by Eddie Pipkin

Image by Stefan Kuhn from Pixabay

Everything old is new again, and all formerly popular things eventually come back into fashion.  It’s true for high-waisted jeans; it’s true for mullets (although, honestly, do they ever quite go out of style); and it’s apparently true for phone calls.  Person-to-person audio as the new interactive video?  There’s an app for that, believe it or not!  Ministry practitioners are reminded yet again that an old-school, hands-on approach can be just what folks need to feel connected, inspired, motivated, or noticed.

I have written on more than one occasion about the power of personalized messages to help build strong relationships, especially in an age of technological dominance.  The ubiquity of smartphones and social media have created all sorts of calculations for leaders in answering questions about the effectiveness of social media ‘posts’ to make people feel part of a community versus person-to-person connections achieved through the usage of ancient tecnologies such as the telephone, ink and paper, and the automobile (driven to an actual domicile at which a community member might reside).

I will reiterate my advice to all people (not just ministry leaders) to discipline themselves to make it part of their regular routine to move beyond texts and online messaging (which are great tools that can and should be used regularly) and practice 1) Phone calls; 2) Handwritten notes; and 3) Personal, face-to-face visits.  Some people need these archaic versions of connecting with you, and everybody, no matter how much they love the other options that technology provides, like a little 1,2, or 3 from time to time.  They are not automatic and natural options as they used to be, as we’re thinking through our daily routine, but they are still essential (or at least there is a lot of awesome potential wasted if we don’t utilize these time-tested resources).

I was tickled to see an article about a new APP, called “Anyone,”  that makes creative connectional use of . . . A PHONE CALL.  An email from a site I monitor called Product Hunt ecstatically promoted the news – I’m including the whole press release here for your consideration:

What can you achieve in 5 minutes? If history is anything to go by, a lot. R.E.M famously composed the song Losing My Religion in 5 minutes, which went on to become their biggest hit, making them a household name across the globe.Anyone, a new social audio app that connects users with strangers, is betting on the potential of 5-minutes.5-minute calls: Anyone is a dramatic simplification of what we’ve become used to when it comes to social media. There’s no scheduling, no messaging, no following, and no video. Users who sign up to Anyone list what they’re experienced in, what they would like to learn more about, and set topics that they would love to connect on. From there, they’re connected via phone call (yes, a phone call) for a private, 5-minute conversation based on a chosen topic.You can also join live events known as “switchboards”, which are kind of like speed networking. Users jump from conversation to conversation whilst the app matches you with relevant people.Then there is “butt dial”, Anyone’s attempt to bring serendipity back into our day-to-day lives. Once a day, the app will introduce you to someone new and give you a topic to talk about.Why the phone? We get it. Phone calls are brimming with social anxiety for some. Maybe they feel invasive. Plus, our days are defined by calls, so why would we want more? CEO and Co-Founder David Orlic believes that serendipity is a catalyst for great things; the more chance encounters we have, the more potential for good things to happen to us.The Stolkholm-based startup demonstrated others are yearning for audio connection as well, gaining 10K waitlist signups upon getting started in 2021 and earning a place among Europe’s Hottest Startups.

This app is not about making phone calls so much as it is about making connections.  It takes a clever approach to using the phone call to get unlikely people connected:

  • Connecting randomly! Many local churches create plenty of chances for people to connect organically as they participate in ministry – people may naturally, say ,have a conversation with someone they are sitting next to in worship or someone they encounter at the coffee or snack table in the lobby.  They will almost certainly bond with someone with whom they have participated in a small group or work team.  But local churches are much less likely to provide people with opportunities for connection just for the sake of connection.  What the “Anyone” app can inspire us to think about are the ways that we might encourage random connections.  Keep in mind that everyone in a ministry space (real world or virtual) has already defined themselves as a person with an affinity for connection, relationships, and spiritual exploration – it’s unlikely they would be in the space otherwise.

For sure, worship leaders will force feed an occasional exercise to have worship attendees exchange pleasantries (“passing the peace” or offering the “morning greeting”), but how many times have you participated in a church initiative just to connect with other people you don’t know just for the sake of making new connections.  I’m not talking about being encouraged to pursue such connections on your own, independently.  I’m talking about an activity organized with the exclusive purpose of making random connections happen.

This could be a distribution of a congregational contact list and a direct challenge for participants to randomly call contact numbers of a couple of people with whom they have never before interacted.  It could be a lottery of random connections, with all participants drawing phone numbers randomly (or email addresses, although phone calls are dramatic and much more personalized).  As noted in the “Anyone” app description, those participating would choose to participate – such a list of shared numbers or other contact information would be voluntary.  It’s an interesting side note to think about the disappearance of church directories.  They were ubiquitous a few decades ago, frequently as an adjunct to family photography portraits, the results of which, along with phone numbers and addresses, were published as a church family photo album.  Not only has technology made these quaint, bound directories seem obsolete, but something has subtly shifted in society’s view of  how such information is publicly shared.  We now have a weird pastiche: sensitivity to publicly published personal information, counter-balanced by social media’s “letting it all hang out” attitude.  Some of us miss those handy physical directories and the space they inhabited alongside the corded phone or buried in the junk drawer.  It’s more difficult to get such a convenient overview of who makes up the ministry family.  That’s all the more reason to provide intentional opportunities for people to randomly connect.

