First Baptist Church of Rahway, 177 Elm Ave., Rahway, New Jersey 07065 is a multi-cultural congregation that has a Blended English Service on Sunday Mornings, a Latino Service at 12:00, and a Service in Telugu at 3:30PM. For more information, call (732) 388-8626. Or click here to send an email. If you wish to help the Mission and Ministry of First Baptist financially click the Donate Button.
Friday, February 25, 2011
A strategy for ministering to people on the Internet that really works.
What is Real?
I own telescopes and I like to post on an Astronomy Forum on the Internet. It is a place where amateur astronomers talk about stuff in the sky. I write something, I post it, someone else comments. Helder, an astronomy friend who also posts on the site started to have a conversation with Trish who lives not too far away. He invited her to one of our outdoor observation sessions and the three of us are now good friends. It seems to me that this is the way the Internet is supposed to work; real people connecting in real ways. And yet, stories like this are rare, because the Internet is not quite like real life. Many people hide their identities, or make up new ones. Many people drop their normal inhibitions and pour out their secrets or their anger to strangers. Many people see the Internet as a toy, a temporary distraction from the stress of the real world. As a result most Internet relationships are extremely tenuous. I would go so far as to say, they are not real. This makes attempts to do Christian ministry online difficult. I know, because I have been pursuing Christian Internet ministry for years.
Numbers Rule, the Rest of Us Drool
Another problem I have encountered is the fact that cyberspace is distorted by an emphasis upon numbers. Porn and gambling have enormous numbers of visitors, and rake in huge profits, but the overall percentages of people around the world who engage in these activities are small. A blogger who logs in a million hits a day is considered an Internet star, yet, the many TV talk shows easily dwarf those numbers. And of course, there are the many fly by night stars that come and go quickly. I remember a kid who dressed up as spider man, danced and sang terribly and made my kids laugh so hard they could hardly breathe. After 100,000 hits on his YouTube site, he was forgotten as quickly as he showed up. However, I bet you he is very proud of those 100,000 hits. And yet, unless a person or business is able to translate the hits into dollars, what do the numbers mean? All I can see is a temporary inflated ego, which doesn’t amount to much.
Jesus didn’t appear to pay any attention to the numbers of people that were around him. After the miracle of the loaves and fish, he walks away from the 5,000 enthusiastic followers. Jesus focused his ministry on individuals, because everyone he met was important and unique in God’s eyes. If we are seeking to do ministry by creating and developing real relationships with real people, then we need to avoid the pursuit of numbers and look for ways to reach people one at a time.
I have hiked many miles in the woods and I can tell you one thing for sure. People do stupid stuff when no one is looking. I have seen signs shot to pieces, garbage dumped in the middle of nowhere and mountain top shelters used as party shacks. I’m sure a large number of people view the Internet in the same way. No one is looking over our shoulders, so let ‘er rip. We prowl around sites we would never want our families to know about. We say things in the comment section on news sites we would never say to our friends. I have seen horrible things posted on Christian Forums, which considering Jesus’ message, makes absolutely no sense. This is why I stick to the Astronomy forum. It turns out, Astronomers are calmer than Christians. It appears to me that many people feel that there are no limitations to their conduct on the Internet.
All of these problems caused me to conclude that real ministry is not possible on the Internet. It turns out, that I was wrong.
Real Ministry to Real people
This statement; “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, Love your neighbor as yourself.” is one of the greatest passages found in the scriptures. In the Gospel of Luke it is followed by the Good Samaritan story. In that story the people who are criticized by Jesus are the ones who do nothing. They don’t help and they don’t hinder the hurt man. They just avoid him at all costs. The man who is righteous is the one who did something to help. When putting these two passages together we get a definition of ministry in our world; loving people means doing something good for the person God has placed in our path. Ministry is not passive and ministry is not distant. Ministry is personal and active. A person who is in need comes into contact with us, God calls us to act. And that is why it is so difficult to pull off on the web. The web favors impersonal and anonymous communication and rewards numbers over persons. However, the creation and popularity of Facebook has changed this equation and opened up a new way of pursuing ministry that is personal and effective.
