Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Museums, Church, and Doable Evangelism

I often think museums are like church--passionately loved by staff and devout audiences, irrelevant or off-putting to lapsed or uninterested adults, alien and overwhelming to newcomers. Devotees would like to attract new audiences, but must balance the desire to make newbies feel welcome with authentic demonstration of core values, beliefs, and practices.

What is the appropriate way to evangelize cultural institution use to the unconverted? Is it the "mission" of cultural professionals to help people connect to what we see as positive personal and community outcomes, and if so, how should we go about it?

On Nov. 6, the radio show This American Life included a segment about bait and switch tactics used by Christian evangelicals to entice non-believers onto the path to salvation. The show coupled an uncomfortable ex-evangelical sharing deceitful techniques he had engaged in with a minister named Jim Henderson talking about "doable evangelism," a practice that doesn't rely on what he deemed "acting like jerks."

Jim argued that many pastors overfocus on "conversion-centric evangelism," expending effort on sneaky pitches and highly produced rallies that result in previously non-religious people making statements of faith in Jesus. He suggested that those events are not effective in creating Christians in a meaningful way--the statistics of conversion and continued involvement are abysmal--and that Jesus' instruction to "make disciples" requires much more than making "converts." Instead, Jim and his compatriots focus on being good Christians, connecting with other people in real relationships free of artifice, and hopefully, enriching community members' lives with the evidence of their own faith.

Jim cares more about helping people to the "finish line" of lifelong Christian practice then getting them over the "starting line" via some kind of bait and switch. His techniques sound a lot like model social media practice: listening, being respectful, and encouraging ordinary Christians (not just experts) to act as evangelists. He spends time with non-believers visiting churches and talking about what's persuasive, what's off-putting, and how they think about faith. He does what so many cultural professionals are fearful of or see as a waste of time: "helping Christians see themselves through the eyes of outsiders."

Jim made me think of the recent debate about blockbuster exhibits with tenuous ties to institutional mission, as well as evening events that are more about socializing than content experiences. So many of cultural institutions' efforts are focused on getting people over the starting line--into museums, paying tickets--as opposed to focusing on the long game of connecting people to cultural pursuits in a sustained way. And while first-time attendance may be a good step towards lifelong connection, Jim would argue that if a visitor comes for the first time based on a lie, you are unlikely to build a meaningful relationship with that individual.

How can cultural professionals practice "doable evangelism"--making new visitors feel welcome and encouraged without resorting to activities that are not mission-relevant? A couple ideas:
  • Welcome new visitors with genuine affection and interest. Vishnu Ramcharan, who manages the floor staff (called "hosts") at the Ontario Science Centre, has a simple rule for hosts working the lobby: treat every visitor like you are thrilled that he or she has come today. Not excited generally or about the institutional content, but sincerely pleased that that person in particular has arrived. While overenthusiasm can be off-putting, genuine interest is almost always a comforting start to a new experience. Content in non-majority languages, strollers, and other affordances help too.
  • Help people understand why you do what you do. I'm amazed by the number of museums that don't make it crystal clear that admission tickets help pay for research, education, and outreach activities by the institution. Make it clear that your institution is there to help the community. Encourage staff to share why love their work, the objects on display, and the stories behind them.
  • Listen to what visitors and non-believers say about your institution. Two years ago, my dad and I embarked on a podcast project called Museum Hater. The idea was that we would visit museums and talk with each other (and other visitors, and people outside) about what didn't work for them. After getting thrown out of one museum and rejected by others, we aborted the project. Museums saw us as a threat, but we thought we were going to expose the discrepancy between staff and visitors perceptions to mutual benefit of everyone. Even if you don't want my dad and I to come to your institution, consider taking off your badge sometime and engaging in some of these conversations with visitors and other community members.
  • Thank people for coming, and encourage them to reflect on the visit's outcomes. A good host isn't just happy to see you enter; she also enjoys the goodbye at the end of a satisfying interaction. In his book Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience, John Falk suggests that it is just as important to confirm that visitors have had their needs met and to validate the positive outcome of the visit as it is to provide affordance for those needs in the first place.
  • Make your core ideals clear in other community venues. Evangelism can mean being present in larger conversations related to your content outside your institution's walls. This can be formal--like children's museum staff getting involved with local parks and school boards--or informal, like science museum staff pitching in on the climate change talk on Twitter.
What do you think? Is "doable evangelism" something we should strive for? Or is the starting line so important that we need to keep focusing on getting people in the door?

4 comments, add yours!:

Teen Tix said...

Nina,

This is so right on. I think that the church analogy is a perfect one. One of the frustrations I run into in my work (teen audience development for a wide range of art forms) is this notion: we will get audiences when they are small children, lose them for a while, and then get them back again when they themselves have children (and high-paying jobs and adequate leisure time, presumably), and that's acceptable and natural, which is exactly the same way that a lot of churches look at their teen and young adult attrition. I have a few problems with this way of thinking, but the biggest is that it lets institutions off the hook for having to look at what's alienating or off-putting about their practices and programming and adjust them to better fulfill the needs of *all* of their patrons in a sustained way. Most of the work that we do here at Teen Tix on a day to day basis is about that first visit, but the organizations that benefit the most from what we do are the ones that see each new kid that comes through door as an opportunity to learn, to expand their idea of what their organization can be and who it can serve, and to build a long-term relationship.

Also, God how I wish Museum Hater had worked out. That sounds so worthwhile.

- Holly Arsenault, Teen Tix

Paul Orselli said...

Nice post Nina,

Favorite takeaway: "... if a [museum] visitor comes for the first time based on a lie, you are unlikely to build a meaningful relationship with that individual."

I wish I had that quote at my disposal during the recent ASTC conference!

Even after nearly 30 years in the field, it is continually amazing/disheartening to find how easily many museum people rationalize ANYTHING that brings people in the door.

Rebecca Krause-Hardie said...

Great analogy and points. It also reminds me article I read about the 'cellular church' model in New Yorker a few years back. From what I understand they sort of take the social media approach...
anyway good food for thought. thanks!

Nina Simon said...

Holly,
You're absolutely right-and it's a place where evangelical churches have museums and libraries beat--providing the core content in different distribution packages for different age groups and audience needs.

I enjoyed checking out the Teen Tix blog-it's a nice example of an extension places where real members of your audience can talk about their experience of cultural events. Maybe more museums and libraries need blogs led by users, not staff.