We're stuffing your stocking with digital delights for online ministry as we close out season 2 of Pastoring in the Digital Parish. While this episode details a handful of things learned in previous season 2 sessions, it also dives deep into the big question: What measurements really matter in digital ministry?
Ryan referenced some research done by the Barna Group. This slide, in particular, relays the worship attendance numbers he quoted.
Ryan also referred to some older research called the National Study of Youth and Religion. Christian Smith summed up and dissected the study in his book Soul Searching. But this page provides a great synopsis.
This session also mentioned the movie "Moneyball." You can find a synopsis of the movie here.
This is Pastoring in the Digital Parish, the pseudo-seminary class for all things digital ministry.
My name is Ryan Dunn, I’m the host of this podcast as well as a bit of a digi-min practitioner myself as I run the online components of the Rethink Church brand of United Methodist Communications AND I do the social media presence for my own local church.
Here on Pastoring in the Digital Parish, we’re wrapping up our second season through this episode. So this session is going to be a short review of some of the key points of this past season. I’ll share some of the ideas from season 2 episodes that really stood out to me. I’m also going to share some of the things we’ve learned across the digital ministry realm through this particular space in time.
I watched the movie “Moneyball” a few days ago. That’s the baseball movie where Brad Pitt plays General Manager of the Oakland Athletics–a guy named Billy Beane. The challenge Mr. Beane faces in the movie is that he runs an underdog club. The A’s do not have the money and resources available to most other clubs. So they keep losing their best players to other teams who can afford to pay superstar players.
Beane and his apprentice, Peter Brand (played by Jonah Hill), devise a system to evaluate players in new ways. In doing so, they’re able to find value in players that no one else sees. Home runs, stolen bases, flashy defensive plays… those things aren’t all that important in the new system they develop. Instead, they just care that players get on base. That’s the bottom line: don’t make outs. Over the course of the movie, the team actually improves over their previous seasons despite not having the superstar players they used to have.
At several points through the movie, the key characters utter lines resembling something like “We’re asking the wrong questions.” In so doing, they’re really saying that the things they were previously using to gauge success weren’t true indicators of actual success.
That’s important for us to keep in mind. What we measure as successful ministry in the traditional parish may not indicate success in the digital parish.
It’s become clear to me that when many of us talk about digital ministry, we’re still thinking in terms of an event-driven model of ministry. So when talking about digital ministry, we’re talking about streamed worship experiences and digital Bible studies. The participation in the digital event is still what we’re using as a metric for effectiveness.
However, we talked with some people this past season who suggested that perhaps an event-driven model is not the most effective way to connect with people in the digital realm. In other words, if our streamed worship is the cornerstone of our digital ministry and our concern is getting more people to participate there, then perhaps we’re asking the wrong questions.
Kelly Price noted in our session about online consumer behavior that we’re not really jumping online in order to participate in an event. Digital space feels more personal to us. We’re looking for something else when we’re online. You can certainly learn more about what people are actually looking for online in the session we did with Dr. Kelly Price.
Actually, here’s the thing about event-driven ministry: overall worship participation is on the decline. If you’re in a church, you’ve likely already noticed. You may not, however, have noticed that this has been the overall trend since 2009. According to Barna Research, worship attendance across every generation has been in decline. That fact struck me: this is not merely a Millennial or Gen Z thing. Every generation, even the Baby Boomers, has been attending worship with decreasing regularity. The reasons for this downturn are unclear, but we do know that around that time there was an economic downturn, the iPhone released, Facebook took off, and streaming media was becoming a bit more accessible.
Reasons aside, the reality is that many of our ministries see less event participation now than we did in 2008-2009. BUT, a lot of these people who don’t consistently participate in worship still consider themselves church-goers or church members. Most say that they are growing spiritually in other ways than attendance.
There’s a Moneyball moment for us: our mission is to make disciples of Jesus, correct? Barna reports that people are still open to spiritual development, but they are less willing to participate in spiritual events like worship services. So if we’re measuring the reach of our digital ministry through event participation, it seems we’re asking the wrong questions.
This is where we can learn a lot from the digital coaching industry. We talked with a number of digital coaches through our two seasons of Pastoring in the Digital Parish–coaches from both inside and outside the church. This season, we heard from Mike Kim who is a branding, marketing and copywriting coach. We heard from Sammy Kelly of Digivangelism, who is a digital ministry coach. We heard from Jason Moore who coaches congregations through best practices of hybrid worship and digital engagement. If we harken back to season one we can learn from digital coaches like Dana Malstaff of Boss-Mom and Matt Johnson of Microfamous. There was James Kang and Wil Ranney who are ministry coaches.
All of these coaches will participate in big events–for them that probably looks like speaking at a conference. Those are moments of exposure for them, but their individual goals are not to speak at conferences or appear on podcasts. Because all of these coaches are in the BUSINESS of coaching, we can admit that they won’t invest too heavily in those large events because that’s not where they’re going to consistently produce their income. Their income comes on a much more personal level, when they enlist a singular client to purchase their services. They might initially meet a client through a conference, but the conference itself is not the money-maker.
In ministry, our concern is not the money. But we still have a vested interest in relationships with individuals. That’s where real discipleship happens, right? Discipleship does not happen in events, it happens in relationship. I doubt I need to convince you of that.
Christian Smith published a book over 10 years covering research about the national study of youth and religion. The book is called Soul Searching. It helped acquaint us with ideas like Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. The book is still relevant because the teens that Smith wrote about are now adults. You might be in the generation Smith covered, in fact. And you’re finding that your peers still hold the same spiritual assumptions and convictions they did years ago.
