Editorial: The end—or the beginning?—of FaithVillage

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This is a bittersweet month for our organization. To understand the story, you need to begin at the beginning.

When was the beginning? Let’s say the chaos-before-the-beginning was the period from about 1980 to 2008—a time of turmoil and travail for the Baptist Standard. Due to conflict within the Baptist denomination, cataclysmic change in the newspaper industry, cycles of economic recession and malaise among Texas Baptists, the Standard suffered sustained subscription and advertising decline.

knox newEditor Marv KnoxDuring that time, however, the Internet came along. It offered instantaneous delivery, plus the chance to distribute not only stories and pictures, but also video and links to other material, as well as the opportunity for readers to respond immediately.

We opened a website, www.baptiststandard.com, and began posting our articles there. We also recognized an interesting dichotomy. While most of our faithful readers are middle-aged and senior adults, Internet early adopters were teens and young adults. We began talking about how we could harness the web to reach those younger readers.

A need to reach a new audience

In May of 2008, I picked up three Baptist Standard Publishing board members at Love Field, who flew to Dallas for their spring meeting. They asked about the agenda for our meeting.

“Well, I’m going to ask you to bite the bullet and give me permission to hire a staff member who will put non-news resources on our website,” I told them. “I’m thinking if we can post interesting inspirational and/or informative articles about faith and Christian living, we can attract younger adults and maybe even teens.”

In short order, they said they liked the general idea but felt I was thinking too small. By the time we reached the office, they convinced me to hold off on my proposal so they could recommend a bigger idea.

That summer, Brad Russell, our newly hired marketing director, and I developed a new strategic plan. It called for creation of a resources website aimed at teens and young adults.

Our board wanted us to build it right. They authorized funds to conduct nationwide market research. We asked young adults to describe the intersection of their faith and the Internet: How often are you online? What do you view relative to your faith? What is your experience?

They told us they go online every day. But they said they were frustrated, because they didn’t know where to go, and they didn’t know whom to trust. But they said they would love a website that pulled together a broad range of reliable resources in one location.

Launching a unique website

That’s what we set out to build. Some great friends responded generously when we asked them for financial help to construct and launch the site. Plus, our board believed in the project so much, they allocated some unrestricted reserves to support it.

In a brilliant move, they also named Brad to be the senior editor and chief operating officer of the website. With a background in advertising and marketing, deep experience as a pastor and church planter, and a passion for both young families and cutting-edge technology, he was perfect for the job. It was—and should be—his baby.

As we started, Facebook exploded in popularity, and members of our target audience told us they wish they could do their social networking in a Christian context. So, we worked with technology engineers and graphic designers to build a website that offers myriad Christian resources and gives them access to their own social network. We called it FaithVillage.

We structured FaithVillage like an actual community. Users can scroll across streets of the village. Each storefront serves as a portal for a different kind of content. For example, Momzie on Church Street features material for mothers and women. Engage Mission Center is all things missions. Culture Lab provides the pulse on movies, music, technology and trends. The Church @ FaithVillage focuses on worship. We also feature storefronts that offer videos, blogs, podcasts and news. The buildings cover four virtual streets, and they provide readers the equivalent content of about two-dozen faith-related websites.

We also built The Lofts at FaithVillage. It provides individuals, churches and faith-based organizations a Facebook-like social network, set in the mix of all these resources. Users can create their own groups and apply our networking tools to build new Christian communities and strengthen communication within the communities that already exist in their very real lives.

We launched FaithVillage in February 2012 and began promoting the new site. Our staff made new friends as we presented FaithVillage at Christian leadership conferences nationwide. We told all our real-world friends about it. And we updated and improved FaithVillage every business day.

Sales efforts never gained traction

Wherever I went, people would ask, “How’s FaithVillage?”

My answer always included two parts.

“From a production standpoint, we’re doing great,” I’d say. “Folks tell us the site is exciting and beautiful. We love how it looks and works. It’s full of material. Our staff has recruited more than 800 contributors, who have provided faith-related articles, videos, podcasts and blogs. And people seem to love it. We’re attracting more than 40,000 unique visitors every month.

“But from a revenue standpoint, things aren’t so hot. We have recruited several content partners, who pay to place their material on the site in return for exposure to our audience. But we need more of them and more advertisers. We’ve adjusted our strategy to charge churches for licenses in return for using our system as their intra-church communication tool. Organizational and church leaders say they like FaithVillage, but they haven’t committed to paying for it.”

The past year, we maintained our content production and intensified our efforts to sell FaithVillage to corporate and church partners. Unfortunately, our sales efforts never gained traction.

So, our board has voted to discontinue production of FaithVillage, effective the end of this month.

Frankly, this decision initially felt like the death of a dream.

But our spirits have not lagged long. Even though we have not been able to generate sustaining revenue, FaithVillage has touched—and blessed—tens of thousands of people. Not only in Texas, but around the world. Not only among Baptists, but throughout Christianity.

Beyond that, we have built a robust and powerful communication tool. Its features—the combination of a strong content-publishing site built upon a social-networking platform—is unprecedented. We realized we should make it available to other Christian groups.

Considering options

Consequently, we have begun exploring options for transferring the FaithVillage software application to another organization or organizations. Many options are possible. We’re talking to a complex-and-dynamic organization that seems tailor-made for utilizing both our content and social-networking components.

Meanwhile, Baptist Standard Publishing will perpetuate our 125-year legacy mandate. We’ll keep updating our website daily, producing the Baptist Standard every Monday and publishing CommonCall magazine each month.

One of my favorite Bible verses is Romans 8:28. The Apostle Paul insists, “All things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose.” We’re praying God will resurrect joy from our grief and blessing from our long labor. We’re prayerfully hoping this will not be the end of FaithVillage but the birth of a new ministry—albeit operated by others—that will fulfill the dream we still believe God placed in our hearts years ago.

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