Brian Reid/Make Ready the Feast

By Kirk Petersen

What does turkey gumbo have to do with evangelism? Not much on the surface. But a turkey gumbo recipe represents the fundamental change that the Episcopal Church is making in the way it communicates with the world.

For the Rev. Canon Michael Hunn, evangelism and gumbo can be linked in novel ways. Hunn is canon to the presiding bishop for ministry within the Episcopal Church, and the communications department reports to him.

Hunn described how search engines package ads with search results, depending on search terms: if you search for sweaters, the top links you see will be merchants who sell sweaters.

“That’s called inbound digital marketing, because the inbound energy of the computer user is what drives it,” Hunn said. In the older, broadcast model of advertising, the merchant would buy a television or print ad that reaches a broad audience and hope that some readers may want to buy a sweater.

The church is adopting a similar model, as part of a broad transformation of how it communicates.

“We don’t call it marketing, because we’re not trying to sell anything, but we do say we’re doing inbound digital evangelism,” Hunn said. “When people are seeking God, we want the Episcopal Church to be present with information that’s relevant to those seekers.”

The church is in the process of hiring a digital evangelist, who will be familiar both with the Episcopal Church and with the practice of inbound digital marketing. This initiative was prompted by the 2015 General Convention, which designated evangelism as one of the top three priorities of the church. The digital evangelist is expected to join the organization in January.

In the meantime, the church is using recipes to take its first steps. Starting with turkey gumbo on the first Sunday of Advent, the Episcopal Church Center has been posting and emailing a new recipe for holiday-themed food every day, drawing on submissions from around the church and the broader Anglican Communion.

The purpose is to reach people who are looking for recipes and trying to decide what to cook for the holidays. Each recipe is accompanied by a brief passage from Scripture and by links to the church’s social media platforms. The blog is called Make Ready the Feast. Hunn credited Wendy Karr Johnson and Mary Brennan with the idea, which he called ingenious. Johnson is the church’s digital missioner for formation, and Brennan is staff officer for mission communications.

“People love recipes,” Brennan said. “We thought we could add some faith information as well as some recipe information.”

“It might actually lead you into the door of a church, because you’re looking for recipes,” Hunn said.

More substantively, the communications department also is creating videos and other content relating to the sacrament of baptism, to reach people who are looking to have their children baptized.

The videos will tell the baptism story from a variety of perspectives. “If you happen to be a millennial, we’ll have a version that speaks to millennials,” said Mike Collins, manager of multimedia services. “If you’re a suburban mom, we’ll have that version. If you’re someone who lives in a big city, we’ll have that version as well.”

“We want to start creating material about baptism that people who are curious about baptism will find authoritative,” Hunn said.

By using traffic analytics, the church can see the search terms people use when they’re searching for baptism, and then create content that responds to the most popular concepts.

To crunch this data, the church center has contracted with HubSpot, an inbound marketing vendor and consulting firm based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The church center is working closely with HubSpot while building a new version of the church’s website. The new website will be optimized for mobile users, and is designed so HubSpot can easily collect and analyze data on web traffic. The new site is expected to launch in the spring.

It’s all part of retooling the communications department as a digital evangelism department. “The Episcopal Church has a great story to tell,” Collins said. “We just have to get it to the right people.”

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