This paper can only briefly touch on highly complex issues – to explain and understand much less agree on would take considerably greater time and space! If what is being suggested here could have easily been done it would have been. Its very complexity and scale present formidable barriers. Please read with the understanding that the author is acutely aware of the brevity and apparent superficiality with which many of these issues are treated.
“The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice: and because we fail to notice what we fail to notice – there is little we can do to change until we notice how failing to notice shapes your thoughts and deeds.” Scottish Psychiatrist R.D. Laing
The Main Issue
There’s a great deal of confusion about media-intensive strategies for “evangelism.” This situation has frequently created ineffective approaches, waste and duplication of effort, lowered the credibility of the Gospel, and eventually slowed or diminished the final, on-the-ground expression of the Christ, namely, the health and effectiveness of local fellowships of believers.
Despite apparently favorable electronic/digital metrics, reporting primarily on the ‘front end’ of the sowing, watering, reaping, discipleship process (see Matthew 13, John, 4:35-38, etc.) the reality is that with one or two exceptions, one is hard pressed to find countries in the greater Middle East where the church is significantly larger, stronger, and having a more significant impact on society today than ten years ago.1 This despite millions of dollars spent in electronic and digital media alone. Not to mention the hundreds of lives invested.
The “Temple” on earth made possible by Christ’s life, sacrifice, and resurrection is the visible, tangible, accessible Body of believers in the world (Ephesians 2:11-22).
There can be and often are many steps on the journey to that state of corporate witness. However, ultimately unless there is a visible, tangible, accessible expression of Christ – those who will weep with you and rejoice with you – our “evangelism” efforts have failed. All ultimate assessment of media-related “evangelism” initiatives must be judged by this outcome. Again, many steps (metrics) can be evaluated along the way but they are just that – steps on a journey. This paper seeks to suggest a few of the central related issues. It then suggests that time be taken for a ‘big picture’ look by leaders with proven experience: first at what the real challenge(s) are.
What are the key components of this big picture? How do they link together? Which are the highest priorities to address? And, in due course, getting to the matter of software. Finally, it suggests that in the spirit of the desperately-needed witness of functional unity, these steps need to be taken on a collaborative basis.
The Evangelism/Media Questions
For Christian ministries engaged in evangelism, effective thinking and its resulting effective media strategies should always have at least five key components:
- A clear, well-reasoned Biblical basis for strategic and tactical decisions. In short, a sound theology of evangelism/discipleship – in the context of electronic/digital media and their relationship to the human, on-the-ground realities.
- A sound understanding of media theory and practice; their strengths, weakness, and most appropriate uses – particularly the “new media” theory and practice. And the specialized personnel needed for these unique media roles.
- A clear understanding of their ministry call – their perceived role in the evangelism/ discipleship/ local fellowship-building process. Where does each ministry ‘fit in?’
- A clear understanding of who else is doing what in the media sector or geographic area in which they are working. Then, what their particular ministry’s strengths allow them to contribute to the overall challenge of seeing God’s “Kingdom come” in that sector (media, social, and/or geographic).
- A clear understanding of the nature of their ‘audience’ (demographics, spiritual orientation, perceived need(s); media use patterns, nature of ‘the Church’ in their area of focus, etc., etc.) and what action they’re asking the audience members to take
The Challenge is Global
These issues are global but particularly acute in areas where the social/personal implications of the Gospel are high (e.g. militant Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic areas). Which, of course, brings us to the Middle East. However, as we consider effective media-based ministries and Kingdom stewardship, will greatly benefit from our understanding that this is a global problem not solely a regional one.
As the details are constantly changing, rather than including any reference documents or charts, let me refer you to the definitive website that provides a current, in-depth look at the state of global communications: https://datareportal.com/
Where Media & Evangelism/Church Development Intersect
Evangelism is commonly characterized as urging individuals to be aware of their separation from God, the eternal implications of that separation, the role of Jesus Christ in ‘bridging the gap’ with God – dealing with their sin and alienation, and their need to make an intentional, personal commitment to acceptance of Christ into their lives both as ‘savior’ as well as life transformer.
