Editor's Note: The following is a report on the practical applications of David T, Bourgeois' book, Ministry in the Digital Age: Strategies and Practices for a Post-Website World (IVP Books, 2013).
Since Jesus has called Christians to communicate the greatest message of all – the Gospel – to the world, it’s vital for all church ministries to do their best to spread the Gospel through the greatest worldwide communication tool: the Internet.
But it’s not easy to minister to people successfully online, since digital technologies are constantly changing, and so are the expectations of people who use the Internet. The key to success is developing a strategy for proceeding with online ministry and relying on God’s day-to-day guidance to carry it out.
Here’s how you can develop a successful strategy for your ministry in the digital age:
Go to where the people are rather than expecting them to come to you. It’s not enough to simply set up a website and hope people will find it online. While you do need a website as a basic place where people can get information about your ministry on the Internet, you need much more than that in order to reach lots of people online. That’s because, today, most people use the Internet to build relationships with others instead of just searching for information. Social media sites such as Facebook are immensely popular, and so are sites that allow people to broadcast messages, such as YouTube and Twitter. It’s important to do your research to find out where people in your ministry’s target audience are going online – and then to establish a presence for your ministry in those places by participating in the online communication taking place there.
Learn about the people in your ministry’s target audience. Get to know the people you’re trying to reach online by gathering demographic information about them (such as their age range and where they live), their current perspectives on faith and how mature their faith is or isn’t right now, and the ways they typically use the Internet. One free and thorough resource you can use to conduct research into people’s Internet usage is the Pew Internet & American Life Project at www.pewinternet.org.
Identify various content streams and their potential roles in your ministry’s overall digital strategy. Content streams are different types of digital content that flows into the lives of your target audience’s lives regularly. Some examples are: Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, email, text messages, search engine results, blogs, podcasts, photo sharing, and RSS news reader feeds. Ask God to give you the wisdom to figure out how your ministry can participate in each of those streams: what type of content to post there and how often, how to engage in conversations taking place there, etc.
Make your digital presence compatible with mobile devices. Since many people are now using mobile technology to get online, you should make sure that your ministry’s presence online is compatible with mobile devices. Design or change your ministry’s website so that it appears well on mobile devices, which display simple layouts the best. Consider whether or not your ministry should use a mobile app, keeping in mind that the cost of having one designed is expensive but may be worthwhile if the app would be especially effective for your ministry.
Identify your ministry’s functions and form. Pray and reflect on your ministry’s functions (what it does) and form (how it accomplishes that work). Make sure that everyone involved in creating your ministry’s digital strategy understands both the functions and form so they can keep them in mind when deciding how to invest time, money, and people’s effort into the strategy.
Figure out how to tell a compelling story in the surrounding culture. If you use digital technologies to tell a story that inspires, engages, and motivates people – as the Gospel message does – people will come to you online. Become a cultural observer to study how you can tell the Gospel story in ways that people in your culture best understand. Attend conferences, study the websites of other ministries that you respect, scan books or periodicals devoted to your ministry’s field, read blogs devoted to ministry and technology, and talk with people you know about potential ways to use technology to reach people in your culture with the Gospel message.
Assign the right people to be responsible for your digital ministry. Designate someone on staff (not a volunteer) to reliably be the central point of contact for your ministry’s digital efforts on a day-to-day basis. Establish a team of dedicated people for ongoing planning and direction work, as well. Train everyone thoroughly.
Set goals and monitor progress to measure how well your ministry’s digital strategy is working. Set and write down a specific goal for each type of digital technology you’re using, such as: search engine rankings, number of website hits and how long people spend reading content there, amount of content downloads, number of Facebook likes and Twitter followers, amount of video views, number of ministry donations received and/or volunteers recruited, and the amount of positive comments posted online in response to your ministry’s content on various sites. Then collect data from your ministry’s online work and study it periodically to determine how well you either are or aren’t meeting your goals. Set up and follow a clear process for making changes to your digital ministry whenever necessary.
Manage security. Set up a system to manage the security of your ministry online. Use an Internet content filter and anti-virus software, update your operating system and back up your data regularly, respect copyright laws by not posting anything created by others without their permission, use complex passwords, avoid offering wireless Internet service to users, and secure your ministry’s server with a digital certificate and a firewall.
Adapted from Ministry in the Digital Age: Strategies and Practices for a Post-Website World, copyright 2013 by David T. Bourgeois. Published by IVP Books, an imprint of InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Ill., www.ivpress.com.
David T. Bourgeois (Ph.D., Claremont Graduate University), is director of innovation and associate professor of information systems at Crowell School of Business at Biola University. He has worked in information systems at Fortune 500 companies in such roles as systems analyst, programmer, project leader, trainer and consultant. Bourgeois has been researching and consulting on the use of digital technologies by churches, ministries and other faith-based institutions for the past several years. He has a passion to help these organizations use digital tools to more effectively love God and love others.
Whitney Hopler, who has served as a Crosswalk.com contributing writer for many years, is author of the new Christian novel Dream Factory, which is set during Hollywood's golden age. Visit her website at: whitneyhopler.naiwe.com.
Publication date: November 4, 2013