What Instagram Ads Taught Me About Growing an Online Ministry
Over and over, Jesus asked them to keep quiet - to not tell anyone what He’d done for them. "See that no one knows about this," He commanded two men who had been blind until just minutes ago. "But they went out and spread the news about Him over all that region" (Matthew 9:30-31). "See that you don't tell anyone," He ordered a leper with brand new baby skin. "Instead, he went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news. As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places. Yet the people still came to Him from everywhere" (Mark 1:45).
I wonder if it’s because He saw that the crowds seeking Him were there for HIM. They wanted to see a celebrity; to be fed; to be entertained (John 6:26). They wanted what He could give them more than they wanted what He taught. And so Jesus tried to keep the miracles and acts of compassion along the way a secret, as not to draw attention to something new and flashy - a source of gossip that draws followers and speculation, but never goes any deeper than what was truly required: a love for His Father so deep that it would give up everything to be known - and rejected by society - as one of those of “the Way" (Acts 24:14). They wanted to see Him - some even wanted something from Him - but few wanted to become like Him.
Because Jesus Himself? He was ordinary. "He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him" (Isaiah 53:2). He was the one people couldn't figure out quite why he was becoming so popular for someone so ordinary. A carpenter from Nazareth. "Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?" (John 1:46). "He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces He was despised, and we esteemed Him not" (Isaiah 53:3).
People want to follow people. In today's social media engrossed world, we like images of people. Pretty staged photographs and filters. Influencers. Casually laughing women in exotic locations or even those perfectly imperfect images in sweatpants in a Joanna Gaines worthy house. People want to see something spectacular, even if it is "ordinary” - that part hasn’t changed since Jesus’s time at least.
I think that’s been my biggest struggle with using social media for ministry. There is this tension of wanting to point more people to Jesus by providing content people will visually enjoy while also wanting them to NOT see you (or a pretty filtered version of you and your life) but to instead see the One whom you preach and serve. It’s a desire to be unknown but to also make Him known. To be a transparent being who is the hands and feet and the voice of the Savior, without becoming a savior for the hungry, hurting souls searching for meaning, healing and nourishment. To grow His Kingdom, not your own platform. Yet, what if growing your platform is how you grow His Kingdom?
Tirzah has always been an online only ministry, and most people find our magazine from social media, so I've always felt the pressure to grow the number of followers, likes and subscribers we have. When we relaunched the site this year, that pressure was even more real. I felt like maybe we had lost a majority of our readership and following in the year we closed our doors, and it was evident in the small number of people that joined our small groups. In past years, we had no problem funding our operations with our online small groups, but this year, the going was rough (and at that time when we had zero financing to operate the site).
So, I did what my business school educated, type A, problem solving self knew to do: I bought instagram and Facebook ads and posted everywhere I could think of that our small groups were open for enrollment. We got a couple hundred new likes on the advertised posts. But no sales. And I seriously began to wonder if God had really called me back to this ministry, because if He had, shouldn't there be growth?
I was disappointed, but in my quiet time one night, God reminded me as I prayed that the Word does not need to be marketed or advertised, for our works on His behalf speak for themselves because they point people to Jesus, not to ourselves or the content we produce. Ministry, including discipleship and evangelism, is not something to be packaged and sold to draw crowds and grow online platforms.
A.W. Tozer writes, "No demon in hell fears words alone. It is only when those words serve as a channel through which the power of God flows that they have potency." Because the Kingdom of God is not in words only, but in power (1 Cor. 4:20). At that time, I was also studying the book of Mark (coincidence? I think not!), and I began to notice that Jesus didn't need to grow a following - people came to Him because they saw that He had power and preached as one who had authority. So, I repented and prayed, realizing that this was God's ministry and who He wanted to bring to it, He would. And the small group of 5 grew to 20 - some paid, some on scholarship, and some who joined because they became a part of the Tirzah volunteer staff. It wasn’t the re-launch I imagined, but it was the start of a humbling lesson plan (and ironically, God has been using these small group Bible studies to minister to my heart first and foremost, including showing me how to teach with humility and vulnerability in these groups).
