Status Update: The Great Commission is Social
(My first published article, in Christian Renewal!)
Spotts, Michael. “Using Common Media For Church Growth.” Christian Renewal, May 18, 2011, 25-27.
In discussing the best use of social media in relation to Church growth, it’s neither as a veteran church planter nor seasoned missionary that I’m able to address the issue. I speak instead from the vantage of an avid user and beneficiary of certain aspects of modern networking. For the past eight years, my work in photography and Web design has revolved around an online presence. More meaningfully, the Internet served as the gateway to my own membership in a Reformed Church, but I’ll come to that later. What I would like to do is open up a conversation on the differences between different types of media for growing local bodies of believers.
USING NEW TECHNOLOGY IS NOTHING NEW
When it comes to turning communication technologies into means of extending the evangel, Solomon’s words ring truer than ever — “there is nothing new under the sun.” For two millennia the Church has capitalized on every advance in the art. From the transition of scrolls to portable codices, and the printing press; the transatlantic jaunt of sermons by telegraph in the late 1800’s, up to the present transmission of text-message invitations to evening services, we have adapted developments in media to suit the purposes of the Great Commission.
THE RIGHT AND WRONG USE OF COMMON MEDIA
For purposes of this discussion, I’ll distinguish between two sorts of media, ordained and common. Ordained media pertains to the instituted means by which God ordinarily speaks to His people, namely, Word and Sacrament. Common media, on the other hand, involves every form of communication common to man, which can be used to bring people into contact with the Church in her ordained ministry. No doubt, harnessing common media for Christ’s sake sometimes leads to miscommunication about what constitutes true Christian life. Technologies which carry sermons into sickbeds have also enabled a questionable culture of spiritual recluses, “self-feeders”, who neglect ordained media. Some Christians have even encouraged listeners to stay in bed on the Lord’s day for “virtual Church.” Of course the good of our efforts in such instances remains somewhat virtual, too.
The right use of common media is chiefly to bridge the gap with outsiders, between unfamiliarity and willingness to participate in a local Christian body. It is to bring people into contact with the Lord’s ordained media. The question, then, is not how to disseminate our message without any further interest in those whom it reaches, but how best to bring them into real membership with local Churches.
THE MOST EFFECTIVE COMMON MEDIA
Now, in talking about particular forms of common media by which we advertise (yes, we can use that word) the availability of ordained media in a local area, let’s begin at the unsurpassed original, word-of-mouth. Since the time of the Apostles, the Church has extended naturally by way of voice. Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 and Paul’s various addresses were not only evangelistic, but were spoken with intent to incorporate believers into visible bodies. In these cases, without the aid of techno-gimmicks, real people were approached by fellow men in a way that communicated vital, personal interest. And by God’s grace, the Church grew rapidly.
The genius of personal recommendation is well-attested to. Ivan Misner, dubbed by CNN, “the father of modern networking”, has said that “practically every businessperson knows how important word-of-mouth marketing is.”  It doesn’t take an advertising guru to understand why word-of-mouth is essential to real growth, in the Church as much as anywhere. The answer lies in that, the more personally involved we are in communicating the virtues of something, the less our message seems like a snake-oil pitch. We seem to care. “Word-of-mouth is one of the most credible forms of advertising because a person puts their reputation on the line every time they make a recommendation and that person has nothing to gain but the appreciation of those who are listening,” says Roy Williams, and he’s right.  By nature we listen to those we know, and those whom we feel like we know.
THE IMPERSONALITY OF TRADITIONAL MASS-MEDIA
The modern myth that science makes everything “new and better”, has made us prone to think recent developments, such as mass media, will necessarily give better results. However, if one follows the progress of common media through the past two-thousand years, it will be observed that a strange departure occurred in the 19th and 20th Centuries, going from personal to more detached mediums of advertisement; mediums which are inherently remote.
Imagine for a moment that you are an unbeliever or new convert not yet attending a local Church. Compare the experience of receiving a hand-written invitation from a friend welcoming you to his fellowship, against the sight of a newspaper ad bearing no familiar name. Do we listen to strangers? At best, door hangers and leaflets may rely on celebrity or sentimental imagery to create a sense of personal connection. Likewise, compare what it means to be spoken to in person, against the estranged voice of a radio or TV announcer. We tune them out, with all the other white-noise of our media-saturated existence.
This is not to say newspapers, radio, and television are useless means, but I would stress that they often seem detached from real personal witness. They feel to many like anonymous intruders, actors, and hucksters, offering wares or worse. While the old archetype of mass media may be effective for the sale of one-off products, burgers and makeup, it does not suit the Church so well as familiar endorsement. At the 2011 United Reformed Church Planting conference, Rev. Daniel Hyde asked for a show of hands to know how many pastors had purchased Yellow Pages ads for their congregations. Of those who responded, hardly one could attest to a single person darkening the doors of their church as a result. Whereas good money was spent on thousands of ads which failed to receive a return, most churches persist today largely because of the old method: God’s power through real, personal witness.
