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How Churches Can Partner With Creators

March 6th, 2024 | 4 min. read

By Ian Harber

how-churches-can-partner-with-creators

Most of us are aware that trust in institutions is at an all-time low. Today, social media is functioning as a pseudo or counterfeit institution that, as pastor and writer Brad Edwards put it, “promises all the affirmation that comes from being part of an institution, but without the prerequisite openness to formation that infuses deep community with meaning.”

Social media gives the illusion of the benefits of institutions without any of the formative demands that institutions require of individuals. This shapes people to be intuitionally minded instead of institutionally minded, which is one of the primary issues upstream of our individualistic, atomized, and lonely culture. Our relationships are no longer mediated by institutions but by screens and, more specifically, algorithms that cater to our basest intuitions.

On the surface, it seems that something like “digital ministry” would only exacerbate this problem. And to a degree, it can. A pastor friend recently told me the story of talking with a faithful former congregant who said they now attend church “online.” Not their old church. Just “church online” with no elaboration. This is an increasingly common story in a world where influencers are more trusted than pastors. When church is reduced to nothing more than “content,” and the content people can get online is more algorithmically attuned to their felt needs than a Sunday sermon could ever be, and the content online can be played at 2x speed while they’re doing the dishes, it sadly makes sense why many people are opting out of church in favor of YouTube videos and podcasts of whatever influencer they’re into at the moment.

Many pastors are (rightfully) decrying that they simply can’t compete with the visual noise of 24/7 social media feeds. The distortion zone of social media is so strong that it has more of a (de)formative influence over their congregation than their 40-minute sermon could hope to achieve. But while social media undermines institutions in favor of influencers, there is an opportunity for churches and content creators to work together to strengthen churches rather than undermine them. What would that relationship look like? There are a few different components that I think are all important in their own ways.

Support

This sounds so simple and obvious, but churches can support and encourage content creators in their congregation. Instead of creators feeling like they don’t have a legitimate ministry inside the church, sending them seeking a ministry outside the church, churches can build relationships with content creators in their churches, foster them, and encourage their ministries as necessary and legitimate. In the same way that churches send missionaries to other parts of the country or overseas, churches can “send” digital missionaries online by having a strong relationship with them and supporting their content through helpful conversations, thoughtful content reviews, and sharing. If the church has resources, such as space or equipment, that the creator can borrow and use, that is a helpful way of supporting them as well.

An important piece of a church supporting content creators in their congregation is that their support helps foster an institutional mindset in the content creator. They no longer feel like they are competing with their church or going around the church’s authority; rather, they feel like they are a part of the church. They feel seen and sent to do ministry online, and they know their pastors value their efforts.

Develop

If people are turning more to content creators than pastors for their information, it is crucial that content creators be rooted in the local church and have many of the same tools in their toolbox that pastors do in terms of theology, biblical interpretation, cultural awareness, compassion, and communication skills. Churches can work with content creators to help them hone these skills. Through mentorship, theological training programs, Bible studies, book recommendations, equipping classes, and more, pastors can help content creators dig deep wells to draw from to create content that is true, helpful, and reliable for their online audience.

It’s invaluable for a content creator to have a good enough relationship with their pastor that they would voluntarily send a piece of work to review for feedback before publishing, knowing the pastor is on their team and wants to help them. This sort of relationship de-individualizes the content creation process. It no longer becomes about a singular creator making a piece of content for their audience. Instead, it’s in the context of a larger institution where multiple people in good relationships are developing the ideas being published.

Embed

Content creators spend their days, well, making content. In our information age, it’s easy to think that the end goal of content is the transfer of ideas. But the end goal of the Christian life isn’t ideas; it’s transformation. And information only serves its purpose insofar as it aids in someone’s transformation into Christlikeness. When content creators are throwing content online, they’re usually making it for people they have never met before and will probably never meet. They won’t be able to see the real-life impact of their content.

One thing churches can do is work with content creators to embed them in the church by bringing their ministry inside the church. When I was about to sign to write a book on deconstruction, one of my pastors said to me, “I’ve been wanting to do a class on deconstruction for a while now, and I’d love for you to help lead it. Are you up for it?” That class was an incredible opportunity to bring a lot of my developing thoughts about deconstruction into the life of the church. It was a chance to engage with flesh-and-blood people to work them out in real life and see what worked and what didn’t. The class wasn’t large, but I ended up gaining invaluable insights from it, some of which made their way into the book and other content I’ve produced online about the subject. I also know that class ended up ministering to some people who either are deconstructing or know people who are. These are people who never would have engaged with anything I do online, yet I got to bring that “content” into IRL ministry in the life of my church. I’ll forever be grateful for that opportunity.

The best way for content creators to guard against rage baiting and brand building is to blur the lines between online ministry and IRL ministry. The magic happens when online ministry grows out of IRL ministry, and the content can also serve real relationships in the local church.

Grounded and Sent

When content creators are grounded in and sent by their local church, it tethers the online world to the physical world. There may not be an immediate payoff in terms of, say, people who follow the creator coming to their specific church. But it will affect the tune of the creators’ content in such a way that it reflects well on the local church as an institution and helps open people’s imaginations to seeing themselves there again. The goal would be for the creators’ content to help people want to find a local church to belong to and see themselves being able to do so. Not only that, but it helps create health and longevity for the content creator because their whole life isn’t wrapped up in platform-building. The ministry they do online is supported and expressed in the local church as well.

Ministry in the digital age looks like churches and content creators working together. The more creative we can get with these partnerships, the better. We can’t afford to see these spheres of ministry as unrelated anymore. The church doesn’t have to go digital to minister to people online. It just has to support, develop, and embed content creators as digital missionaries who are grounded in and sent by the local church.

Ian Harber

Ian is a marketing manager at Endeavor and is a digital marketing practitioner with 10 years of experience. He has written about faith and technology, deconstruction and reconstruction for The Gospel Coalition and Mere Orthodoxy as well as appearing on podcasts such as Reconstructing Faith, The Alisa Childers Podcast, Love Thy Neighborhood, The Living Room Disciple, Everything Just Changed, and more. Additionally, Ian has contributed to the book, Before You Lose Your Faith: Deconstructing Doubt in the Church (TGC, 2021) and is the author of an upcoming a forthcoming book about deconstruction with InterVarsity Press (2024). Ian lives in Denton, Texas with his wife, Katie, and son, Ezra and is a member at The Village Church Denton.

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