Jamie Jean Schneider Domm
Digital Strategist for the North American Division
I am often asked if digital communications can really make a global impact when only around 42% (as of June 2019) of the world’s population is on social media. This question always reminds me of one of my first campaigns for the Church.
In the summer of 2016, I worked with “Your Best Pathway to Health” to help create community awareness for the free mega-health clinic that was coming to Beckley, WV, the heart of Appalachia. A quick search in Facebook Ads manager revealed that around 200K people within 50 miles of the convention center where the clinic would take place, were on Facebook. With a small budget of $200, I started a community awareness ad campaign targeted at those living within driving distance of Beckley. This digital effort was part of a larger multi-channel campaign that included newspaper ads, 30K+ hand-out flyers, and other traditional media.
Can We Really Reach Those People?
It is said that “familiarity breeds contempt” or, at least, presumptuous behavior. Soon after launching the campaign, I received a call from a long-time friend who felt very strongly that I was out of line to use Church funds for this digital campaign, and that I was out of touch with the realities of this community. After all, “this was Appalachia, and those people don’t even have running water and electricity.” After two hours of conversation, I still call her friend, because this was a teaching and learning moment. I had an opportunity to share the potential this technology offers for our mission, as well as gain a better understanding of the cultural paradigm I was up against (in terms of encouraging the Church to embrace digital strategies and the perceptions that may result). What she didn’t know was that I made a decision based on data and not assumptions about the “least of these.” In fact, she didn’t know that I had been raised in the same economic class she felt I was so disconnected from.
I asked her one simple question: do you know someone who is not on social media? She said yes. I followed up with something like, “If you saw an online advertisement about free medical treatment with no strings attached, and you knew they needed help, would you tell them?” Without hesitation, she responded, “Of course!” One question and response summarized my strategy.
What I had done was make a strategic decision to activate the sharing power of the 200K people who were online and, most likely, connected to others in the community who were not on social media. It’s human nature to share a good thing when we see it, especially with those we care about who need the services offered.
According to an extensive study conducted by the New York Times, 94% of people share content online because “they feel the content will improve the lives” of others. This act of sharing goes beyond the digital space.
“Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, ‘Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?’ They came out of the town and made their way toward him” (John 4:28-30, New International Version).
However, my ten years of digital marketing experience was entirely secular. I had never done an advertising campaign for a church project before, and consequently prayed a lot in the weeks leading up to the clinic. When the event began I was overjoyed at the testimonies of people who said their family member, friend, or neighbor saw an ad online and told them to come. According to the exit surveys, social media outperformed all the traditional advertising, and was second only to referral by friend or family member. Based on the anecdotal testimonies, word-of-mouth (friend/family) was also largely driven by the social media campaign. Click here to learn more about this case study in community awareness.
Social media is the modern School of Tyrannus, a place where the ancient Ephesians gathered to engage with new ideas, pass the time, share thoughts, and participate in discussions. Paul spoke at the School of Tyrannus in Greece for two years (Acts 19:8-9), essentially getting the gospel to go viral in his day. (A podcast about Paul’s influence at the School of Tyrannus by Dee Casper, Brand Evangelist, ARTV, can be found HERE).
“This took place for two years, so that all who lived in Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks” (Acts 19:10, New American Standard Bible)
Paul stayed in one place, and yet his teachings spread. How did this happen?
Ephesus was an important port for trade and commerce (like the internet), attracting people from all over the Roman Empire. People would come and hear what he had to say, go home, and tell others what they’d learned. In today’s terminology, they hit “Like” and “Share” on social media, and their friends and family were exposed to Paul’s teachings of the gospel. Social media has the potential to do this on a much larger scale. By reaching the connected, we can reach the unreachable.
In other words, if approximately 42% of the world’s population is on social media, it’s highly likely that they know the other 58% of the world or know someone who is connected to someone who is not on social media. You get the idea.
What starts in the digital space, isn’t confined to the digital space.
We must put our assumptions about those people aside (whoever those people might be), and work with who we can reach.
Evangelism experts tell me that the best way to reach a community or people group is to empower a member of that community. Your average person is just as likely to have moved several times, as to have lived and died in the community they were born, surrounded by a homogeneous collective of people who share the same culture and life experiences. The "simple life" has given way to something more complicated, perhaps messy. Even for those who never change their geographical location, they are globally connected to people through social media in ways that were unheard of just twenty years ago. What this means is that we now live in a world of intersecting cultures and communities.
The city of Ephesus experience is now reflected in every major city in the world and online.
I, myself, am a mid-western transplant to the D.C. metropolitan area. There is still no cellphone reception in my home town. My parents access the internet and phone through satellite. Until recently, our roads were unpaved, and my family was on well water. I go home once or twice a year and call my parents regularly (when the satellite phone is working). I had never heard of Adventism until I went to college; now my parents are closely connected to two Adventists (me and my husband). During our conversations and interactions, I share my experiences and new ideas. While my home town is not as remote as some other countries or communities that still exist in the world, the concept is the same. We can reach people online who have migrated to the digitally connected parts of the world. These people probably maintain ties to their home communities in some way, and since they are from that community, they are in the best position to share the gospel within the cultural norms, language, and expectations of those communities. When they visit their friends and family, they can share the gospel just like the ancient citizens of the Roman empire did back in the first century.
This is how we can obtain global impact through digital communications. It’s the same strategy that Paul leveraged, but scaled up by modern technology.
According to Pew Research, the most racially diverse Christian denomination in North America is the Seventh-day Adventist Church. We are truly a global movement that has yet to realize the full potential of modern technologies. Our challenge is not to just reach those who are online, but to also activate the online and offline sharing power of those we connect with. The membership of the Adventist Church is perfectly positioned to reach the around the world to every nation, tribe, people, and tongue with the gospel message.
And for those isolated communities with, assumed, no access to the outside world, give the Holy Spirit a little credit for being able to carry the message the rest of the way.
If the message went global in Paul’s day without the help of modern technology, let’s not assume limitations on the Holy Spirit in our day.
We aren’t expected to accomplish this mission alone, but we are called to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15, NIV). The world now includes the digital space. We need to dream bigger when doing God's work. Can you imagine what would happen if each of us committed to sharing the gospel online for two years? And remember, it's not like we have to physically go somewhere, or even leave the couch for that matter! Who knows where God will lead us when we step out in faith.