watch television (2.7 hours), play games (26 minutes) and socialize online (37 minutes)—far more time than they spend reading (17 minutes). Now think about all the materials that cross a person’s field of vision in the course of a day: Emails, regular mail, magazines, best-selling mysteries, reports from work—the reading list goes on and on long before someone decides to curl up with a church newsletter.

E-newsletter statistics bring that already existing situation into sharp relief. If only 10% of your members actually engage your e-newsletter by clicking something, it’s safe to assume that probably the same percentage are engaging your printed materials.

Why Your Congregation
Should Develop

The reality of your readership may be shocking, but e-newsletters give you something that print newsletters never can—hard data about the people in your congregation and what they look at.

At Chancellor Baptist Church, once the initial shock wore off, people began looking closely at what people were paying attention to within our new e-newsletter—and what they were ignoring. Whatever e-newsletter service you choose, you will find that your newsletter staff can receive easy-to-read reports on what people actually are reading in each issue. We discovered right away that many of our long-standing types of newsletter stories were largely ignored.

On the other hand, write ups about members soared. Think about that for a moment and it makes a lot of sense. If you have a precious few minutes to scan your congregation’s e-newsletter, your eye is likely focused on finding something about your family and friends. A short profile about an active member is likely to catch a lot of eyes.

So, our church began to adjust the balance of newsletter items. Over time, our new mix of stories provided an even more valuable lesson: Member profiles get lots of views the first time they run—and people come back to them again and again! To facilitate this, there’s now a convenient way to access an index of all profiles in every e-newsletter issue.

What else did people enjoy? Videos of baptisms also did very well, as did discussions of new educational materials the church is considering. In short, by paying attention to what people actually accessed in the e-newsletters, the staff learned what members want to read. This began to increase the value of the newsletters, rather than leaving this potentially important communications tool mired in the typical rut of feeding people the same old things they’ve been ignoring for years.

More important, because of the newsletter, the staff is gaining a better understanding of people in our community, including their interests and their daily lives—the first goal of any growing congregation.

Getting Past the Newsletter Jolt

It’s up to you: You can use this data and follow the examples of many congregations that are honestly facing up to the failures of most older newsletters. This week, gather friends and staff in your congregation. Share this column with them. When you meet, ask the tough questions: Is it really worth the postage and printing costs to produce a print newsletter when you receive no feedback about how it’s being used? Could the expense and effort of producing print pieces be put to better use? Is it worth buying Yellow Page ads when studies show people turn to the internet first when looking for a church?

Begin to rethink your existing budget for advertising, printing and mailing—and you may discover you can free up money for new projects. Rethink the hours that staff and volunteers spend on existing media—and think about the new excitement they will feel when you can demonstrate that their “item” or photo or home video was popular in the new e-newsletter.

Finally, think about the excitement your community will feel, when a short story about one of your members winds up shared across Facebook pages and personal email networks—and winds up drawing a friend or relative to walk through your doors. After all, you’re showing what a friendly, welcoming place you’ve become.

Don’t let the initial shock deter you from opening a more powerful window into your community.

Want more on growing your congregation
through better communication?

In 2013, Read the Spirit is responding to readers nationwide who love their congregations and are asking us to include more practical columns about growing healthy communities through media. One way we help is through our Bookstore, which offers dozens of books that are great for re-igniting your small group or congregation.

This summer, we also are adding occasional columns by author and media marketing expert Lynne Meredith Golodner. Her first column explains why we need to rediscover the lost art of storytelling as a way to honestly and effectively connect people—and build diverse communities.

ReadTheSpirit 3.0: The Next Wave of Publishing

After a year of research and development, we are launching the first wave of ReadTheSpirit 3.0 with new online features that will grow our readership dramatically. Founded in 2007 and extensively redesigned in 2010, this third expansion of RTS makes use of cutting-edge publishing principles. There’s so much to enjoy (and further waves of 3.0 are coming in November) that this news article will introduce you to just a few of our new features.


For the first time in our five-year history, ReadTheSpirit (RTS) is launching our own online bookstore. The first thing you will notice is that we are only featuring RTS-published authors in the launch of the bookstore. We will add more authors and their recommended books in our ongoing expansion of the bookstore into 2013. We have several features coming by early 2013 to help you and your small group make smart choices from books we select and highlight.