Jesus, the Apostle Paul and many others in Scripture make it clear that this decision, much less a long-term journey of a real discipleship, is a process, not an event. (See Matthew 13:1-28, John 4:35-38, I Corinthians 3:4-7, etc.). Countless Biblical case studies make this clear. In developing media-based evangelism/church development strategies we ignore this at our peril. This is particularly so when considering developing end to end software to support this process which, by its very nature must be multi-media. The diagrams here suggest the diverse roles of media in this process and the potential diversity of roles of different ministries. **
A most curious reality is that virtually no operational ministries or funders have sought seriously to develop real, objective metrics for the health of local fellowships of believers – the heartbeat of Christian service and witness in the world! Real, Spirit-directed thought and prayerful, informed discussion about both quantitative and qualitative monitoring and evaluation could substantially inform any ‘follow-up’ plan.
Hardware, Software, People & Processes
Those with serious experience in effectively developing, implementing, and operating “end to end” software know that the ultimate issues are not technical – they are people and processes. It’s designing ‘human,’ user-friendly systems that both can be easily used and will be used.
In the west, it’s enough of a challenge when an individual’s paycheck on Monday depends on how fully/effectively he/she completed their software-based reports on Friday. But consider the modestly educated, believing volunteer, lay person doing follow-up with media-generated enquiries in the extremely harsh, spiritually-hostile environment of a medium-sized town in the Atlas mountains of Morocco! And, of course, we want this individual to complete their on-line follow-up documentation fully and in a timely manner so our metrics are clear and our diligence in evaluation is evident for our funding and praying constituencies!
This is a universal problem — only varying in degrees of intensity. Media-based evangelism strategies using software to support and/or integrate the ‘end to end’ effort must take all of these factors into consideration: the theological assumptions which impact the big picture strategy; the implications of the media available or being used; the audience – it characteristics and socio/political context; the current state of the local community of believers in the audience’s area; and, finally, this vital technology-human interface.
Equally challenging is understanding that the evangelism/discipleship/church development “process” is not synonymous with a software “system” that may be desired to facilitate such a process. Both require a systems approach to thinking2 . However, these two “systems” are very different, calling for highly-focused, diligent effort by highly qualified (read proven experience) people who know the difference.
An effective follow-up strategy (and its supporting software platform) must address each of the spiritual ‘stages’ suggested in the charts above. This typically means addressing –
- Low engagement stages (in the case of digital media — site visits, page views, time on site, etc.),
- Medium engagement (request information, downloads, etc.),
- High engagement (enrollment in on-line course, request personal contact, agree to local meeting, etc.)
For further perspective on this issue see the Lausanne Movement video related to collaboration/integrated follow-up systems from the Gospel and Media working conference:
The most challenging of all follow-up issues is not the hardware or software but the designing a locally-relevant, human-based system that effectively takes into consideration the seeker—disciple process described above.
Beyond that there is the challenge of
- Identification, recruitment, and training
- On-going coaching/encouraging of those undertaking the more personalized contact roles at any level of engagement.
- Particularly challenging is any element of system which calls for face to face contact – initial contact and/or on-going contact with those who are serious ‘seeker,’ have had some spiritually-motivating circumstance in their life, or are seeking to grow in their faith. And, then that ‘face to face’ follow-up person’s documentation of these personal contacts!
We must always remember: low engagement numbers may be high. The distance between these numbers and the actual growth and health of local fellowships, particularly in highly-contested areas, is frequently enormous.
Any system that ignores any of these key elements – or fails to clearly articulate the ‘what and why’ of their own particular approach – is an incomplete ‘follow-up’ system.
A core objective of the issues being considered is that influential users of any new software platform have a common agreement on what constitutes follow-up. This does not mean that all users will follow the model in every respect. It may be that they see their role(s) as only one or two of the needed elements in the process. As is suggested elsewhere, any such software platform should provide options for users unique to their ministry or regional/linguistic demands. But broad agreement on concepts and outcomes is essential.
