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 threw that messy conflict. In college, they shared the same friends with whom they also shared a same rent 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 receives a phone call. His stomach sinks and his Adam’s apple knots into the back of his throat. Abe had been in a serious car accident. It does not look good. Abe is in a coma. So Eli books the first flight to Boston and makes his way to Abe’s bedside. It is difficult to see, but Eli believes that Abe will make it through this.
So Eli determines to take care of Abe’s house until he is better. After all, he knows Abe better than anyone else. So Eli hops in his rental car and drives across town to Abe’s house. Eli doesn’t have a key, but he does have a hunch that Abe still hides a key box around the back of the house just like they had at their college rent house. Sure enough, he is right.
Eli laughs as he entered the house. Everything is just like Abe – the same quirks and details he had always had. “This is going to be easy,” he thinks, “I know Abe.” But what Eli doesn’t know is… “Woof, WOOF, Woof!” A beast lunges at Eli as he opens a door. It is Zeke, Abe’s 3-year-old German Shepherd. Eli had never met Zeke, but he is confident he can handle some dog.
But Zeke is not just “some dog.” Zeke does not respond to any commands. Eli takes Zeke outside. A rabbit is spotted and zoooommm! There is no response to whistles, clapping, or “Come here, boy!” It is a long chase through the suburbs. The drama continues and continues with each day Eli spends with Zeke. One night Eli gives Zeke table scraps to win him over, but instead Eli finds 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 celebrate the come back. Eli jokes, “I am glad you are well. Perhaps now you can take that dog of yours to obedience school.” Abe pauses with a puzzled look then laughs. “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).
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 touchpoint. 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 is 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 touchpoint 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.
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.
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 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.
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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