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SXSW Series: What Can We Learn From Mega Churches


I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about my SXSWi experience. My very favorite part was meeting, connecting and hanging out with people who matter a lot to me. We are separated by distance – and some of them I’d never even seen in real life. So walking around, sharing meals, going with “flow”, laughing and talking while in their company was a total charge. I wouldn’t trade that time for anything.

Interestingly, though, while all this great relationship building stuff was happening, I was also engaged in a  persistent and consistent back channel conversation with LOTS of different people over and over again. At this huge, career changing event, there seemed to be a great disconnect between the fact that people were there to meet and engage with like-minded people and the opportunities to actually DO that.

There are twelve THOUSAND people at sxswi and very few formal  gatherings or gathering spots designed to facilitate the kind of connection and conversation that I heard people craving. If you are lucky enough to know people and get invited to the small, private parties, things are a little easier, but what about the majority of people who are not so well connected?

How do we integrate, meet, connect, converse and engage with others who are like minded, interested in the same things and then develop real relationships?

Chris Brogan wrote a spot on post ( of course) on his observations while he was in Austin. You can read it here. His quote…”Know what I saw more than anything else when I really took a moment to look around? Lonely people.” was spot on. I saw them everywhere too – yearning to connect, not wanting what the huge Super Parties had to offer and with no platform to empower them to do anything about it.

I thought about this… a lot. In fact, in one of my nap-induced fugue states, I began thinking about the challenges of navigating and engaging at a mega-event and how similar they are in many ways to navigating and engaging at a mega-church (think Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in California). 

[And so you know how that connection was made in my sleepy brain, I had a conversation with the effervescent Rochelle Veturis the night before and she talked about her church, which happens to be Saddleback. See? I’m not as crazy as you think. Well, maybe I am but that is the subject of another post. ]

At any rate, here’s where my dreamy thoughts led me:

The challenges of a Mega Event and a Mega Church are actually quite similar.

Number 1:  A LOT of people are attracted to “the big idea” found in a single physical location.

Number 2:  A wide demographic of age, interests, personalities and desires are present in the audience.

Number 3:  The sheer logistics of helping thousands and thousands of diverse people get “fed” through relevant ideas, relevant conversations and relevant relationships is staggering.

I am certainly not saying that the entire burden of solving these challenges rests at the feet of the mega-event organizers. In fact, I would say that much of that weight must be carried by others who are willing to step in and fill this very real need.

Here are just a few ways that mega churches rise to the challenge and I believe there are lessons we can learn and apply as we find ways to put meaningful engagement high on the list of what actually happens at a mega event.

1) Very small (say eight to 10 people) groups gather around a core commonality – young singles, married no kids, married with kids, single again, etc.  This small group is where the most meaningful relationships are fostered. It becomes “home base”.

How this can be applied at a mega-event:

Volunteer leaders can pre-arrange dates, times and locations for non-star-power driven small group conversations. Of course keeping it to eight to ten people wouldn’t be possible but keeping it small and intimate could be. What would REALLY be awesome is if the rockstars took the time to participate in these small group conversations as actual participants. No fanfare, no entourage,  no big announcement. Just show up and contribute.

2) Hundreds of larger (say 75-100 people) groups gathered around a particular interest or topic, ie book discussion group, dad’s basketball group, professional women’s group, etc. An individual won’t connect with every single person in that room but they are incredibly likely to connect with three, four or five people in a meaningful way.

How this can be applied at a mega event:

Have “continuing the conversation” rooms set aside that have designated conversation themes. For example, at SXSWi, the themes might be “Getting heard in the crowded lifestyle space” or “How can the artists blogger actually get paid?” or “What wordpress plugins do you actually use?” – you get the idea. No facilitator or leader is present but when I walk into that room there are people there I can talk to.


Have break out session after certain panels. Panels are not conversations. There are opportunities to ask questions of course but Q & A’s and conversation are very very different.

3) Offline and online channels connect members of the audience.

How this can be applied at a mega event:

Set up a site (official or otherwise) that allows  mini-groups to form prior to the event. These mini-groups can be based on geography, special interests or any other demographic so people have a chance to find their tribe and arrange to connect in real life once they arrive at the event.

Those are the three dream-state produced ideas that took hold in my napping brain. Are they perfect? No. Are there more, better ideas? Yes!

The trick is, I have to stop dreaming, talking and thinking about them and start putting feet under them. I may not have star power, but I have desire and I have the ability to fill some of that hunger for engagement I saw in Austin. Anyone with me?

As always, please make this post infinitly better by sharing your thoughts and ideas. That is always my favorite part. 🙂

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