Implications For Software Development
- Any ‘solutions’ must be holistic, ‘end to end’ solutions — likely designed with a central ‘spine’ that is common with options of flexibility for ‘plug ins’ that address local/regional linguistic, cultural issues or ministry-specific needs.
- Such a solution needs to be thoroughly collaborativein nature: first in defining the system requirements. This is no small task as demonstrated in the recent Rich Lackey/Frank Hairgrove “matrix” study after which Lackey indicated that the study only scratches the surface of the complex issues that need to be considered in such a ground-up design.”
- The highest priority and most complex of the challenges for such an initiative are defining the media/inter-personal interface “system” design. What is the fundamental model of evangelism, discipleship, and local fellowship development on which the parties to the initiative agree? This calls for clear thinking based on thorough experience and understanding of –
- Media strengths and weaknesses
- Theology of evangelism, discipleship, and local fellowship development
- Context of on-the-ground realities where any follow-up must occur (socio/political, state of the local church, technical facility, etc.
- The nature (vision, skill, experience, capacity, budgets, etc.) of the likely users (media, OTG personnel, etc.).
- In the spirit of both the Kingdom and a growing spirit of international software the design it must be ‘open sourced’ approach to licensing. This means that ‘profits’ on the overall system accrue to no single ministry. This approach raises special challenges in issues such as on-going system development and day to day support, user communities, security, etc. but practice demonstrates these are not insurmountable.
- Finally, there is the inherent challenge of successfully executing larger-scale, complex software applications – on time, on budget, and to specifications. For more on this topic see the recent McKinsey article “Achieving Success In Large, Complex Software Projects,” http://www.mckinsey.com/insights/business_technology/achieving_success_in_large_complex_software_projects?cid=other-eml-alt-mip-mck-oth-1407
Benefits of such a collaborative approach
The world is awash in talk of collaboration. “Partnership” is an assumed element in virtually any proposed action on topics of any consequence. The writer believes the potential major players for the type of initiative being proposed are genuinely ready to talk. However getting down to the “nitty-gritty” of actually making that idealized value tangible and operational takes great skill, tenacity, and commitment to a ‘take no credit’ approach.
A very preliminary assessment of the value of a collaborative approach suggests:
There are enormous potential long-term savings implications in –
- Software development
- More ‘standardized’ and ease of implementation and maintenance of such a system for new users based on common experience and available expertise.
- Providing a favorable context in which a productive learning/user community can develop.
Has the potential of yielding more common –
- Vocabulary/terminology that can become known/used in in day to day communications by both the user and funder community.
- Metrics on levels of engagement, processes, and outcomes that, again, becomes more uniform among users and funders – leaving substantial room for individual ministry articulation of unique ministry activities and outcomes when necessary.
Could spell benefits for the global church by –
- Helping many church-related initiatives with understandable models of ministry.
- Make places for hundreds of ministries to effectively “plug in” much clearer and rational.
- Enhance the global conversation on both methodology and progress through more commonly used vocabulary.
- Demonstrate in an extremely high-value initiative that we are serious about collaboration and prepared to take the time and make the investments (people, expertise, money, prayer) to actually make it happen.
Experience makes clear that the ‘idealized value’ of such a vision may generate substantial initial subscribers. But what is ultimately needed is a core of influentials who will help define, participate in resourcing (personnel, money, influence, etc.), and stick with the initiative through a well-conceived pilot phase – allowing evaluation. Experience demonstrates that, as real value added is demonstrated, “wait and see” bystander organizations will, over time, swell the ranks of day to day users.
What Is Needed?
- Vision for such a future – on the part of funders and operational leadership.
- Readiness to start with the ‘big picture’ questions – allowing software and technical issues to follow in their appropriate sequence.
