Welcome to our cathedral, can I take your order?

(Reading time: 3m, 46s)

I think yesterday’s letter on engagement got more replies than any I’ve sent so far, which is kind of interesting.

I can write about audience behavior or conversions or motivations and get a shout or murmur here and there, but when I ask about engagement everybody runs out on the dance floor.

There’s something to that, but for now — I guess we can just say that you all seem pretty engaged when it comes to engagement.

I asked how you all measure engagement; One response came from Jim Thornton:

Tough question. I think of engagement more as activity, you pick your metrics but they don’t mean anything unless the person is active over a period of time.

Jim makes a good point. When you consider these core activities I’m examining — visiting, joining, donating — each of them can be, and often are, a one-time event. That’s one reason I think that combining them — a donor who visits regularly, for example — could be more useful than merely counting a visit or a donation on their own as a signals of engagement.

Keep Jim’s comment in mind as I switch gears and point you to this BBC article about Rochester Cathedral installing a crazy golf course inside the nave.

(This isn’t the first time I’ve written about an organization trying to use miniature golf to increase “engagement.” You can revisit previous letters like When New York’s Hottest Club is Your Museum and Vision, Value, and Values, which refer to Halverson Group’s introduction of a mini-golf course at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Mini-golf as a remedy to what ails organizations may become a regular theme.)

Back to Rochester Cathedral.

Read the BBC article and the post on the cathedral’s website, and you’ll begin to piece together all the agendas and circumstances that conspired to carpet the cathedral floor green. I’m fascinated by these competing interests.

First, there’s Canon Matthew Rushton from the cathedral who says:

The Archbishop of Canterbury said to us that if you don't know how to have fun in cathedrals then you're not doing your job properly.

Then, we learn that the installation “has been paid for by the Rochester Bridge Trust and themed around bridges.”

Andrew Freeman, from the trust says:

The idea behind the course is to try and encourage young people and families to come into such a beautiful place to learn about the structures of different bridges.

Reverend Rachel Philips:

For over 1,400 years, Rochester Cathedral has been a centre of learning for the community. By temporarily installing an educational adventure golf course we aim to continue that mission, giving people the opportunity to learn while they take part in a fun activity, in what for many might be a previously un-visited building… We hope that, while playing adventure golf, visitors will reflect on the bridges that need to be built in their own lives and in our world today.

The BBC video refers to a shortage of engineers in England. The trust hopes that the installation will ignite children’s curiosity around bridges and, it seems, encourage more children to take an interest in engineering. The installation is at least getting them some press.

The cathedral is getting some press, too, but it seems the public’s reception has been mixed, and I think the cathedral’s goal is to increase attendance. The church’s congregation numbers have fallen “between 10 and 20%”, which may explain the archbishop’s directive that people should be having more fun at church.

But they seem to be conflating attendance and visitation.

Attending a place, in my mind, signals some degree of attention or commitment, whereas a visit does not. You don't attend a bathroom — you visit it. You could visit a place only because you have to or… because you want to play golf in a novel setting.

Let's go back to Jim’s comment about engagement as activity over time. An increase in regular attendance at church functions would be a signal that the installation has had the impact the church was hoping for.

It sure seems like the cathedral is just trying to get more people through the door for any reason at all. Maybe they are studying the installation’s impact on visitors and attendance goals, but it seems like a single visit to play a game is good enough.

I imagine McDonald’s sponsoring the installation of a restaurant inside the cathedral in the hopes that people might reflect on the digestive process. Would eating a Big Mac inside the cathedral help people contemplate their mortality and how soon they may meet God?

So, what might they have done instead?

Let’s make some assumptions and work with what limited information we have.

I think this whole project goes back to the archbishop’s apparent belief that people aren’t attending the church because it’s not fun. Within that, there seems to be an assumption that people attend church as a leisure activity — that the church’s competition is fun activities.

It may have been better to check that assumption first by exploring how different types of people who are and are not currently attending cathedral services think about those services. What is it that prevents people from viewing the church — and that particular church — as a place that can add value to their lives? Is it because it isn’t fun?

Of course, that could be an unrealistic recommendation. I don’t know all the constraints the decision-makers at the cathedral face.

I can imagine, for example, the archbishop might not appreciate the second-guessing that that kind of research implies.

But that’s where I would begin.

And now you know why the archbishop suggested I retire from the clergy early and begin writing these daily letters.

Thanks for reading,

Kyle

mailbagKyle Bowen