At first glance, today, the bookstore’s design looks remarkably simple—intentionally so. However, in the deep background of this bookstore is a sophisticated new Web architecture designed to welcome more readers, subject by subject and author by author. We will tell you more about that behind-the-scenes design next week. For now, simply look around the bookstore and explore its features. Email us with questions or comments at [email protected]


For more than a year, regular RTS readers have enjoyed our special emphasis on articles and books to help America’s 65 million caregivers. As our nation ages, keeping caregivers’ spirits healthy is a growing need in every community. In fact, church leaders who are working with RTS tell us that reaching out to caregivers should be the next big “church growth” campaign.

Today, RTS is launching the first of our new “themed portals” called simply: These remarkable authors and new books range from coping with grief and fighting the good fight against cancer to combating bullying among the young. Next week, we will point out some of the deeper features in this innovative project. For now, please explore on your own. In your visit, please sign up for the new, short, once-a-week Caregivers newsletter. Look at the Godsigns photos that readers are sending us already this morning. And don’t miss Dr. Benjamin Pratt’s new invitations for caregivers to share ideas with us.


In research and development, detailed interviews with readers and finally user testing, our design team (headed by RTS Publisher John Hile) focused on radical simplicity in making ReadTheSpirit a distinctive online destination. Overall, we regard our array of websites as a “magazine” and our staffers regard our work as journalism. As journalists, we strive for accuracy, balance and a diverse range of newsy stories. But compare the look and feel of WeAreCaregivers,com with any existing magazine or newspaper website. One word comes to mind: Wow!

In desperately trying to increase advertising revenue, traditional magazines and newspapers have overloaded their websites with so many advertisements that reading a story feels like swatting away a cloud of gnats. RTS supports itself through the sale of books and other digital media. You won’t find annoying advertisements flashing at you from every page. Radical simplicity is key to our entire RTS 3.0 designs. Is this a dangerously narrow business plan? We don’t think so. While traditional magazines and newspapers continue to collapse, we are thriving.


Don’t worry! It’s all here! By the end of November, the entire online magazine will move into these 3.0 designs. But nothing is disappearing! Our series of signature author interviews, a beloved feature at RTS since 2007, will resume on October 29 and continue every week, as always. On the horizon: Marcus Borg returns to visit ReadTheSpirit on October 29 and other famous authors will follow.

The OurValues project, produced by University of Michigan scholar Wayne Baker, continues uninterrupted. This week, Dr. Baker reports on some new research he conducted at the request of TIME magazine into American attitudes toward the value of “Fairness.”

The Spiritual Wanderer, Rodney Curtis, continues with his frequent columns. As a cancer survivor, he also is playing a role in the new WeAreCaregivers portal. See his newest column, today, for more on that.

Stephanie Fenton’s very popular Holidays & Festivals column continues with new stories arriving throughout this week.


Tell friends! Throughout our new sections, every page has easy social-media sharing links. Click to Facebook when you enjoy a page and tell others. Remember that most of the stories in ReadTheSpirit are licensed so that you can freely share the content with others (as long as you give us credit). So, for example, you can feel free to share materials with your small group to spark a spirited discussion. Or, you can feel free to quote from our columns in your own newsletter, sermon, class lesson or website.

Please be a good friend to the ReadTheSpirit family of authors, journalists, contributing writers and readers. We all are doing our best to bring important, inspiring materials to a world that desperately needs our help—in an era when most magazines and small publishing houses are endangered. You’re doing a good deed in spreading today’s news.

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Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

What the Zondervan & Thomas Nelson merger means

We’ve seen the music industry crash, then rise again in digital streams. The TV-and-movie industry is betting its future on streaming video into our hands. (Amazon just announced free TV streaming to its Prime customers’ iPads, for example.)
Similar forces are transforming book publishing and—for anyone who cares about religious publishing—there is major news this week.
Zondervan and Thomas Nelson are merging, the completion of a deal that began last year. The combined operation is headed ….
That’s the point of this ReadTheSpirit story:
What does this historic merger mean to everyday readers of religious books? Read on!


