In 2003 the newly formed Paul Allen Brain Institute in Seattle, Washington found that there were dozens of other centers working on brain research. The major problem? These centers could not collaborate effectively. The reason? There was no standard vocabulary allowing them to communicate with each other and “compare notes” on key elements of their research. As a result, the Allen Brain Institute set about “mapping the brain.” Aware of the complexity of the brain, they started with a mouse brain (1) That initiative eventually resulted in what is known today as the Allen Mouse Brain Atlas. It is even available to researchers in digital and even 3-D versions that can be fully manipulated! Researchers anywhere in the world can now precisely identify the area of the mouse brain on which they are doing their research and effectively connect with others. A common “vocabulary” ushered in a whole new era of collaborative options, speeding fundamental research – ultimately on the human brain.
What Is This Article About?
God has raised up a remarkable range of media ministries sharing the Good News globally. Simultaneously, through a variety of socio/political/economic influences, God has been ‘shaking the nations’ so that, in many areas, interest in the Gospel and response to Christian media is of almost epic proportions.
The ultimate purpose of all such media efforts is seeing individuals follow Christ, local fellowships formed, strengthened, and, in turn that Church multiplying itself. A variety of strategies such as DMM (Discipleship Making Movements) , Media to Movements, and CPM (Church Planting Movements intersect with media. Ultimately, it is all a the work of the Holy Spirit and the effectiveness of how media and their on-the-ground partners work together.
So, it is being proposed that there could be great value for Christian media ministries to develop common vocabulary for the range of typical elements used in their strategies. And, that there be agreement on how or where these elements typically fit in an “end to end,” long-term strategy that deals with individual seeker to replicating local fellowships. In doing so, information can be more effectively shared, stewardship can be increased– and the vision of tens of thousands coming into Christ’s Kingdom and healthy local fellowships multiplying rapidly is more likely to occur.
What This Article Is Not
I am not proposing an attempt to define fixed categories to the work of the Holy Spirit! Ultimately, each ministry must prayerfully define its own strategy. The individual ministry will always be responsible for its own creativity, initiative, and reporting to its constituencies. Agreement on a common vocabulary does not require any ministry to conform. Each ministry will continue to choose its own approach, media to be used, creative initiative, content of its material, and the elements it employs for an integrated, “end to end” strategy.
Why Is This Important?
It makes sense. From diamond mining to pharmaceutical manufacturing to professional sports, virtually every sector of human endeavor has standard means for evaluation. Without them there could be no effective management and no basis for investor consideration. And, in the case of sports, little to spark the excitement of the fan-based public!
In the evangelical non-profit sector, 1979 saw the formation of ECFA – brining uniform standards for financial reporting and accountability. And, in the wider charitable field, groups like Guidestar, Charity Watch, and Charity Navigator monitor financial accountability and, in some cases, evaluate efficiency and management effectiveness. Without exception, these groups require the use of standard categories of data so there can be meaningful evaluation. One asks, why should such a major sector of evangelical activity as the media and related communications activity not offer the evangelical public a means for understandable evaluation?
Then, biblical stewardship calls for it. Consider the well-known parable of the Stewards in Matthew 25: 14-30. Notice that the understandability and power of the story hinges on several things which all parties had in common. They –
- Were working in the same culture
- Were using the same language
- Were using the same units of measurement
- All were charged with the same effectiveness by the Master
- Had, therefore, a similar basis for comparison of performance
The Master made clear that all had been given assets to invest. All were equally responsible or accountable even though the amount of assets given to each was different.
This sequence of events could never had occurred unless the Master and Stewards knew, understood, and agreed on the common vocabulary which undergirded everything that happened in the subsequent events. This theme of accountability and stewardship runs throughout the Bible – Old Testament and New.
Important For Whom?
Several constituencies have a stake in understanding media’s activity and effectiveness. Among them are –
- Media organization leadership and staff committed to the highest possible performance.
- Directors or Administrative bodies to whom the media organizations are responsible.
- Funders – be they foundations, major donors, churches, or individual donors committed to world evangelization.
- Those committed to prayer for the media agencies.
I recall talking a couple of years ago with the Executive Director of a major U.S.-based foundation. He remarked, “When Google Analytics came along, we all thought, ‘At last, we have objective, third-party information – standard terms in a common format. It only took us a couple of years to realize we didn’t really know any more about effectiveness and outcomes tan we had known before!’”