Once people have agreed to buy into the concept of random connections, you can encourage it through organizing dinners (or special events parties) expressly designed to get people together who don’t know each other.  You can do it by passing out $10 Starbucks cards and encouraging their use for randomized coffee dates.  You can do it by having a place where people can leave random notes that other people can randomly respond to.  You can certainly do it through a scheme to support random phone calls that can lead to unexpected sharing of stories and hopefully, follow-up get-togethers of individuals and families.

  • Connecting with EXPERTISE! We’ve written many times in this space about the gap between seekers of spiritual knowledge and wise mentors who might offer them guidance in local churches.  Usually, connections between seekers and mentors happen through participation in established spiritual programs or small groups in what feels like an organic process, but in reality, such connections can be awkward and inefficient.  A person may indeed sign up for a 52-week in-depth Bible study, and they may, as part of that process, connect with a wise and experienced teacher who over time becomes a valued spiritual guide, but it’s really hard to make that connection directly.  The problem with getting two people together is that in order for the connection to flourish, a lot of factors have to line up perfectly.  A seeker of spiritual truth might not click with the study style / learning style being offered (and thus miss connecting with the mentor); the seeker might not have a schedule that’s conducive to the learning opportunity being offered (and thus miss connecting with the mentor); there might be other people in the small group or class who are disruptive or unpleasant or dominant (and thus sabotage the seeker’s connection to the mentor).

Imagine a process by which people who are seeking specific knowledge or guidance could be connected with someone who possesses that knowledge or who specializes in offering that guidance!  In the article that describes the “Anyone” app, the sheer scale of potential participants makes such connections possible across whole continents.  In smaller local church settings the options are more limited, but the principle is the same – people submit their interests and needs and contact info and they are connected directly with people who have are able to provide specialized attributes (in the case of our local ministry, these mentors and guides are people who have been carefully vetted and, hopefully, given some training, but the main point is that there is a diversified team of mentors and spiritual guides who are available beyond the constraints of traditional classes, small group structures, and programs).

The ”Anyone” app talks about setting up “switchboards,” which are events in which people have a string of conversations for a short duration.  Local ministries could brainstorm all sorts of ways that they might creatively replicate this concept: through social media, through the use of audio-only calls, or perhaps even better, video chats.  It is exciting to think about an evening of “ministry speed dating,” a take on the concept of singles groups that gather for potential partners to suss one another out in the span of three-minute conversations before a buzzer moves them on to the next conversation, a process that is repeated until the entire room has interacted.  It’s fun.  It’s low pressure.  It’s a clearing house for people we might instantly be curious about forming a deeper connection with.  This could be done for randomized connections in the ministry family or it could be done as a variation of a way to explore service opportunities, mission possibilities, or spiritual growth options.

In addition to these novel approaches to connection, however, the blurb for the new ‘Anyone” app made me think about two things that ministry leaders can do better when it comes to connectional communication.

  • Giving people control over how they will be contacted! Anybody who works in ministry knows that you have to get messages out to people across a variety of platforms – and you have to do it with equal excellence across all of the available platforms.  Because our ministries cover a range of generations, economic statuses, and cultural contexts, we will have people who favor different communication options.  We should resist the urge to be judgmental of those who favor options that differ from our own preferences (which could be preferences or prejudiced applicable to either a tech-happy team or a tech-resistant team).

Beyond embracing the truth of the multi-platform communication strategy, we should make a sincere effort to understand what people’s individual preferences are, and we should cater to those preferences when we can.  Sure, it’s great to have an all-encompassing church management app, and to make it easy to access and encourage people to use it.  We should give them training assistance in getting comfortable with that technology if they need it, but if we really want to leverage all types of people in our ministry, we should also maintain other communication format options (including snail mail and telephone options if people need that).  Connections are connections.  It’s the relationship that matters, not the means of transmitting essential information.

  • Giving people access to ways to contact and connect with others! If we want people to connect, and we want people to take the initiative in doing so – even getting outside of their comfort range in doing so – we should make it easy and fun.  We should provide connectional resources and ideas.  We should offer incentives.  We should celebrate successful connections.  We might hold a seasonal “Connection-A-Thon,” in which we prompt people to make as many new friends as possible and reward them accordingly.  We might do a churchwide challenge in which we encourage people to have lunch with two new people during the month.  We might have a box with fun “hello” cards made by the children, that anybody can take and mail.  We should even provide some stamps!  Stickers!  Send someone a sticker and write them a note.  Make a new pen pal who could turn into a friend down the road.  Give people opportunities to get connected through social media (show them how it’s done – give them specific challenges to practice what you’ve shown them).

We all know the value of expanded connections with the people with whom we are partnered in ministry (and in a more general sense, expanded connections with people who can make our lives more interesting and more psychologically healthy).  Even the nerds out there huddled in their cubbies and inventing new smart phone applications know that such relationships are vital.  That’s why they are coming up with technological tools to find new ways to do something people have been trying to do for tens of thousands of years.  We should be leveraging every idea and every available tool for bringing together the people with whom we partner and serve.  We should also be doing the same things in our own families, neighborhoods, and communities.

How do you and your ministry do at “randomizing connections”?  Do you have some fun ideas in place for getting people together (if only for a brief conversation) who might not connect otherwise?  What policies do you have in place to maximize cross-pollination across the ministry silos that are part of your church’s identity?  As an individual, do you find yourself stuck in a rut with the same connections, relationships, and viewpoints, or do you practice the active discipline of sparking some new life in all three of those areas?  Get connected!  Don’t be afraid to use the phone.

P.S. > If you haven’t seen the Internet sensation in which U.S. Presidents are shown as if they rocked a mullet, now you can, and you’re welcome.  Mullets: always a relevant option.