Merger mania may seem strange in an era when millions of Americans want go-it-your-own-way spirituality—what Harvard’s Robert Putnam and others are calling the Church of One. (For more on this cultural shift, read our interview with Diana Butler Bass.) While lots of Americans are splitting from their traditional religious affiliations—publishers see no problem in serving widely divergent audiences from a single big company. That’s a historic shift. Five hundred years ago, the Reformation was fueled by dueling pamphleteers across Europe. For centuries, a doctrinal dispute over beliefs about the Bible or communion, racial diversity or social issues could touch off a schism. A new religious publishing house could arise overnight.

Last week, we reported on Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove who is reaching into Christianty’s roots to re-shape current ideas about the vitality of congregations. He is crossing boundaries by publishing with both the largely Catholic Paraclete Press and the evangelical Zondervan. From Wilson-Hartgrove’s perspective: Catholics and Protestants should work together.
From the perspective of merging publishers: Bigger is better in keeping up with worldwide digital distribution. If the authors themselves see fewer doctrinal bondaries—then who’s to quibble in the board room over such distinctions?


Collaborative deals are par for the course.
The gigantic German-based Bertelsman, for example, now owns: Random House, Doubleday, Knopf, Ballantine, Anchor, Schocken, Vintage, Del Rey, Fawcett—not to mention the Book-of-the-Month Club, History Book Club and Mystery Guild. Plus, other companies depend on deals with Bertelsman. For example, we’ve recommended children’s books by Candlewick (see our coverage of The Fairy Circle). Candlewick is owned by the mid-sized Walker Books, but its distribution in the U.S. is handled by Random House, which circles back to Bertlesman.

IN FACT, publishing mergers are bigger than most readers realize. For example, people still talk about Simon & Schuster as a major American publisher as if it still was independent. The CBS Corporation actually owns that publishing house along with the CBS network, Showtime, Westinghouse, CNET online, plus other publishing houses including The Free Press and Pocket Books.

Most readers think of Macmillan Publishers Ltd. as an independent. In fact, it’s now part of the Georg von Holtzbrinck Publishing Group. Never heard of it? You’ve certainly heard of its divisions, including: Times Books, Henry Holt books, St. Martin’s Press, Tor and Forge books, plus Nature and Scientific American magazines.

Penguin anyone? That’s now a part of the UK-based Pearson—which includes Berkley, Dial, Dutton, Plume, Puffin, Viking. Ready to hit the road? Pearson owns Rough Guides, too.


If those mergers surprise you, consider the ominous giant: Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, which now owns: HarperCollins, Zondervan, Nelson, the New York Post, the Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones, plus Fox TV and movies. There’s also the controversial matter of the British media holdings—and Murdoch’s media blanket over Australia. A year ago, News Corp took over Nelson and the Zondervan-Nelson deal was finalized in July 2012.


What Is Thomas Nelson? In the late 1700s, Thomas Nelson was a bookseller in Endinburgh, Scotland. Then, flash forward to today: Look around Protestant churches and you’ll see lots of Nelson books—mainly Bibles and educational materials, plus children’s books and church music. Nelson is far older than Zondervan. Nelson was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s first publisher, so that’s another connection with this week’s coverage in ReadTheSpirit.

What Are the Roots of Zondervan? Zondervan is a relative upstart. Founded in 1931, the original Zondervans were relatives of the Eerdmans family, who ran their own publishing house. To this day, Eerdmans still is independent and produces an impressive and eclectic list of Christian books. Here’s the Wikipedia page for Eerdmans if this sparks your curiosity. And, here’s the Eerdmans website, too.
Go on! Buy an Eerdmans book today and support indpendent publishing. Our first choice would be Hannah’s Child by Stanley Hauerwas, which we earlier discussed with the famous theologian.

The Zondevan brothers, Pat and Bernie, started small—literally at the family farm—and focused on inspirational books in this deeply religious corner of Michigan. Nelson had been famous for publishing new translations of the Bible—including the American Standard Version and the Revised Standard Version for a while. Zondervan got its big Bible in the 1970s: the New International Version.

Zondervan’s list of best-selling authors has included Rob Bell, who returns to ReadTheSpirit for an interview on Monday. Rob now has switched to another division of News Corp: HarperOne. Among Zondervan’s all-time top authors are Hal Lindsey, the former Mississippi tugboat captain who scored a huge success with The Late Great Planet Earth. That racked up sales in the tens-of-millions-of-copies range, only to be topped by Zondervan’s work with Rick Warren in The Purpose Driven Life.

