Friday, January 23, 2009

What can the church learn from the Obama campaign?

I started this a long time ago. My thoughts aren't complete, but before the lessons of the Obama campaign fade, I want to post it. Regardless of your politics, most would agree that the Obama campaign was successful (he won) and innovative.

I've thought about how much the church could learn from it. I've talked about this casually in a couple of pastor's circles. Somewhere an enterprising church-lover is probably writing the book. Great. I'll read it. I'm going to start a list here of things I learned as a pastor from observing that campaign. Please weigh in with what you think the church can learn.

1) People had ownership. The campaign made every person's contribution count. Along with noting the record amounts raised, the media repeatedly commented on the total number of people giving time and money.

The campaign took a big risk reneging on their promise to take federal campaign money, but the end result was that more individuals took ownership. They gave time, money, energy, and soul. Many Obama volunteers paid for months of volunteering out of their own pockets.

The result? After the election, people could say: WE did it.

The church sometimes begs people to give time or the money without giving ownership. When people have ownership, they give their hearts. Money follows hearts. In a political campaign, as in a church, if you have someone's heart, you really don't need to worry about the rest.

2) Non-cynical vision. Obama cast a vision and projected that he really believed it. What's more, his vision basically just recast America's vision. His speeches pulled in tens of thousands of people who came to hear what they already knew. The formula: a) Obama's story was possible because of America; b) as Americans we have a great history and tradition and c) we can be excited about the future. There wasn't a shred of cynicism about his vision, even when it got quite grand.

His ability to cast a non-cynical vision that resonated with people came through careful knowledge of our foundations (he's a constitutional scholar) the belief that despite all the challenges we've seen since, our future can be secure because of who we are.

The church is most effective when our vision is non-cynical, aka: hopeful.

We can even follow his formula: a) proclaim how our lives are possible because of our faith; b) remind people who they are as people of faith (based on scripture and tradition) and c) tell each other that despite all the sin in our history and our lives, the future is full of promise.

3) Community organizing. The principles that guide community organizing were at work in the campaign.It was based in one-on-one encounters with people who listened and cared. The agenda was set by hearing the reality of the people. The campaign grew out of relationships and it took off organically (keep in mind that organic things are highly organized). This isn't the big speech part of the campaign, but the small, living room/coffeehouse/dorm basement meetings where passions and concerns were honestly shared.

Key is that #2 and #3 - the grand vision and the careful listening - go hand in hand. Churches can only cast as large a vision as the smaller inter-personal work can sustain.

4) Belief. Obama and his campaign never wavered in their belief that they could transform the country through the political process. Whether they can remains to be seen, but I heard people believing in Obama and our country in a way I wished people believed in Christ and the church.

People joke about him as a messiah figure, but it's because he renewed faith in politics for many people who'd lost it. For those who believed his message, he didn't just talk a good speech, he delivered. He gave people a reason to believe.

The lesson: even people who have lost all faith can find it when something to believe in comes their way. The church's faith is a great gift that becomes greater when we show that we believe it.

5) Simple, consistent technology. The campaign ruffled feathers by not making yard signs easily available, but it realized that yard signs don't reach people like the web. You couldn't participate in the campaign without giving an email address. I joined both Obama and McCain's campaign's email lists. Obama's were much more consistent and simpler to follow. Each communication indicated a clear need and made me know exactly where my money or time would go. With a click of a button, I could sign up for events and get calls. The technology was important, but it wasn't difficult to use.

Churches are often slow to enter the digital age. User-friendly technology will help us innovate in our web ministry and reach more people without leaving too many techno-phobes behind.

6) Relax and trust. Obama often seemed relaxed, and his campaign did too. They worked hard - no one could question that. But their hard work didn't seem anxiety driven. It seemed like a labor of love. They projected an image that they trusted their own message and capabilities.

It's remarkable that the church, which is built by God and has God to trust, often fails to project that same relaxed, trusting image.

Those are just some lessons that come to my mind - there are doubtless many many more lessons for the church to learn. I know that at least a few other people will want to comment. Please do so...I want to hear from you!


  1. When I read the paper the day after the inauguration, I felt a tug in my heart. Seeing people unite for a good cause gives me that feeling. I think all the lessons you mentioned were present in Obama’s successful election. I liked how you chose Obama’s campaign as an example of something that succeeded, and then broke it down, dissecting the different parts. What a good and innovative strategy.

    That feel-good feeling, however, was short-lived, because I know the problems Obama faces are, to put it simply, ginormous. And sadly, I know I will go on with my life like how I would, with certain changes not for anyone else but me (yeah, there is where your message about people’s favorite pronoun is applicable).

    Are you going to expound on these thoughts? I would be interested to know what behaviors you are looking for that would demonstrate the different lessons you mentioned.

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  3. Thanks Anna - I love hearing from you. The biggest behavior change I am looking for in myself has to do with being a leader and a person of faith who really believes what she says. Not taking fiath cynically, not oversimplifying it to make it easy, but proclaiming hope in the midst of fear, a belief in God's goodness (found in communities) above all the crud of life etc. I realize that people turn to the church to be a place of integrity and often find it lacking.

    The lessons I mentioned were fundamentally church-related. One church member rightly pointed out that one reason Obama's campaign did so well was that many people were so hungry for change that they would do what it took to get there. A clear (and to many, frightening) opponent catapaulted Obama.

    It's much harder to generate the kind of groudswell Obama's campaign created when there isn't a clear goal (an election) nor a defined opponent. Change sells best when things are bad. McCain ran a change campaign too...

    The goal of the campaign was relatively simple and clear: get elected. The goal of the church is rarely so clear. Maybe that's one of our challenges. Some would say the goal is to convert everyone - not me. Some would say the goal is to grow - but you can grow in numbers without increasing in love.

    We are always living in the shadow of the knowledge that Christ was crucified, which means that not everythign that God does in the world will be recognized as good. Some very faithful churches are shrinking because their messages and their beliefs aren't easy to hear. Some huge, successful churches are growing, but their beliefs make me wonder if we're both reading the same Bible. Anyway, I'm rambling. Others???

  4. Wow. The issues you touched on and pulled from the campaign are quite insightful - and indeed the church could learn (or re-learn) what it means to be church together. Particularly the non-cynical vision bit. We often have a cynical vision, especially related to "us" and "them." And this vision links phenomenally with the faith we possess the faith we proclaim and if so do/can we live it out?

    More later...


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