SOCIAL MEDIA: THE FUTURE IS MORE LIKE THE PAST
Disillusioned by the economic failures of mass-media, and perhaps intimidated by the finesse of the Internet, many pastors at the above-mentioned conference admitted to feeling unsure about the worth of recent social media phenomenons, such as FaceBook, Twitter, blogs and sermon-sharing sites, for the growth of their churches. Hyde was able to address these concerns by focusing both on the financial benefits of social media, and on the inherently personal nature of what may at first seem virtual.
First, let’s look at cost-effectiveness. Ads posted on FaceBook or Google begin somewhat in the style of mass-media. However, by tagging ads with key phrases which users have “liked”, such as “Calvinism”, “Christian”, or “Atheist”, those ads appear only to people who have described their interests as such on their social network profiles. Because the cost of advertising on such sites is proportionate to the size of the targeted demographic, less money is spent on potentially redundant ads, compared to say, bombing the community blindly with ads in the form of big yellow door jams. It’s something like the difference between LAZER guided missiles and WWII air raids.
To give an indication of what these numbers may look like, Rev. Hyde has supplied information regarding ads posted on FaceBook for Oceanside URC in a five-month period. Between Jan. 1 and Apr. 18 of 2011, there were a total of 984,700 impressions (individual appearances of the ad on a user’s page). These ads were targeted locally and narrowed down with key phrases, resulting in 91 intentional follow-through clicks. The total cost for nearly a million targeted views was… $113.66. Ninety-one were intrigued enough to visit the Church’s site.
What must be taken into account is that those who click on ads in social media networks may not be directed to a static Webpage, but to a hub where they can view pages of other Church members. This allows them to observe personalities, send messages, befriend, and ask questions of those who seem most familiar to themselves. They may even discover that they already know people who attend that Church. Social sites like Facebook can form a window into the lives of both pastor and parishioner, informing outsiders about the culture of the church.
REAL PEOPLE MAKE SOCIAL NETWORKING REALLY EFFECTIVE
More powerful even than social ads is the Internet equivalent of word-of-mouth, called “liking” or “sharing”. When FaceBook users choose to click the “like” button on a Webpage, that information is instantly posted to their public “wall” and appears in the feeds of all their contacts. Attached are the subtle, influential words “So-and-so likes this.” The difference is that a friend, rather than an unfamiliar elder or deacon, is now making the connection and spreading interest.
So imagine, a pastor preaches on the Lord’s Day. Afterward, the teaching is posted on www.sermonaudio.net. Suppose just three congregants share the sermon in their networks with the message, “This answered my questions about such-and-such, you’ll like it,” followed by an invitation to the next Church service. Instantly, hundreds or thousands of users with personal connections to those congregants will be exposed to the content in a way that courts real participation! And unlike newspaper or radio ads, social networks provide ways to easily request more information about beliefs, arrange rides, or inquire about similar Churches in another area. So then, despite being conducted over the Web, sharing on social networks is meaningful because it is clearly attached to real people. It is word-of-mouth 2.0.
HOW PASTORS CAN TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THIS NEW TOOL
There are two extremes, the pastor who will not touch a computer, and the one who allows himself to become an overnight op-ed prima donna. But one doesn’t have to spend all day blogging to make an impact with social media. Rev. Hyde’s regular habit has been to post brief, edifying statements and notifications about services or classes. These are shared by others, who may share them with still more. Even if most of one’s contacts live beyond the physical reach of a Reformed Church, this may be the means of their discovering Reformed doctrine and seeking one out.
HOW WE BECAME CONNECTED
And this is where my own story comes in. I was raised in Fundamentalism before coming to Calvinistic soteriology through online discussions, book forums, and sermon sites. I didn’t have an idea what else the term Reformed entailed but months later, when I relocated to Southern California, I knew I wanted to go somewhere that taught “God saves us.” My first idea was to Google “Reformed Oceanside”. What came up was a link to Oceanside URC, with a tag-phrase, “where the Gospel is the program.” While their site had useful information, it was the quick response to an email which secured my attendance that Sunday. Online tools were used effectively to translate my interest into participation in ordained means. I have been present ever since.
In the past six months we have begun more ardent use of social media as real extensions of ourselves to others. We at OURC have seen a tremendous growth in interest to attend. People have discovered sound, exegetical preaching online and are drawn to the services. Others have been intrigued by the interaction they experience with congregants online, and have come to the Church to learn more. The process is different than traditional media, which people see and dismiss so quickly. On social networks, users are more likely to receive recommendations as part of friendship rather than as an annoyance or money scheme.
With social media, we are seeing a renewed, adapted version of personal witness that harmonizes with life in the real world better than traditional print and broadcast media. There is no denying that as mediums have moved forward, the Church has always been at the forefront, learning how to integrate every possible means to the furtherance of the Gospel and growth of local Church bodies. We are happy to see with the rise of modern networking, the Great Commission is more social than ever.