When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path.
The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away.
The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful.
But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”
– Matthew 13:18-23
Love for free: Christian outreach in a digital age
Recently, I read an article about how difficult it is for Christians to conduct outreach on mass media and social media. The article was written in 2015 by Frederica Matthewes-Green, an author and expert on ancient Christian spirituality and the Orthodox faith (among many other things).
“We Christians have spent decades thinking we should communicate the faith and evangelize using mass media, entertainment, and the internet. But I think that doesn’t work. It hasn’t worked so far.” (frederica.com)
Frederica cited a number of very valid reasons for this situation:
- Mass & social media are too noisy and wired for controversy
- People are cynical and unlikely to respond to faith-based outreach
- There is a known “conflict of interest” since a conversion is the end goal
The bad news is that she’s correct – there haven’t been many “home runs” hit by churches in mass media or the internet.
The good news is that businesses have been struggling with digital marketing as well, usually for the same reasons. I was born in ’89 and started my digital marketing career in 2012, just before social media started getting really big. I’ve seen first-hand how organizations of all types and sizes have struggled to adapt to the “digital revolution”.
The better news is that some of the tools and approaches that marketers have developed over the past several years may prove useful to churches seeking to grow their congregations and/or deepen their community connections.
Right person, right time, right message
Great marketing happens when the right person receives the right message at the right time.
As we know from the Parable of the Sower, not everyone is ready to receive the Word. When for-profit marketers are trying to grow their businesses, they often start by reviewing their current customers and how they were obtained.
For churches and faith-based organizations, this might entail taking an informal census of your congregation. For example, you might want to seek answers to questions like:
- How did people first hear about us?
- Why did they join our church specifically?
- How did they research our church before making a decision?
- Based on feedback we’ve heard before, what makes our congregation unique?
- What types of media do they prefer?
The types of answers that emerge from those questions may help point you towards the types of people you want to keep in mind while developing a digital presence.
First impressions are as important on digital as they are “in real life”. When I work with businesses to redesign their websites, I will prioritize the content that their “ideal” customers would need/want to see.
In a faith-based context, this would mean making it easy for the right people to take their “first steps” towards starting a conversation with you. Your website (and social media, to some extent) will need to answer questions like:
- What is the approach to worship?
- Are there people like me in the congregation?
- What are the services and when are they held?
- What is the dress code for worship?
- Is there Sunday school programming available for my kids?
People need to sleep, eat, and spend time with their families. They have good days and bad days. A strong digital presence can best be understood as a 24/7 witness that is working all the time for your Church.
By having the right person in mind and the right message ready for them through a strong digital presence, you make it easy for people to educate themselves and become “informed first-timers”.
Understanding the “customer journey”
In marketing, we use the term “customer journey” to describe all the things that people do leading up to a purchase. For example, if you want to buy a car, you might research different manufacturers, consider buying a used car instead of a new one, and so on. Most customer journeys involve the internet at some point, and often at the very beginning.
For this faith-based context, I will be using the term “spiritual journey” to describe the general path that people take towards becoming part of a faith.
The “ow moment”
What are the types of things that happen to people that cause them to seek out the Lord? Life milestones, losses, conversations with friends? Understanding where people’s spiritual journey begins allows you to have the right types of messages ready for them when they visit your website or social media pages.
The “first handshake”
What are the first steps that people can take to contact you? For many organizations today, the “first handshake” happens online with a chat request or an email. Although mass media makes it difficult to proactively reach people, there is certainly a percentage of people who will be curious enough to engage.
Looking beyond conversions
There’s lots of things that churches do for communities that people often take for granted – hall rentals, marriages, community outreach, and so on. Giving these aspects of your church a “voice” on your website and social media will help you build relationships with people (and stakeholders) beyond your immediate faith community.
Digital outreach has potential
Despite the confusion and noise that seem to be wired into the digital channels, there is hope for faith-based organizations seeking to have a digital presence. By getting clear about who is most likely to become a part of their community, churches can meet them “where they’re at”, one person at a time.