Nelson’s most famous authors include Billy Graham, Max Lucado, John Eldredge (a friend of ReadTheSpirit) and Charles Stanley.

This new merger makes sense. Both publishers produce tons of Bibles. Both sell books by and about Billy Graham. Max Lucado’s name shows up in both lists. And both have promising new niches: For example, both are trying to market Amish-themed fiction. Nelson has an Amish-romance genre, while Zondervan has Amish murder mysteries. (For readers who understand Amish culture and faith—we must add: No, we are not kidding. Amish romances and mysteries are in vogue.)


If you are part of a small publishing house—as we are here with our own ReadTheSpirit Books—recognize that we are colleagues, not competitors, in our quest to thrive today. Thousands of small publishers produce books on spirituality, religion and cross-cultural issues each year. Many have close ties to religious groups. Some are nonprofit groups like the Alban Institute’s book division.

Most of these publishers are struggling to find cost-effective ways to produce ink-on-paper books as well as the ever-growing array of e-books. When ReadTheSpirit Books was founded in 2007, our first book was just a paperback. Today—thanks to a unique software system developed for small publishers by our Publisher John Hile—we produce a wide range of e-editions. Our cost-effective publishing system moves seamlessly in a single source file from Microsoft Word through all versions of the final book—print and all e-editions. Adaptations for short runs of books and other kinds of new editions are easy for us to produce. Most small publishers don’t have such powerful, rapidly flexible, in-house tools, so e-publishing is an expensive bottleneck.

Small publishers still can score a best-selling success now and then—but the actual business-and-software development involved in publishing becomes ever more challenging. If you’re involved in small publishing and want to talk more with ReadTheSpirit, email us at [email protected]


Our prediction: Tennessee. Nelson’s annual sales are bigger than Zondervan’s. Zondervan’s staff is half the size of Nelon’s. Zondervan announced last year that it plans to move out of its sprawling complex near Grand Rapids into a smaller site. Why? News Corp is centralizing book distribution.

Also, Zondervan’s top figures are bowing to Nelson’s leadership. Scott Macdonald, the head of Zondervan, is stepping aside into an advisory role. The new head is Thomas Nelson CEO Mark Schoenwald. He remains based in Tennessee, but is assuring staffers that he will spend time in Michigan.

Executives are saying, for now, that both famous brands—Nelson and Zondervan—will continue. That does make sense for the company. These days, giant publishing houses seem to be expanding the way they use brands to highlight segments of readers. For example, the publishing giant Hachette is pouring millions into three new imprints: FaithWords, Center Street and Jericho Books. All three produce inspirational books, but each one is trying to serve a different segment of readers. Stay tuned! In early September, ReadTheSpirit welcomes back Brian McLaren for an interview on his newest book to be published by Jericho Books on 9/11.

Care to Read Even More? The best news coverage we have seen of the merger is Publishers Weekly’s New Harper Christian Division Head Schoenwald Says ‘Everything Is Under Review’.

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Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

‘Handicapped’ Parking? Scamming the Disabled

Here’s a news story we all can cheer! “Handicapped” or Disabled Parking is recognized around the world. The photo at right shows a disabled-reserved space in the infamously impossible-to-park-in Old City of Jerusalem. Similar spaces with similar logos can be found across Europe and Asia.

What makes us really see red!?!
Seeing an obviously able person cruising into a disabled space. Now, we may sometimes mistake what we think is an able person. So, watch your fury! But, generally, the lack of compassion in scamming a special parking space is an injustice that makes all of us fume, right? Those of us with disabled friends and relatives get really steamed!

So, it’s no surprise that a Detroit Free Press video by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Jim Schaefer may be going viral this week. ReadTheSpirit first saw this video, Monday morning, when an alert reader emailed us a link from the Deadline Detroit website. We are now sharing Jim’s report with you.

Click the video screen below to watch Jim’s report. Some of his reporting may surprise you!
(NOTE: In sharing this video today, ReadTheSpirit is experimenting with a new kind of video-sharing link. If you don’t see a video in your version of this story, click here to reload the story in your web browser. If you still can’t see a video, please email us at [email protected] )