- Appropriate funding based on budgets developed by proven performers
- Proven leadership at two levels:
Any approach to address this enormous challenge must, itself, be seen from the outset as a serious process. We often say the quickest way to destroy potential, high-value collaboration is to call a meeting. Many of the large-scale, most productive collaborative efforts God has allowed us to facilitate have taken months of highly personal, often grindingly detailed, relationally-intensive, prayer-supported conversation and relationship/trust building effort before the first meeting bringing all key players ‘to the table.’ While a collaborative approach to development of an effective software platform such as is being discussed may not be all that extensive, any truly successful, durable effort will take intensive time and effort.
- Such a collaborative approach will never get 100% participation – nor should it expect to do so. This is true for both operational as well as funding partners. The critical issue is insuring that –
- Due diligence has identified the most influential ‘players’ – again, both operational and funding.
- That on the order of 40-50% of the operational players are involved in early discussions and make initial commitment to explore collaboration.
- That of the40-50% there are at least 3-5 influential partnerswhose participation provide gravitas, real substance, and credibility to the process.
- That any design (initial limited achievable objectives related to an overall ‘big picture’ objective) has the potential of bringing ‘value added’ to all partners – current or future.
- That there are ‘early wins’ demonstrating the value of the collaborative process.
Perspective On The Current “State of Play”
visionSynergy currently works with dozens of ministries and networks in all parts of the world. Most are focused on the enormous challenge of the ‘least-reached, last frontiers’ of evangelism and church development. Networks with whom we work have more than 1500 ministry partners from 40+ countries.
My own collaborative media and follow-up experience in the greater Middle East, dating from the mid-1970s, suggests that while the media and socio/political contexts have changed dramatically, the basic challenges remain the same.
Personal talks in the last two years with many of the leading media ministries’ Middle East leadership indicate several things:
- They are aware of the need for more complete, ‘end to end’ approaches but do not have the capacity and/or will to take on what they perceive to be an impossibly complex challenge. So, often in fact, the approach has been ‘something is better than nothing.’
- Most see their follow-up systems as inadequate – whatever their view of the overall objectives.
- The history of broken relationships, individualistic ministry profiles (approaches, cultures, etc.) has left most leadership highly skeptical of collaborative approaches to serious issues.
- Yet, given the right type of low-key, listening/consensus developing approach they indicate they would be open to participating in talks about a common software platform that could potentially be used by many. In short, despite the historical issues our assessment is that there is a great openness to possible collaboration.
In the Middle East challenge being considered, any software development design would need to insure that global, not only regional needs have been identified and made part of the central design values to enhance the value and likelihood of wider adoption of the system. Simply put, any Middle East investment can/should be leveraged with wider, global implications in mind.
We believe that, particularly for funders, such an initiative represent an unprecedented opportunity for a collaborative effort of unparalleled strategic value, pressing urgency, and potentially high-yield value.
Finally, we believe this is one of the most critical, highest-priority issues facing the global church today. It would be a privilege to participate in such a collaborative effort.
First priority — look at what the real challenge(s) are. What are the key components of this big picture? How do they link together? Which are the highest priorities to address? Develop a credible plan to address these priorities – issue by issue. And, in due course, getting to the matter of software as one of the important issues. Finally, it suggests that in the spirit of the desperately-needed witness of functional unity, these steps be taken on a collaborative basis. God help us to do it!
Note: While this paper emphasizes the importance of looking at the ‘big picture’ first, a possible development sequence scenario is provided on the final page suggesting key elements once ‘the project’ gets to the software development phase.
* “Church” in this paper refers to any form of community/personal fellowship among like-minded believers. This may be small house fellowships, ‘virtual communities’ (increasingly a reality in adverse socio/spiritual contexts), or more traditional, visible communities.
** A more detailed paper which explores the larger issues related to effective use of media for evangelism and its relationship to Biblical case histories and the lessons they suggest is available on request: email@example.com.
- Documentation on request.
- See Peter Senge: http://www.mutualresponsibility.org/science/what-is-systems-thinking-peter-senge-explains-systems-thinking-approach-and-principles