Bright Ideas: How Faith-Based Events Are Changing

By Libby Hoppe, April 6, 2012

Faith-based meetings are changing. In many ways, they reflect the way Sunday morning worship services are evolving. Churches are using more than preacher sermons to share their messages. They’re using video and live music in worship. They’re organizing small groups to go out into the community and volunteer. They’re tapping into today’s resources and technologies to build something stronger, something more people can relate to and enjoy. They’re getting more creative.

You’ll see a lot of the same elements at faith-based conferences. The style and substance of these events vary wildly (a 10,000-person congress certainly demands different things than a 200-person youth event), but most faith-based meetings have a few unifying factors: education, worship, speakers and community events. It’s the way these elements are delivered that’s changing. And a few meeting planners are stepping way outside the ascribed planning box by focusing on creating an environment that changes the attitude and conversation about a meeting before it ever begins.

“If everyone else is doing it, we’re probably not going to do it,” says Katie Strandlund, sponsor care coordinator and director of operations of Story conference, an annual event held in Chicago for self-described artists and creators (mostly Christian) who are trying to communicate their stories. Now in its fourth year, Story continues to break the standard conference mold. “It’s more of an experience than a conference,” says Strandlund. “It’s meant to inspire and help people see what’s possible and push imaginations to a greater level.”

The speakers you see at other faith-based events? You won’t see them at Story. Musicians? The bands at Story are up-and-comers or barely-knowns. Breakout sessions? Not here. Everything takes place on one main stage at Park Community Church. Speakers are intermixed with bands. Bands are intermixed with theatrical acts. Those acts are intermixed with monologues. The agenda is unexpected, the content is unusual, but the focus remains where it should be: on the attendees.

“The environment—from the time you arrive to the time you leave—is meant to be inspirational. We want to make it an experience. We want to make it something you want to come back to,” says Strandlund. That means bringing in speakers via hologram (yes, a hologram, on stage, speaking). It also means making it rain, indoors, on the main stage. It means dispatching a “surprise and delight” team who hands out throwback treats from the ‘90s (think MoonPies and Yoo-hoo chocolate milk).

Not every planner can make it rain on stage (Strandlund says, “Don’t ask me how we do it”), but much of what you see at Story can be lifted, even in part, for your own meetings and events. Story’s website is an amazing online portal and gateway to the event, with an innovative design and functionality. Last year, conference organizers checked everyone in with the EventBrite app, which, despite being relatively easy-to-use, made a huge impression on attendees. During Story’s breaks, organizers created special environments in which attendees could hang out and relax. One was a garage lounge with a DJ and comfy couches. Another was an art gallery. Yet another area was an acoustic cafe. They gave the event a “festival feel,” says Strandlund.

Story is big and bright and fun. Its vision is obvious. The passion that Ben Arment,  author and founder of several ministry events including Story, and the rest of the planning team have is clear. They want to inspire people. They want to bring their attendees something they can’t find at other events. And they have that goal in mind before they even begin lining up music acts and speakers.

“Start with identifying your goals and design meetings around that, innovate around that and create around that,” says John Nawn, an organizational psychologist and founder of The Perfect Meeting, a meeting facilitation, coaching and design advisory firm. It’s impossible to be creative and try new things without first knowing what you want to get out of your event, he says.

Nawn also draws a distinction between creativity and innovation. Creativity, he says, is developing new ideas. Innovation, by contrast, is the process of transforming those ideas into valuable or profitable solutions. When planning meetings and events, you can be both creative and innovative, but being innovative can help you actually measure ROI. “You need to understand and get past self-imposed barriers,” he recommends. Instead of focusing on the fact that you have a tight budget or time constraints, think instead about what opportunities those barriers can ultimately create. Limited time for education? Consider the TED approach by shortening the time speakers have to present. Tight budgets? That’s when creativity really flows.

“I believe most people are more creative than they give themselves credit for,” says Nawn. They just need to be more confident, he says. It takes guts to forgo printed conference materials in favor of electronic ones, possibly alienating a few members, and it takes a lot of confidence to start with absolutely nothing and, within months, build an entire event and watch people explore and enjoy your creation.

That’s what happened to Scott McClellan, director of Echo Conference, an educational event for the artists, geeks and storytellers that roam behind the scenes at their churches and organizations. The conference attendees are primarily on staff at churches or ministries, and “they are communicators who don’t have a traditional pulpit,” says McClellan. “Most of them aren’t teaching Sunday mornings, but they’re communicating the same message or enhancing the Sunday morning message through other media.”

Echo was founded by RT Creative Group, which is also the parent company for Igniter Media. Igniter Media has been helping to create media resources for churches for a decade. “As Igniter Media, we were passionate about using new media to unite the church and serve its people,” explains McClellan. “We found that there was no magazine dedicated to that conversation, exploring the art and resources and practice of those things. The magazine we wanted wasn’t there, so we started Collide,” he says, which was a magazine for Christian creators the company often worked with. (Collide has since ceased publication in favor of an online outlet, EchoHub.) “The conference that we wanted wasn’t there either.” So, they started brainstorming. That’s how Echo came along.

