State of Mobile Ministry Report (Summer 2011)

As stated in the previous post about MMM finally getting full-time attention for a year, there’s been a number of revelations that have we’ve come to this year in regards to assessing where mobile (in) ministry is as an area of focus. In respect to this article, we’ll look at general topics such as the take up of mobile/mobile services, knowledge sharing and application, and even the scope of this technology across the face of what is understood as Christian faith.

For a basis towards the items covered in this report, reference our previous 2011 reports: What’s Ahead for 2011 and An Additional Mobile Lens for 2011.

Getting Up to Speed Using Mobile

In the past year, the noise of those wanting to use mobile in all lifestyle pursuits has certainly increased. Not to be missed, many of the conversations we’ve had with leaders inside and outside of the faith/religion space have had the conversation fulcrum, “mobile needs to be were we are.” And this is good as there’s been the better part of the last decade where mobile was a silo for those interested in PDAs, niche programmers, and those Bible societies who looked forward, but there wasn’t a large enough user-base to make it sustainable.

Regionally, we are seeing a few key elements taking root:
– in the USA, outside of missions organizations, the push for using and understanding mobile is following the uptake and understanding of applications. Truly an app and Facebook centric culture, mobile activity hinges on how well a church/ministry organization is able to utilize social networking – not expressly in a mobile context. There remains a disconnect between the ability to catalyze messages to minority groups who are more apt to using a mobile device and those ministry well-funded to create a mobile/social presence, but do nothing more than use this channel as yet another broadcasting brochure.

– the approach for missions and service organizations first focuses on the messaging and communication effects of mobile. Groups whom are able have found shortcodes and SMS programs to be their best avenues for engaging their audiences. In this respect, they are following closely behind mobile marketing initiatives. What’s not seen as often in this space is the ability to craft larger marketing programs which go beyond alert-and-response behaviors.

Globally, we see:
– missions organizations which have a global focus are clearly focusing much of the IT resources on adding experience in mobile, security, and social networking. These groups are commonly running up against the wall of there not being enough information available in terms of best practices, curriculum development, and the impact of mobile in addition to previously used channels for promoting content and behaviors.

– the speed at which the leading mobile platforms have changed (note: this has only happened in the past two years) has disrupted the planning processes for some who’ve previously settled on methods of distribution that didn’t take into account growing platforms, web access, or mobile-sized content portals. Their challenges include getting up to speed with current and short-term prospects for mobile directions, which shortening the time between asking “what is the mobile context of our audience” and delivering a solution which best takes advantage of that mobile context.

Knowledge Sharing and Application

Prior to 1.5 years ago, there were three websites (and a wiki) which frequently referred to mobile as a toolset for ministry activities. Since then, there’s been a growing movement within media, IT, and educational spaces to get up to speed on mobile, its implications in those spaces, and join the conversation across shared channels.

This has manifested itself in the formation of the Mobile Ministry Forum, VSN Mobile Media group, and mobile topical tracks at every major Christian conference. At this point, there’s not enough groundbreaking activity happening in mobile (in) ministry for there to be but spot references in non-faith-based conferences/workshops.

As had been demonstrated in other areas of mobile, mobile (in) ministry has a significant gap between those who practice (and document) and those whom are looking for information about mobile (in) ministry. The Mobile Ministry Forum has been the primary effort to date to knit these groups. Beyond knitting those groups, determining the specific areas of ministry to which mobile is most relevant continues to be a matter of conversation, debate, and analysts.

We’ve also noted there being a significant gap in how economics plays a part towards passing the lessons of mobile across ministries. Medium and small ministries are typically engaging mobile either by a passionate member or leader, which larger groups are able to have several persons or a team to devote towards these efforts. The appeal of the successes of the larger groups has been enough to increase their size, and drain the ability/brain of the smaller groups.

In a similar respect, mobile (and social web) activities are causing reassessments of policies, processes, and even communication needs. It isn’t expected that mobile will be a driver in all but a few cases (on-the-field missions for example), but that the general cultural shift to contextual messaging, flexibility of work environments, and organizational transparency will add the need to account for mobile competencies across cultures, devices, working styles. We’re not expecting any major news from ministries in this respect, but have and will continue to listen as systems and processes are effected by financial changes, speed of communication technologies, and generational changes in leadership.

Age (and some cultural behaviors) also seems to manifest gaps. We see the experience of older members of the faith pushing or holding back mobile initiatives. A misunderstanding or overly technical explanation of the benefits of mobile has also slowed the appropriate application of mobile. Unfortunately, affluence plays a part here – where some groups are simply throwing money at mobile hoping that something sticks. To these points, mobile is a much wilder west than the Internet was before/during it.

Mobile Technology in the Christian Faith

There’s a definitive difference between what’s possible, what’s done, and what the consequences are. It has only been this year where we are seeing pastors, authors, speakers, and organizations tackle the questions of the implications of mobile (devices, services, and experiences) to the spiritual welfare of believers. The common sentiment has been to tread lightly, experiment as led by the Spirit, and take time away to unplug. As mobile increases into the conversation, we can expect more theological discourse on this wise.

The imprint of mobile has been felt on the publishing side. We’ve seen a number of software companies fold or be acquired by faith-based/secular groups. It will not be known for a few more quarters the comparative nature of print publishing versus electronic publishing, but it is clear that many stalwart print publishing outfits have begun aggressive efforts to make sure that the digital audience is addressed. The growth of fiction as a digital publishing field where independents can financially excel has been noticed, but there’s no sign yet that the (very large) Christian fiction market is effected by this.

As with other media channels and their development early on, experiencing it in a fashion that’s not just a repacking of former media lessons is taking time. Much of what (western) Christianity understands as native to the Christian experience has translated seamlessly to mobile. What will happen (as with every other media channel), is that those who grew up closer to the technology as their frame of reference will remix old behaviors and create new ones. At this time, there are only bubbling signs as to what this will look like – but the book Alone Together seems to point to an eventual reality/issue.

Conclusions: Not Leading, Not Distant

We’ve tried to present the observations of mobile technology and faith communities in a light that shows the successes forward, and the challenges that lie ahead. Clearly, having a consistent and clear message will be key towards mobile being best understood. Efforts to clarify the intention of using mobile, practices towards mobile, and noting successes and failures will allow for this intersection to be a green light forward.

As with other media channels, the same potential exists for destructive tendencies. Information silos, disallowing of experimentation, and lack of support/discipleship will cause any lessons learned to become heretical or even a disassociated language while the general mobile world moves forward (for example: teaching the KJV in cultures that no long speak that dialect; the challenge therefore not only teaching the Scriptures, but also teaching an unknown language). 

Compared to other applications of mobile (education, health, etc.) mobile (in) ministry isn’t far away from inventing its own innovations in this space. Distributed networks, mobiles for social good, and media targeting are areas where mobile (in) ministry is specifically equipped to address these, and then create opportunities and behaviors which easily share into other mobile spaces. Communication, clarity, and cohesion plays the glue that sticks this into the foundation of faith (John 17).

Mobile Ministry Magazine (MMM) exists to understand how the Christian faith is using and understanding the impact of mobile technology when it intersects with faith/faith traditions. This article is meant to provoke discussion and introspection towards the use of mobile technology within this cultural context. Coming to conclusions, and even evolving from there, will be key towards having a faith that also evolves with the times.

If you are working with mobile contexts related to ministry, education, communication/marketing, etc. and would like to learn more about how MMM can help you towards your efforts, get in touch with us.

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