Wednesday, February 15, 2012


Last night I got into a mini-row after I received a flyer announcing the new Presbyterian Hymnal and I posted my opinion on Facebook that this is a rather antiquated and fruitless endeavor.  But what was more interesting is that my post mentioned the absence of an electronic edition (the flyer didn't mention it) and I received a rather defensive reply from a staffer telling me that indeed such an edition exists.  However, merely having an electronic version of a printed book is not what I mean by "electronic edition", and therein lies the lesson.

Adapting something for a new medium means more than just a straight conversion.  It means approaching the idea from the perspective of the new medium.  An electronic edition of a printed book that basically makes pages readable on your computer is not an advance.  It may be a convenience (just as I love my Kindle), but true eBooks (a few of which are only now beginning to appear) will have features such as dynamic illustrations, not scanned images.

A new hymnal could have been adapted for the technological age by taking advantage of on-demand printing.  You can cost-effectively print books on-demand in quantities of 50 or so.  What church would not order at least 50 copies of a hymnal?  This means that they could have secured the rights to 2000+ hymns, and allowed congregations to choose a manageable subset of them.  Automated cross-referencing would create the indexes, and each congregation could have a wonderfully tailored songbook.  Basic sets of hymns in various genres - traditional, gospel, praise songs, etc. - could have been suggested as starting points for congregations.

Custom print sets is something we already do.  We still use pre-printed offering envelopes.  Every year we send a list of the envelope numbers we use to the company that prints them.  They read the Excel spreadsheet and print those numbers.  An Excel sheet with a list of hymn numbers could easily be the basis for customized hymnals.  But the electronic edition could then have them all - with the capability of printing one-offs for those hymns not in a congregation's printed book.  This would be adapting to the new technological world.

Instead, the denomination remains mired in old thinking, and brought it forward into a new medium.  I've seen this movie before.  My first career - as a software consultant - started before Windows was even invented.  I lived through the era when customers wanted to see their favorite DOS programs ported to Windows.  Some people did just that - made the DOS program run under Windows.  They all died.  Others made true Windows versions of their software.  Those sold.

Where have we made similar mistakes?  What have we merely ported to new media instead of making a true adaptation?  An example that comes to mind is the church newsletter.  Many churches have resorted to emailing their newsletters via PDF in order to save money.  We don't.  Our newsletter PDF is available online, but we still mail hardcopy to everyone.  Why?  Because the newsletter is a low-priority read, and we feel that the odds of someone going back to read a low-priority email are zero.  For most people, an email that isn't answered right away gets lost.  A newsletter lying on a kitchen table has at least a chance of being read.

But beyond that the question is: why monthly?  A monthly newsletter makes sense for printing and mailing.  But for emailing?  Why send the newsletter monthly by email?  Why not chunk it up and send relevant parts of it weekly?  We reinforce our paper newsletter with weekly email blasts to our members reminding them of upcoming events.  Change the frequency and the format to the medium!  Don't slavishly preserve the format and frequency of print into a medium that doesn't demand it.

Worship presents similar challenges.  Too many churches have tried to offer "contemporary" worship that is merely a traditional service with different music.  Contemporary worship has a different ethos - it isn't just less formal, it's less linear in construct.  If you project everything and you aren't bound to a printed page - don't act as if you are. 

The new hymnal (which combines the worst of two worlds: new hymns and old praise songs) and many attempts at contemporary worship are two ways in which Presbyterians and other mainline denominations end up looking like DOS programs in a Windows world.

Don't make the same mistake.  For every new technology or environment, ask yourself a simple question: what would it look like if we designed it from scratch for this modality?  Then go and create that.  That's what it means to do a new thing.