In 2013 Atlantic magazine ran a story listing the “50 greatest breakthroughs since the wheel.” Of course it was not a scientific ranking, but possibly very instructive. They asembled a panel of 12 historians, engineers, scientists, economists, and entrepreneurs. Then, asked them to list the innovations or inventions that have had the greatest social impact. The lists were compiled and ranked by the editors into the final list. Nine of the innovations that made the top 50, including the one considered to be the most influential, were communication technologies. That is, they were technologies that provided new means of either recording or transmitting messages.2
Interestingly, yet not surprising, eight of the nine innovations dealing with recording or transmitting messages had to do with the ability to share information in common among an increasingly wider group of people.
Initiatives like crowdsourcing, public technology initiatives like InnoCentive 3, etc. suggest the same priorities exist today. The fundamental idea is that the more interested, concerned individuals can be aware and involved the more likely effective solutions will be developed – sooner.
In short, the more information we can share without compromising issues like security, the more we will learn from each other – and sooner. Our ability to share effectively comes down to very basic ideas:
- No common language – no communication
- No communication – no sharing
- No sharing – progress toward increased effectiveness is retarded.
The sobering fact is that, almost daily, global media ministries t are receiving countless anecdotal stories of often remarkable individual transformation. There is a virtual river of information regarding huge levels of activity shown in the analytics of social media; and the occasional “secular” research to which media ministries can point. Yet there is little defined connection between the massive level of interest and response generated on the “front end” and what is happening day to day on the ground – particularly in highly contested regions such as Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, China, etc. Every ministry would suggest that they have some kind of follow-up or “end to end” strategy and that it relates,ultimately, to building the church. Yet, there is no means for ministries to share what this really means; what the key elements are in their “strategy;” how evaluation is being done, and what the available metrics really mean in terms of long-term spiritual outcomes.
Again, while each media ministry must continue to chart its own strategy and priorities, a common language among the growing number of media ministries would facilitate their communication and the potential of all being able to improve their effectiveness. And, this says nothing of the implications of evaluation being sought by those who fund the enterprise.
In this world of media proliferation and apparent inter-agency isolation, it is interesting to note that communication among like-minded Christian media agencies has a rich history in a not too distant past. In 1953, 32 agencies whose primary focus was print media, formed, what, in effect, was a ‘trade association’ called Evangelical Literature Overseas. It’s stated objectives were the exchange of ideas, collaborative research, and encouragement among like-minded mission executives as well as technical, operational personnel. The following year, 1954, saw the formation of a similar association, International Christian Broadcasters, with an initial subscription of 53 different communications ministries. These two associations held joint conference both in North America and the Middle East. And, their activity levels were so substantial that they each had monthly, hard-copy magazines circulated widely both within their constituencies and the extended missions community.
Parallel to these associations, there were a variety of reginal associations that developed and operated with considerable perceived value in Latin America, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Each of these associations held multi-media working conferences spawning their own range of collaborative initiatives.
In 1992 these linkages even produced a productive collaborative broadcast research initiative between the international Christian broadcasters and the BBC’s global research department. This initiative survives to today under the name of Intersearch.
Conversations in recent years have suggested the potential value of some form of, say, monthly electronic newsletter or ”bulletin board” that could highlight developments and resources in the global Christian communications sector. But all such discussions have failed to gain traction,
Clearly the ‘center of gravity’ of the global mission movement has shifted from the West – particularly North America. Yet, in the media and communications field, a disproportionate amount of initiative and funding still originates in the West. In the business, scientific, and educational sectors, professional associations and communications enabling development in common fields has continued. So, one might ask, “In the Christian communications and media sector has the ‘distance’ between agencies been simply a reflection of the wholesale sociology of change in the broader missions community?
The “mix” of media has shifted sharply to electronic and digital formats. The direct cost of international communications between individuals and agencies has become negligible. The business, scientific, and educational sectors demand inter-agency communications and collaboration. Yet it seems that in the “zoom world” of Christian communications we are more “siloed” than ever before. And, certainly that cannot be good.
A wholistic communications strategy (and the vocabulary used to describe it) should address each of the spiritual ‘stages’ outlined by Jesus in John 4:34-37 and the Apostle Paul in I Corinthians 3:5-10.
These days any individual media ministry is faced with a blinding array of communications options. From traditional terrestrial broadcasting, to satellite-distributed content to the social media world of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tik Tok, Pinterest, and LinkedIn.
And, media ministries can subscribe to any one of a range of companies providing on-going analytics that aggregate or integrate information related to any number of these individual social media channels.
But, what is important for media ministries to be watching? What are the key indicators marking an individual’s consideration of Christ? Then, what are the factors in those seekers or new believers going on to become part of local fellowships? Finally, what factors influence those local fellowships becoming an engine of replication, encouraging a “movement?”
