What happens if your digital ministries lose access to the platforms used to reach your audience? It's why you must be your own Gatekeepers.
Twenty-five-plus years ago, when I started in the TV industry, digital ministries (such as the TV station I worked for) were 100% reliant on using other people’s platforms to reach an audience. It wasn’t possible to have your own platform as it was cost-prohibitive. Instead, you needed a satellite or cable network to sell you capacity on their platform. There was no other way.
Things have changed, and digital ministries no longer need to rely on 3rd parties to get their messages out. However, I still see many who voluntarily put themselves at the mercy of what I will term “Gatekeepers”.
Let me emphasise that our digital ministries must actively position themselves where people are looking. Social media platforms, YouTube, etc, are essential to our mission, particularly if our digital ministries' primary vision is to engage with people who are yet to find faith.
However, we must also acknowledge the limitations and challenges associated with these third-party-owned platforms. That’s why I am a big proponent of “both/and”. Ensuring our digital ministries have an outlet where we can be discovered and a space we can fully control and can’t be shut out.
Regularly, on my personal Facebook feed, I see posts talking about censorship and freedom of speech. This is often related to what people are doing in their digital ministries. I encountered a case today involving a church's livestream. They believed it was undergoing censorship by the social platform they were using. Almost always, it isn’t; instead, it’s the result of user error. That turned out to be the case this time, too. However, there are times when there is no clear and easy answer to why something happened. All those running digital ministries should be wary of what can happen if we are over-reliant on third-party platforms.
Several Christian media groups I know express concern about potential censorship or de-platforming of the Christian "voice" within our digital ministries. I have my thoughts on this, but whatever you believe, certainly, people are concerned. It’s an excellent reason digital ministries should have a space where they are their OWN gatekeepers.
I am not suggesting that we should only be in “spaces” that we control. We should NOT retreat from the public square. That is where the both/and approach is essential.
However, part of the strategy for our digital ministries needs to include our own platforms, websites, apps, etc, so that we are our own gatekeepers. This allows us to get our message out in a way that doesn’t depend on the whims of others.
Is live streaming or pre-recorded video content (see this article if you are still determining which is the right approach for you) part of your digital ministries' outworking?
I see people who stream to YouTube and/or Facebook (or elsewhere) but have no online presence on their own platforms. That is not a great strategy. You need your digital ministries on your own platforms. I recommend that you prioritise your own platform above anything else.
Some services tailored explicitly for churches allow you to embed your service onto your website. For instance, Church Online or Streaming Church offer great platforms. Making content available on your "owned" space should be the top priority. Embedding a YouTube link doesn’t count – that’s NOT your space. APP wise, there are a number too – Subsplash is a popular one, but there are others. Do your research and find what works for you and your digital ministries’ needs.
There is a bonus to going this way with our digital ministries. By bringing people into our spaces, we can build a deeper relationship with them. It’s much easier to use data capture tools and help people tap into other resources your digital ministries can provide from your website or APP. Build your own (and owned) database of people. Get people’s emails, phone numbers, addresses, etc., to connect with them directly.
Digital ministries should have data capture at the heart of their strategy.
Once you have this part working as your digital ministries’ priority, you can focus on how to utilise the other platforms.
I believe the church needs to be in the public square. We can’t control if the public square wants us there, but we should do all we can to be there. I am not a person who believes in echo chambers! The Christian message we can promote through our digital ministries thrives in an atmosphere of healthy debate and dialogue.
Healthy debate, dialogue and conversation are sadly lacking in our society currently and almost non-existent in social media. This is why I advocate for our digital ministries to create content that stimulates critical thinking actively, prompts questions, and challenges the teachings provided by non-Christian content providers.
Let us be the ones who engage in civil conversation and allow people with different viewpoints to feel loved and valued, whether they agree with our beliefs or not. This will gain (or perhaps regain) the church's influence in society, and it can be done by having the right approach with our digital ministries.
We don’t gain that influence by being aggressive, “loud, " divisive, or refusing to listen to or engage with others' perspectives. Instead, as Kris Vallotton says, “he who gives the most hope has the most influence”.
What a challenge – are we offering hope on the platforms we use for our digital ministries?
Undoubtedly, the church must be able to do that better than any other sphere of society.
Of course, there is always a possibility that people don’t like what we share.
That happened to Jesus, and it will happen to us. I think it’s interesting that what most people objected to wasn’t HOW Jesus spoke but how radically different what he said was. Different from what their “religious” mindset taught them. “Love your enemies” anyone? Sadly, many times in the public square, it seems we have become people who (unlike Jesus) don’t know HOW to speak with people. We throw out insults and stereotype references rather than looking at everyone as someone loved by God.
There are nevertheless compelling reasons why our digital ministries are NOT subject to any gatekeepers.
I have worked in the TV industry for over 25 years, and in that time, I was involved in the compliance requirements for more than one TV station. Because of that, I possibly have a slightly different outlook on what might be termed “censorship”.
There needs to be broadcasting codes for television platforms. This is the same for Social Media platforms and other tech companies. They must have similar guidelines and compliance policies (again, I am not saying if their policies are right or wrong, just that I understand the need). This will undoubtedly lead to challenges for anyone who says something different from the populist narrative, irrespective of where that narrative originates.
During my involvement in compliance, I witnessed channels being shut down due to guideline breaches. Others faced fines or warnings. In most instances, self-regulation could have averted these consequences, but the repercussions for the organisations were catastrophic.
In the days of gatekeeper-only options, this outcome meant they instantly lost access to their audience. If they had existed now and taken my advice, they could have had their own platform for their digital ministries. This results in a very different outcome.
Your digital ministries MUST have a plan for the worst-case scenario. Of course, your content might not be taken down for what you are saying. It could be due to your “laxness” over copyright. If you are on any of these 3rd party controlled platforms, there are many reasons to be careful.
I personally don’t see any imminent threats to Religious Freedom. However, I still believe every digital ministry should prioritise having a space they can use that is independent of any third party. If you perceive a threat in the current situation and it motivates you to secure a controlled space for your digital ministries - bravo. Whatever your immediate motive, it’s a strategy you need to pursue.
In a slightly unrelated story, there's a fascinating account about an underground church in a nation known for its persecution of Christians. Suspecting infiltration by a government "mole," they devised an ingenious plan. They instructed all their members to assemble at a secret undisclosed location and asked them to ask Holy Spirit to reveal the location and time. Those who didn't appear would be deemed the "mole." Now that’s faith!!
We don’t (thankfully) at this stage need to do anything that radical. All I’m suggesting is we have our digital ministries on at least one platform where we are the gatekeepers. That will ensure we can communicate directly with our digital church.
We MUST continue having a presence on every platform that makes strategic sense to our vision (need to define your vision? Read this), EVEN unfriendly platforms, so we can preach the Good News to those who need to hear it.
I also encourage you to target the content of your digital ministries according to the space you are in. That is how you will become the most effective in the aims you have for your digital ministries.