I rode the bus the other day for the first time in years. I noticed that most people don’t stare out of the windows anymore, they stare at their smartphones. I walked into a meeting and fifty percent of people were moving their fingers across a handheld screen. I went out for a meal guess what? When millions and millions of us go home after work we reach for the tablet at some point in the evening. As a church we spend so much time thinking about how we can reach people with the message of Jesus. We think we always have to either go to people or invite them to us. This may still be true, but it is not as true as it used to be because people’s attention today has moved into the digital world.
Don’t sell. Tell
Did you see Casey Neistat snowboarding through the streets of New York being pulled by a Jeep during the January blizzard? It went crazy on the internet and major TV networks all around the world picked it up. After one year of vlogging Casey is one of the most important people on YouTube. He is not selling anything, he is not pushing a message, and he is not asking for anything, he is simply telling his story. His vlog is about his life. Most of it is of his family, or him riding a Boosted Board, travelling, meeting people, and just thinking outloud. But Casey also runs a new App company called BEME. Because you watch his story you know his very cool office, you know the fun people in his company, and you have watched his cute baby daughter Francine become a toddler. Watching the vlog makes you feel a big part of his life and you want to use BEME because you have joined his vision of how life is meant to be. There is no hard sell with Casey, in fact there is no “sell” at all, he is only ever being himself.
Many churches today are still in “sell” mode. Many have websites, some of them are even nice to look at. The up to date ones inform you of service times, who to contact, and even about how to become a Christian. Loads of Bishops are on Twitter retweeting newspaper articles and sharing facts and their opinions. They are all pushing a message. This is fine up to a point but this is also how you sell cars and cinema tickets. Today’s successful internet users like Casey however, are going old school. Like the proverbial local butcher and grocer, sales are based on trust and relationships more than direct messages and branding. In fact storytellers like Casey are much closer to a New Testament model of mission than most churches are. The Gospels don’t push information and invitations at us. They are a story full of people, places, emotions, and stuff happening. We enter into the story, engage with it emotionally and spiritually, grow into its truth, and we begin to form our own identity around it. It is the raw authenticity of it that draws us.
Make fellow travellers
Willie Morris is a Christian entrepreneur and founder of the company FaithBox in the US. He is telling his story on SnapChat and YouTube. You enter into his day, you know when he is tired or is off to house group. When he takes advice from a seasoned Christian businessman about running a company with Christian integrity, you share in the moment and see how much the advice means to him. Willie is not selling FaithBox, he is inviting you to join him on his personal journey. His use of social media is consistent with the New Testament model of story and his company is growing because of it. Willie has a lot to teach us about mission in the digital age.
Tallie pointed out recently that a significant amount of people in the local community who are not part of your church will watch what your church is doing on Facebook. That tells us a lot. The internet is a safe place to observe what we are doing. Ten years ago a church website was like a shop window. It was a public utility that told people what the church had to offer. Today the internet is so much more, it is the story about who we are and what we are about. Using platforms like YouTube and Instagram to tell our stories builds trust and belonging with the people watching, way before they may actually meet us in the physical world.
Being where the people are
Learning to use all the social media platforms as well as all the hard skills of video production, is ridiculously cheaper and easier than ever. Nevertheless, it remains daunting. It takes time and practice. Willie recently suggested to me that we try them all and then concentrate on the ones that work best to tell our story. This is sensible advice.
The digital world is where people’s attention is, and if Missional Theology has taught us anything in the last thirty years, it is that we need to tell our stories in the most relevant places for the people we are trying to reach. The world around us is changing at a frightening pace and we need to upgrade our skills to keep up. Whether we are local clergy, or Bishops in the House of Lords, today we have powerful tools to tell our stories in meaningful and biblical ways.
The New Age of Mission moves us beyond inviting people on courses, or to hear preachers, or explore innovative spirituality. All these things remain important, but they don’t stand alone, they must be written into our stories like chapters of a book. The decline in church attendance is frightening but there is hope because the tools we have available to us for mission have increased exponentially. We just need to learn how to use them and then relax into being who we really are.
– Dan Stork Banks
Dan is a curate in Shropshire and a vlogger. You can also find him storytelling on SnapChat: danstorkbanks