The Episcopal Herald is focused on the future of the church, and so it should be no surprise that we sought out the Evangelism and Communications hearings on Resolution B009: Conducting an Online Digital Evangelism Test. This proposal calls for a $3 million investment over the next triennium in a digital evangelism test, which would use the strategy of search engine optimization to connect online seekers with well-branded Episcopal Church content, to cultivate those seekers by bringing them further content that might be of interest, and eventually to refer them to local churches.
The Committee on Evangelism and Communications seemed to have a collective sense that this might be something worth trying. Jake Dell’s leading question was compelling: “If Jesus were to Google himself, would he find any reference to the Episcopal Church?” The answer is no (but why would our omniscient and humble Lord Google himself?). Still, it’s worth asking how we can connect to seekers who do not know that the Episcopal Church welcomes them. How might we serve seekers who go to the internet for answers to life’s persistent questions – like the proverbial poorly catechized mother who wonders, “What do I tell my child about heaven”? We can make connections with seekers asking those sorts of questions online and connect them to local parishes. This is the rationale behind the resolution.
The excitement in the room was palpable, and one can understand why. Surely every rector would love to get an email with a list of local seekers who are primed and ready for invitation. Nike and the Mormons do this search engine optimization thing, so why can’t we? Jake Dell had to reign back the expectation in the room a little, because getting starting in this arena is not so simple.
It is true that, in this arena, $3 million over three years does not go very far. We are just testing the waters of digital evangelism with this resolution. The dioceses and congregations that have the greatest potential to benefit from a program like this are the ones that already have good structures and cultures for welcoming the seekers that the program hopes to bring to our doors. They will be able to engage the tricky hand-off between online connection and in-person connection. Perhaps, this program will also incentivize communities and congregations to get their act together in terms of welcome, both online and in person.
Another benefit of this program is the strategic networking of content-creators and the generation of content designed to address the practical questions that seekers are asking. In particular, our Spanish-speaking communities desperately need materials both in Spanish and in English that speak to the questions about Jesus, church, and daily life that Latinos are asking, and that raise the profile of the Episcopal Church. There are plenty of strong voices out there, ready to be mobilized to write or produce video content, and they need to be compensated for this work.
The digital evangelism test is an idea with promise for the whole church, as long as it is viewed as only one component of a much broader evangelism, welcome, and discipleship strategy.