Digital Evangelism

A Question of Context: Do Churches Need a Universal Media Strategy?

screen_shot_2015-06-22_at_9.43.16_amBy Gail Goldsmith, staff writer

The Episcopal Church is not a line of products—so why would we sell it like one?

“Conducting an Online Digital Evangelism Test” (Resolution B009) recently passed the House of Deputies. The resolution proposes a church-wide digital strategy for creating content, collecting contact information and building online infrastructure.

B009’s digital marketing plan is de rigueur for brands, products and campaigns. For me to tout a lot of experience in digital marketing wouldn’t be resume realism, but I’ve worked in an ad agency, in a marketing communications agency and in non-profit communications. It was a long, tricky puzzle to set a finish line in specific terms (sales, page views or sign-ups) and trace a plan back to the client’s goals and the creative team’s talents. So when it all clicked, it was satisfying.

I liked it well enough, but then again, I was devouring In Memory of Her on my lunch breaks. The way Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza starts with the story of the woman washing Jesus’s feet, and from there, tells the lives of women in the Gospels, epistles and early Church was what was healing my hurts and sparking my soul. Writing content for a diabetes newsletter wasn’t.

If what we have to offer is a walk with Jesus, the encouragement of community and the deep relationship we build through service with each other, then why would we use the same strategy as a company selling razors? The Church is qualitatively unique; we have other methods of evangelism open to us.

Communication Breakdown

B009 allocates half-a-million dollars toward “evergreen” content. In search engine optimization (SEO) and digital marketing-speak, this means it is content without an expiration date. The resolution suggests white papers, eBooks and resources. Resources and eBooks are already common offerings from Christian formation groups, but white papers are, by definition, for sales-oriented “thought leadership.” This evergreen content would be exchanged for email addresses, which would then be used to populate a database of “leads”—people for parishes close by to contact. The practice of content exchanged for contact information, which is then used to populate a database, was taught as an old-school approach in my college advertising classes in 2011.

“Evergreen” clashes with our red doors; we are a changing Church with a via media theology. For example, a white paper on the Eucharist might emphasize communion of the baptized, but a parishioner who is referred to a local church might encounter open table.

The proposed budget suggests a small staff and a high output of content. This would include “blog posts, email cultivation, newsletters and social media posts…to cultivate prospects.” This is not a revolutionizing of Church communications to show the way the Spirit is moving the Church in a new direction; this is sales.

The Twitter hashtag #B009 took off, with Episcopalians and other church nerds (meant lovingly) chiming in to commend a “yes” vote for digital evangelism and social media strategy. Social media can be a great digital evangelism tool, but Resolution B009 does not put forth a social media strategy. There is money set for creating content that would be shareable, but there is no outlined strategy for making connections on social media.

Google AdWords changes policies and practices often. The suggested uses of Google AdWords and email blasts could be outdated by the time the triennium ends. B009 is a rhetoric for solutions; it is not a sure-fire recipe for success.

Digital Evangelism Done and Left Undone

With encouragement from leadership, established standards for digital talk, and a sense of story and enthusiasm, digital evangelism can be done boldly and funded effectively. B009 and the conversation on digital evangelism are right to charge Episcopalians to use social media and to recognize online as a medium for our outreach. Planning a slick digital marketing campaign takes the heart out of what is already being done.

The best evangelism on Twitter and in other media spaces is coming from voices doing or encountering the work, worship and service of Episcopalians in their communities. If the House of Bishops votes down B009 after the House of Deputies passed it, it will not be a ruling against the use of Twitter by Church folks, but rather a refocus on questions of communication: What is unique to our place in the world as a Church? How do we tell our story in a way that maintains our identity, but tries new things?

Episcopalians and others are already using the internet as an outreach tool: With searchable maps of ministries and contact information, the Episcopal Asset Map answers the question: “What is my local church doing when it isn’t Sunday morning?” When Episcopal Café and the Episcopal Service Corps’ blogs and Twitter posts address issues about spirituality and community engagement, they show that Episcopalians are meditating and acting on the big questions of their faith – questions a seeker might have about a faith community.

The Twitter hashtags #gc78 and #claimitgc have made public conversation a factor at this General Convention, as people track what we’re doing and what they care about.

Bringing It All Back Home

To me, a more exciting digital evangelism resolution would be focused on dioceses and parishes: Figure out best practices, teach people how to do digital storytelling and outreach, and then turn people loose to be creative and thoughtful in how they represent their faith.

Digital evangelism is broad. But the local and contextual information on the General Church website may not answer questions from those who seek community: Will my partner be comfortable coming to that church with me? Is it a congregation that speaks to my culture? Is the liturgy in Spanish? What style of music is played there?

Answering those kinds of questions requires a dedication of time to do the work, rather than letting a network of consultants do it. When we tell our own stories about our walk with the Gospel, our experience of Jesus and our work for God’s kingdom, we are more compelling than sponsored content and promoted posts. Sponsored content is brand behavior. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth:” What will be the digital equivalent of 1 Corinthians 3:6’s cooperative evangelism?

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3 replies »

  1. I couldn’t agree with this more. I work in in the digital storytelling realm and couldn’t believe that B009 was getting so much positive reaction for an outdated sales tactic that didn’t even work in its “proof of concept”. TEC very much needs to engage more digitally but this simply isn’t the way. Thanks for being a voice for reason.