A Relationship-Based Internet Strategy

At the 2010 Internet Ministry Conference (Grand Rapids, MI), I spoke on creating a tailored Internet strategy with language and relationships. Here is the outline of my talk:

A SHORT STORY

This is a story about two brothers – identical twins, Abe and Eli. Like most twins, Abe and Eli were more than brothers. They were best friends. They did everything together. They went fishing. They threw rocks. They watched the same movies, listened to the same music, and dated the same girls…er, I should say fought over the same girls. But they made it through that messy conflict. In college, they shared the same friends with whom they also shared the same rental house. Life was good. But then things changed…Abe and Eli graduated. They got jobs. And as their careers demanded, they moved away to separate towns.

Five years passed without Abe and Eli seeing each other face to face. Five years passed quickly. But then one day Eli received a phone call. His stomach sank, and his Adam’s apple knotted in the back of his throat. Abe had been in a serious car accident. It did not look good. Abe was in a coma. So Eli booked the first flight to Boston and made his way to Abe’s bedside. It was difficult to see, but Eli believed that Abe would make it through this.

So Eli determined to take care of Abe’s house until he was better. After all, he knew Abe better than anyone else. So Eli hopped in his rental car and drove across town to Abe’s house. Eli didn’t have a key, but he did have a hunch that Abe still hid a key box around the back of the house just like they had at their college rent house. Sure enough, he was right.

Eli laughed as he entered the house. Everything was just like Abe – the same quirks and details he had always had. “This is going to be easy,” he thought, “I know Abe.” But what Eli didn’t know was…“Woof, WOOF, Woof!” A beast lunged at Eli as he opened a door. It was Zeke, Abe’s 3-year-old German Shepherd. Eli had never met Zeke, but he was confident he could handle some dog.

But Zeke was not just “some dog.” Zeke did not respond to any commands. Eli took Zeke outside. A rabbit was spotted and zoooommm! There was no response to whistles, clapping, or “Come here, boy!” It was a long chase through the suburbs. The drama continued and continued with each day Eli spent with Zeke. One night, Eli gave Zeke table scraps to win him over, but instead, Eli found himself rushing a wheezing dog with allergies to an emergency vet.

The good news is after seven days, Abe came out of the coma. With tears in their eyes, Abe and Eli celebrated the come back. Eli joked, “I am glad you are well. Perhaps now you can take that dog of yours to obedience school.” Abe paused with a puzzled look then laughed. “Ha! No need for that. Zeke has already been to obedience school. In fact, he was best in class. The problem is you don’t speak Zeke’s language. He has been trained to respond only to specific commands in German.”

This is a lesson about language and relationship. Eli’s relationship with Abe gave him intimate understanding about how Abe would want his house maintained. But Zeke was not Abe. Just because Eli had a good relationship with Abe doesn’t mean that he has a relationship with Zeke, which would have helped him avoid the allergy fiasco. And just because Eli knew how to handle some dogs doesn’t mean that he knows how to speak Zeke’s language.

LANGUAGE & RELATIONSHIP

Outside of prayer and obedience to the Holy Spirit and God’s Word, language and relationship are some of the most important keys to successful ministry strategy.

Language is cultural relevance. Relationship is emotional relevance.

When you speak someone’s language, it increases the potential of you forming a meaningful relationship with that person (language creates intimacy through understanding). But at the same time, the better your relationship is with someone, the easier it is to speak their language (relationship creates understanding through intimacy).

BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS

I believe that much of the good that is done for the Kingdom is done through relationships. Relationships are timeless and enduring. Relationships are driven by love, God’s love, which selflessly and sacrificially heals the hurts of others. There will always be hurting people, lonely people, the neglected, the abused, and the rejected. People crave good relationships.

Live wisely among those who are not believers, and make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be gracious and attractive so that you will have the right response for everyone.
Colossians 4:5-6

SPEAKING A TAILORED LANGUAGE

Language defines how you do ministry. It is what connects who you are with who you are called to reach. It is more than words. It is the details of how you communicate through every touch point. The tricky part is language is rooted in culture, and culture is always changing.

I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some.
1 Corinthians 9:22

Language is cultural relevance. And it is important to clarify that cultural relevance is not gimmicks and novelty and entertainment. True cultural relevance is understanding people well enough to speak their language and interact with them in a way that better engages them.

If you want to tailor your language, you must:

  1. Know Thyself (and how you are evolving)
    If you do not know who you are, you will be misguided. You will lack purpose. You will lack vision. And the Bible is plainly clear that without vision, the people will perish. The corporate world calls this branding. In ministry, we call it our calling.
  2. Know Your Audience (and how they are evolving)
    People want to hear a message that is focused on them. A message tailored specifically to you is more effective than one designed for the entire nation.
  3. Identify the Communication Channels (and how they are evolving)
    Once you know who you are and understand who you are called to reach, then you can best determine what communication channels you should choose and how to use them. There are hundreds of communication channels, but not every one is right for you.

USING COMMUNICATION CHANNELS

Every touch point you have with someone online or offline communicates something – be it good or bad. There are tens of thousands of ways to communicate, so I am not going to cover many of them.

Instead, I encourage you to focus on building real relationships and speaking a language that is authentic to your calling and relevant to people’s culture. The more you do that, the easier it is to naturally understand what works within your unique context.

I will, however, lightly cover four areas among many that should be considered when tailoring your ministry strategy.

  • Design
    Your design is your credibility. You can’t stop people from making assumptions, but you can create an image that produces the right assumptions. Good design temporarily supplements relationships by creating a perception of your ministry before you have a chance to build a real relationship. Good design helps people overlook faults within your approach.
  • Social Media
    Do not do social media for social media’s sake. Merely having a Facebook page or a Twitter account does not help you. In fact, using social media the wrong way will hurt how people perceive you. You must add value.
  • Search Engine Optimization
    Focus on people’s needs and not the obvious. If you are Grace Church from Chicago, IL, don’t optimize yourself for “Grace Church” and “Chicago church.” The people who need you the most will not be searching with those terms. Instead, optimize yourself for “Chicago divorce help,” “contemplating suicide,” and “Chicago addictions.” With these search engine optimized terms, you can help hurting people in the moments of need with valuable instant online content and ways to receive ongoing support.
  • Community
    Online community can be a tricky thing. People often do not use the tools you’ve created in the way that you have intended. Online community must constantly be evaluated and tweaked. You can’t force people to interact the way that you want, but you can give subtle nudges with the language you use and the online environment to steer community interaction.

REALITY CHECK

The better relationship you have with someone, the easier it is to put yourself in their shoes and answer, “Why should anyone care?” Why should someone care about the postcard you sent them? Why should anyone care about your ministry?

What are you going to do that will cause people to actually care?

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Kent Shaffer
Kent Shaffer is the founder of ChurchRelevance.com an online resource created to inspire and train ministers to be more relevant and effective. He also co-owns BombayCreative.com, a ministry-oriented design firm, and AcreScout.com, a commercial listings site.