McClellan joined the planning team for the 2009 conference, the event’s second year. One of the first things he recognized was the pressure to be creative when planning an event for creative people. “I feel that pressure,” he admits. “Although, what’s interesting about our audience is that they come from such different churches. One person’s definition of creative because they’re on staff at a 10,000-member church that does 3D and immersive experiences is truly different from someone who comes from a rural church of 400 people in Montana.” Because of that, McClellan and his team have to be careful not to overplan and overdo the technical aspects of Echo.

“We started out going full throttle, as graphically intensive and media intensive as we could get,” he says. “And our attendees said, ‘That was great, but we can’t go home and replicate that.’ In some ways, our eyes began to open. How can we model creativity without modeling something extravagant?”

That’s when McClellan and his team refocused on the goal of the conference. What they wanted to do was inspire and equip people and show them what’s possible in multimedia church offerings, but in an approachable way. “We started imposing some constraints on ourselves,” he says. What resulted is a conference that’s “creative in a good way,” as McClellan describes it. “Being creative doesn’t necessarily mean being more extravagant.”

Take, for example, Echo’s speaker introductions. Rather than having a moderator introduce speakers, Echo plays short, two-minute videos as introductions. For the last few years, the videos have featured Johnny and Chachi, a Christian comedy duo (watch the videos). The videos aren’t excessive or overproduced, but they’re funny and original.

In recent years, Echo also introduced a user-friendly mobile website with all conference information rather than producing a pricey app that has to be reformatted for different phones. The site works on any Droid or iPhone. Echo has to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to conference technology because its uber tech-savvy audience demands it. Inspiration and new ideas for Echo come from everywhere, says McClellan. He recently heard about a speaker who presents sessions using an iPad because he can seamlessly transition between his keynote address and another app that allows him to sketch something on the projected screen. McClellan plans to adopt the idea for the sessions he presents at Echo.

McClellan gleans inspiration from lots of sources, and reviews them with his team in an effort to come up with the best ideas. Nothing impairs the creative planning process more than negative feedback, says Kristin D. Charles, Ph.D., a communications and adult learning expert. She often presents educational sessions on the topic of planning and creativity, including a recent one at an MPI-Wisconsin event, “Balancing Creativity and Critical Thinking in Event Planning,” in which she identified a number of steps in the creative planning process. “The first step is being creative and thinking divergently,” she says, which is the process of coming up with as many ideas as possible without evaluating them.

In all subsequent steps, thinking divergently is a key to maintaining the creative approach. Like Nawn, Charles finds it important to identify goals and the vision for your event as a way to facilitate the creative planning process. “Ask a ton of questions of all your stakeholders. What do they want the meeting to feel like, look like, sound like and taste like? Get as many ideas as you can, then go through an exercise of narrowing down themes,” she says.

It can be difficult to get people to open up and brainstorm as a team, says Charles. Some people dominate the conversation. Others are critical of ideas, even when it’s been established that there will be no negative feedback. It takes a strong leader to set the tone and be clear about the goals of the session. “Don’t have negative consequences for thinking creatively,” she says. “Someone has to say, ‘We’re going to have fun coming up with the most ridiculous stuff we can.’ Then you reward people who are willing to go out on a limb and come up with crazy ideas.”

Deciding you’re going to bring in a speaker via hologram? That’s pretty crazy. Choosing to produce speaker intro videos? That takes some planning. Many ideas originally proposed for Story or Echo never made it into their events, but that’s OK, too. It’s about throwing out as many ideas as possible, then seeing which ones stick.

Nawn says there are two different models for planning events, and neither is right or wrong. Neither is better or worse. They’re just different perspectives. One is comparable to the Apple model. In many ways, the late CEO Steve Jobs convinced Apple consumers what they wanted before they knew they wanted it. That’s true of many meetings. Planners organize meetings based on what they think attendees want. “That happens by default because we’ve been doing meetings like this since the beginning of time,” says Nawn.

But in recent years, another model has emerged. “We reach out to our audience and ask what they want in partnership or collaboration with them.” These crowdsourced conferences are built and improved over time based on audience response. It’s more difficult to perfect the Apple model, says Nawn. TED has been able to do it, but few conferences have replicated the TED conference well. It takes a very creative person who’s willing to take risks, implement the top-down approach and do it successfully.

Regardless of the way you plan events or who you plan them for, there’s always an opening for creativity. Some planners bust it wide open, and that’s when you get conferences such as Echo and Story. Other planners—in fact, it’s probably safe to say most planners—never quite get the courage to fully explore their creative resources. In the faith-based community, opportunities abound to break out of the norm, and one key reason is because the audience is often willing to accept what is offered. They’re looking for inspiration. They attend events because they want to see and feel something new. You can help open their minds to new ideas when you do the same.

Photo credit: Joshua White

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