Facebook Comes a Knocking
When I first looked at Facebook I thought it was stupid. I don’t care what people had for breakfast, and I hated the posts that seemed like I was cutting in on the middle of a conversation. However, it has grown on me in proportion to the ministry opportunities it has given to me. First is the fact that people use their real names, whereas other public Internet sites encourage use of nicknames. Real names open the opportunity to connect with people we already know, as well as getting to know people we have met for the first time. I don’t think it is possible to develop a strong relationship with someone who is holding back basic information like their name. Second, people place a lot of information about themselves on the site. I converse with fellow astronomers because of our shared hobby. This allows Internet ministers to look for ways we can start a conversation through common interests. Third, Facebook seems to encourage regular communications. People post a lot, which gives us more opportunities to find ways to open a dialogue. Finally, Facebook has a Group function that allows groups to form and create a larger social dynamic. I have a pretty successful Bible Study happening right now on a Facebook Group page. Most of the people who follow the group I met for the first time on Facebook. Not too shabby for a guy who thought the whole concept was stupid.
If you think about what I have just described, it sounds a lot like a church. We meet people in church and we get to know them. We share our likes and dislikes. We find ways to connect with each other. And we form a group dynamic that is centered on our love for God. This is exactly what Facebook ministry looks like.
Facebook is really very simple. Place information about yourself, as little or as much as you wish. Then you sign up some friends and you’re off. The term ‘friends’ could mean almost anyone. People you know or people your friends know or someone you just sign up and call a friend. The good news is that you get to decide who becomes a part of your Friends world. You can always de-friend someone after you get to know them and find out that he/she is a real jerk. If someone wants to be-friend you, you can look at their profile. And there is an email feature so you can send someone a note, if you are still not sure of that individual. This system opens up good possibilities for reaching out to people in a personal way.
The easiest way to reach out to someone on your friends list is to comment on something they posted. A supportive or funny comment is a good way of breaking the ice. However, the email feature on Facebook is the real jewel in the crown. I try to find ways of connecting with folks I don’t know. If I see an interesting post, I send a private message commenting on it. The person can either ignore me, in which case I won’t bother that person again, or say hello to me. In some cases this starts a good correspondence that leads me to introduce the person to my ministry website and/or the Bible Survey Group. This is how I have been able to build a small audience. Over time, who knows, it may grow into a large audience.
I Blog, You Blog
Blogging is now the best way to communicate who you are and/or what your ministry is. A traditional Website is static. We post to it as we have need to, which is not very often. As a result, visitors come once and usually don’t return. On the other hand, a Blog is dynamic. A Blog should have frequent postings. As a result, visitors who become interested in the site’s message come every day to see what is new. The trick is to come up with daily content. It’s easier than it sounds. On my church Blog I post a variety of material some of which I produce, most of which I find on the Internet. On Monday’s I post a blurb from a Mission I find somewhere around the world. I feel that I should be promoting mission and so I put in a paragraph, a photo and a link to their website in the hope that my audience might become interested in supporting that mission. On Tuesday’s I look for a video or a written testimony from a person who has something wonderful to say about their faith in Jesus Christ. On Wednesday’s I find something to pray for. Sometimes it is something in the news, sometimes it is a specific illness, and sometimes it is a prayer for our church ministries. Thursday is reserved for my essays on life, the universe and Jesus. Friday is music day. I find Christian musicians on the web and post their videos. I particularly like music from other parts of the world. I also post announcements and pictures from our ministries at First Baptist. Saturday’s and Sunday’s I usually take off. I have been able to fill up the Blog with new material for a year now. And my audience is stable, so I must be doing something right. You can fill a Blog with material you produce, or material you find on the Web. If you’re like me and you produce limited material, there is always something to be found on the Web that is related to your vision.
Speaking about the audience, Facebook comes to the rescue once again. Every time I post something on my website, I post a link to it and a brief message describing it on Facebook. This has almost single handedly boosted my traffic and built my audience. I am not pushy, but I am persistent. Everything I place on the Blog is promoted on Facebook. Over time I hope to grow my friends list and out of that find more of an audience for my Blog. My friends, when it comes to ministry opportunities, Facebook is the gift that keeps on giving.
There is a lot of opportunity on the Internet for ministers. There is also a lot of frustration and fruitless effort waiting for us as well. The Internet opens a door for us to reach out to a large percentage of the world’s population. At the same time, it exposes us to rejection on a scale we have never imagined. I believe that there is great opportunity to find people we can minister to, for those of us who bravely step through the door. I believe that the Internet tools I have been working with are a part of a new way to do ministry. And, I believe that the more ministers engage in Internet ministry, the more we will find ways of being successful at it. But only God knows what lies in our future. So my friends, I hope you will jump into the virtual world, and find a way to minister to the real one.
God bless you,
Pastor Bill Whitehead