Our ability to develop stronger, more effective outcomes on the ground will depend on our readiness to share information and then effective implementation of our strategies. But, without a common language – a common vocabulary – how will that happen?
A collaborative approach to this challenge of a common vocabulary may lead to several significant benefits. Among them are —
- The potential for commonly-agreed metrics related to levels of engagement and the overall spiritual journey process.
- Ability to look more objectively at the value and role of specific channels of communication.
- Provide common language while leaving room for individual ministry strategies.
- Reporting can become more credible as agreed vocabulary is used. Compare this with each ministry having to explain or define their own system.
- Ability for ministries to discuss among themselves various approaches, creative ideas, test, experiment, and share learnings.
- The potential for informing the design of software and related “human” systems essential to the overall end to end process.
Then such an effort could spell benefits for the global church by –
- Helping media initiatives communicate understandable models of ministry.
- Giving greater clarity for ministries to effectively “plug in” or be a constructive part of the wider missions and evangelism sector.
- Enhancing the global conversation on both methodology and progress.
Imagine the ability with other media ministries to be able to have productive conversations about –
- Why certain channels of communication were chosen and used for certain applications?
- How were these channels integrated into an overall end to end strategy?
- Were these channels integrated with other channels? How, Why?
- What were the resulting outcomes?
- What experimentation had gone on and with what result?
- What were the conclusions to or learning from these efforts?
Now, would the ability to exchange and share such information be an encouragement and source of inspiration? Of course. It would provide an opportunity to minimize the ‘reinventing of the wheel.’ Instead, be able to learn from others’ diligent efforts, reducing cost, and increasing individual ministry effectiveness. But none of this would be possible without some type of common vocabulary.
As we consider the potential high value that common vocabulary can bring, we must keep in mind limitations. For instance:
- Broadcasting, whether traditional (terrestrial – towers, etc.) or satellite distributed, frequently has large audiences that go undocumented. Thousands or even millions may listen to or watch a particular broadcasting channel without ever “surfacing’ through social media, SMS, or other digitally documented medium. These large audiences may hear about, consider, and continue to tune in without ever responding through some digitally- measurable channel. While there may be invaluable ‘stone-clearing,’ ‘sowing,’ or ‘watering’ elements of a person’s spiritual journey taking place, the broadcaster may never know. So, how to evaluate, and how to judge when investments are considered on an overall strategy?
- Literacy rates, the role of women, and the access to the ‘measurable’ media. Many simply do not have access due to poverty or technical issues. They, too, must be taken into consideration – both in production content and distribution methods. But, how to document their use of the media?
Practical Next Steps
Experience makes clear that the ‘idealized value’ for a common vocabulary may generate substantial initial subscribers. Ultimately, a core of “influentials” is critical who will help define and stick with the initiative through a well-conceived pilot phase – allowing evaluation. I suggest that that initial group of influentials requires credible individuals from both the media and funding sectors. Experience demonstrates that as real added value is demonstrated, “wait and see” bystander organizations will, over time, swell the ranks of day to day users.
Key elements needed are —
- Vision for such a future on the part of influential media, funding, and related ministry leaders.
- A smaller working group/task force with committed leadership:
- Clear objectives with limited achievable goals in mind.
- Clear timetable and reporting guidelines
- A means by which media and related ministries can both ‘endorse’ such an approach and confirm their readiness to ‘subscribe’ to the common vocabulary standards.
- Specific plans for ways in which participating ministries can receive information on developments, participate in forums, and otherwise benefit from a growing commitment to such a common vocabulary.
Is it possible that some current missions “trade association” such as MissioNexus could provide the neutral forum in which these issues could be explored?
Consideration of a proposal fojohnr common vocabulary is clearly voluntary. Yet the proposal suggests that media agencies can strengthen their own ministry, gain access to information and ideas otherwise not accessible. And, most important, increase the likelihood of seeing spiritual transformation among the great unreached segments of global population.
First priority? – Define what are the key issues in taking this step. What are their implications? Which are the highest priorities to address? Develop a credible plan with committed leadership to address these priorities – step by step Finally, it suggests that in the spirit of the desperately-needed witness of functional unity (John 17) , these steps be taken on a collaborative basis. God help us to do it!
* “Church” in this article 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.
- Nature Neuroscience, November 2003
- An Atlantic Monthly news magazine November 2013 article quoted in a University of Missouri London Study Program Blog Posted on November 20, 2013 by Alice E. Hall
- www.innocentive.com “Helps… to engage a world of creative and diverse on-demand talent to rapidly generate novel ideas and solve important problems.”