Anyways, in Soul Searching, Smith introduced an idea of Mormon envy. It seems that the research found that Mormon were far more likely to be able to articulate the distinguishing characteristics of faith and were much more invested in the life of their local parishes. I was a youth minister when I read Smith’s book, and I found myself enviously looking at the neighborhood Mormon church–where teens often gathered at 6AM on weekdays for confirmation class. No way was I going to get buy-in for a 6AM confirmation class. Instead, we had students going to another church because the confirmation class was more convenient for their family, and vice versa.
ANYWAYS, the true envy was that there was daily engagement in faith formation in these young people. Everyday they were being pulled together into community and being mentored in the traditions and actions of their faith. I didn’t see that happening in my youth ministry and, according to Smith, very few ministers in general saw that happening. Thus the envy.
The dangerously beautiful promise of digital ministry is that it opens us up to the possibility of access. We have the opportunity now, 24-7, to pull people into community and formation. We have the ability to come alongside individual disciples every day. That’s something we used to lust after. So we probably want to invest our resources in everyday discipleship activities, even more than we focus on the big event stuff. I think the data supports us making everyday discipleship the metric.
That might be the better question: What are we doing digitally to invite people into daily discipleship? What kind of digital on-ramps are we providing for discipleship?
Barna notes that prayer is a big engagement and discipleship on-ramp. I’m not totally sure what that looks like online. But I can offer a couple examples… One being the Everyday Sanctuary app, which has been mentioned in previous sessions. It’s an app offering daily prayer practices. Another good example is the Chapel Online, a Facebook group that does regular live prayer sessions.
In my own work, I’ve gotten quite a bit of mileage and engagement in posting weekly breath prayers. I simply make a little graphic with a kind of mantra to match our breathing patterns. It’s curious, I see quite a bit more engagement with those posts than I do with the produced video prayers we also do on a weekly basis. These are text over image videos reflective of the season of the Christian calendar we’re in. I think there’s something about the bite-sized clip that makes this more attractive.
That being said, a lot of social media authorities say that video is key to getting engagement. That has not actually been the case on the platforms I manage. Our video posts actually see lower engagement than static image posts. Now, there are probably several reasons for that–including the types of videos we post–but I think it’s worth noting that, for us at least, investing the resources needed in a highly produced video hasn’t been turning a reciprocal return on investment. AT LEAST, in terms of the big 3 social platforms: Facebook,Twitter and Instagram. There’s a lot more to explore there.
One reason video underperforms in terms of engagement perhaps is that it’s tough to be conversation-based in a highly produced video. And being conversation-based seems to be the key for evangelism in the digital age. Casual faith conversations are the evangelism points of the future. Event-based evangelism is not. I don’t think Billy Graham would find as much success in today’s attention market.
People will join in our communities not because we’ve made an intellectual argument or because of an event we invited them to. They are more likely to join our communities because they like the people and the mission. That’s a big reminder to communicate the mission and tell the stories of our ministries’ people as much as possible. And then we look to engage with people as much as possible. I have to remind myself of that all the time: people who post or comment on our ministry’s posts deserve a reply–mostly.
Now that can be demanding work. That is not a small investment. And we need boundaries. I pointed out that the beauty of digital ministry as that we can invest in discipling relationships 24-7. That’s also a curse, right? Because… well, I probably don’t need to detail the because. You get it.
The additional negative point of all this investing and storytelling is that it comes at the expense of something else–some other point of work that we’ve been doing. In our session with social worker Lindsay Geist, we talked about the pull of ministry and the feeling that we’re always leaving something undone. This season of our existence has accelerated those feelings. Because there’s a pressure to press into the new, exciting possibilities this digital-first era has opened up while many of us feel a pressure to maintain the systems of the past, as well. That’s rough.
A redeeming aspect about mentoring in the digital world is that it can be done asynchronously–meaning outside of real time. For the most part, you don’t need to be online at the same time as someone else in order to open a relationship with them. You simply need to provide a platform of correspondence.
Lindsay Geist’s advice was to put some boundaries around your online time. Take some scheduled Sabbath breaks. Make sure there’s intentional time when you’re disengaged from the digital ministry platform.
And I think I’m going to leave us with that piece of advice. As I record this, it’s Advent 2021. We got work to do. But we also need our moments of peace. So I offer this prayer for you, it’s from Henri Nouwen:
Master of both the light and the darkness, send your Holy Spirit upon our preparations for Christmas.
We who have so much to do and seek quiet spaces to hear your voice each day,
We who are anxious over many things look forward to your coming among us.
We who are blessed in so many ways long for the complete joy of your kingdom.
We whose hearts are heavy seek the joy of your presence.
We are your people, walking in darkness, yet seeking the light.
To you we say, "Come Lord Jesus!'
Blessings to you this season.
This is the close of Pastoring in the Digital Parish season 2. Season 3 will get underway in February of 2022. IF you have some questions you’d like for us to address or some recommendations of people we should talk to, then hop onto the Pastoring in the Digital Parish Facebook group and share it. I’d love to know that this podcast is meeting your direct needs. That would be rewarding for all of us.
Thanks to United Methodist Communications for making this podcast possible. For more, visit ResourceUMC.org.
My name is Ryan Dunn. I wish you and yours a wonderful Advent, a very merry Christmas, and many blessings in the new year.
On this episode
Our proctor/host is the Rev. Ryan Dunn, a Minister of Online Engagement for United Methodist Communications. Ryan manages the digital brand presence of Rethink Church, co-hosts and produces the Compass Podcast, manages his personal brand, and obsesses with finding ways to offer new expression of grace.