As I prayed that night, I realized that the apostles also didn't need promotion to attract people to minister to - they simply went into the world and and preached. People saw that these men had been with Jesus and that they had power to perform miracles and so they flocked, listened, converted and followed. For the light will shine for Himself, He only needs a lamp stand, a willing vessel. The Gospel does not need a social marketing plan to be effective, powerful and to reach the ends of the earth.
Also in the words of A.W. Tozer, “This power is also a magnetic power. By that, I mean that it draws us to Christ. It will exalt Him above all things. You will know Him above all things. You will know that it is the power of God when Jesus Christ is exalted above all other things. When there is the exaltation of the personality or the celebrity, you can be sure it is not the power of the Holy Spirit at work. This magnetic power cannot be replicated by mere words. Jesus said, ‘And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.’ (John 12:32).”
Friend, don't get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with pretty Instagram pictures or building up large followings/being popular online. There are God-inspired ministries out there with millions of followers. But in the words of Natalie Grant, "When your faith becomes a commodity, it loses its sacredness."
When your treasure becomes the money you make or the number of followers you have, at the expense of the Gospel, we become no better than the people in the temple who were selling their knick knacks to the church goers (John 2:13-16).
Check yourself: why are you doing this? Whose Kingdom are you building? Who is becoming known, you or the Jesus you preach? Are you the Light or is He? Whose name do they know - His or Yours? Whom do those followers worship and whose lifestyle do they idolize?
Make it count, leave a mark, build a name for yourself
Dream your dreams, chase your heart, above all else
Make a name the world remembers
But all an empty world can sell is empty dreams
I got lost in the lie that it was up to me
To make a name the world remembers
But Jesus is the only name to remember
And I, I don’t want to leave a legacy
I don’t care if they remember me
And I, I’ve only got one life to live
I’ll let every second point to Him...Only Jesus
-Casting Crowns, "Only Jesus"
The crux of this lesson is this: It is not about running Tirzah like a business or trying to grow our numbers/fame/popularity. I don't need to make myself or Tirzah known. We don't need a million followers solely for the sake of having followers. What we need is a ministry soaked in prayer - every article, every volunteer, every writer, every reader and every follower - so that our content would not only be pretty words and shareable posts, but that the Holy Spirit would anoint every word and every person involved to make His Word come alive on screens around the world and to convict and transform the hearts and souls of the readers and visitors to our website and social media pages. That people would come and feel, even through the internet, that there is something different about this webpage. It seems ordinary and it doesn't have a million followers, but there is something about this that calls you deeper, because the power of God speaks to each soul exactly what they need to hear. That people would come to TirzahMag.com because someone told them that Jesus was there - that the women behind the site and in this community walk with God - truly and wholeheartedly.
I don't need paid advertising for that. I don't need to rack my brain about how to grow our email list or reach a million followers on Instagram. I don't even need to worry about how we're going to pay the bills. It's not my job description, because I am the steward of this ministry, not the owner. My job is to be faithful in serving the women we have now with Truth and to spend hours on my knees soaking this website and community in prayer that God's presence would rest here and that He would give the increase. And He will - maybe not in thousands of followers, but in a few souls utterly transformed by the Gospel they read on our website and the Kingdom call they answered to go out into the world and make Him known. This is His mission field - both Tirzah and my own personal life. I am merely a steward, called to be faithful with what I have today, whether it be little or much.
So, if that means keeping a low profile and being unassuming in a world clamoring for more, so that His Word would get all the attention, then so be it. And even if our numbers don't skyrocket, our mission remains the same: to prayerfully inspire, teach and equip young women of noble character, rooted in His word, fruitful in good works and faithful in all things. Because at the end of the day, it doesn't matter if no one knows my name, as long as they are known by His Name and their names are written in the books of heaven.
How does this lesson live looked out practically? Prayer, faith, surrender, and being faithful right where God has you today with what you have as a resource right now.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Yelena is the founder and editor in chief Tirzah. Yelena works as an attorney in international tax consulting and in her spare time, she is working on her first book for unmarried twenty-something women in extended waiting seasons and running Tirzah. She has a passion for pointing young women to Christ, and enjoys reading, writing, traveling, and spending time with her family.