At first impression, the former chief executive of the Bible Society of New Zealand, Mark Brown, has more the persona of motorcycle buddy than progressive techie. Three years ago, however, he came up with the idea for a Facebook page called "The Bible Page." Today his page is frequently #1 or #2 in the world for user interaction. In my recent article on "The New Engagers" in Christianity Today, I wrote:
"When Mark Brown wants to interact with his Facebook friends, he simply types a Scripture verse onto his page. Most of us might get a few responses within a day or so, but within 10 minutes, Brown's post will spark 10,000 responses from around the globe. His page, simply called 'The Bible' (Facebook.com/TheBibleUBS), launched three years ago with one verse: John 3:16. It took 18 months to reach 1 million Facebook friends. But three years in, it's now at 8.6 million and consistently one of Facebook's top sites for reader interactivity. Users don't just drop by solely to read a verse; they're posting and responding to one another as well."
Here is my full interview with Mark Brown:
Mark, what is your Bible engagement strategy?
It is to be where people are. You need to learn the language of where the people are—the culture, the nuances, the particularities. It must be contextual. With all of that, you start to build a community. This is very different. In the past, I would say I am going to try to create a new book or product. My strategy is quite the reverse. I first create a following—a community. I now have 30 million as part of my Facebook communities.
I have built the community, and I engage people. I get their attention by finding out what will capture them. I have the numbers, the community. I know their language. I know what gets them talking. The best classes are the ones where everyone is engaging. I try to put topics out and quotes. I am constantly putting Scripture out—presenting Scripture in context.
You have over 8 million people around the world connecting at your Bible Facebook site. What's the secret?
The Bible page is the second most engaged page in the world. We get people involved and engaged. We put topics out. We do Bible studies online. I get people talking. When they talk, people have counter opinions. So they learn and grow.
Do you get many negative or derogatory posts?
Even if they disagree with me, that is ok. I do my exegesis. I have a theology degree. I want them to say, "Mark, you're right, you're wrong. Here's why." My Bible engagement strategy is not only the controversial topics. It is more complex. It is about presenting the content that speaks into people's lives.
Is your site used to promote books and resources beyond the Bible?
Talking about brands and products on Facebook really doesn't work. What does work is when you speak to an issue that engages people personally.
What has been the most popular or engaging topic you have posted on to date?
Tattoos! I didn't pick it. It sort of came by popular demand. That broke all records by a factor of 10. It was ridiculous. I got a tattoo, and I posted it on my wall. It is a religious tattoo, not gratuitous. We are talking 7,000 comments and over 100,000 views of my blog. The reason I dove into this topic was Leviticus. I had done my study on the passage.
What opportunities are available today for getting people engaged with the Bible?
I think we have a situation where for free or very limited cost we can reach hundreds of millions of people. We are touching 8-million-plus, and our budget is $0.
Are people engaging Scripture differently today than they did 20 years ago? What has changed? How so?
In the 1950s, the percentage of children who went to Sunday school was enormous. Bible engagement was done from a very early age. It thinned out in the sixties. Bibles were present in the pews. Today, when you go to a church, it is not uncommon to find the Bible is just an overhead projected text or just read in the sermon. No Bible reading. No practice of having the Bible in your hand. The Bible is not a companion of the Christian in the way it used to be. What has changed today is that we can make the Bible available wherever you are or whatever you are doing.
The future is the mobile phone—the smart phone. Half of the Facebook users today use mobile phones—some 400 million.
Do you believe that The Bible Facebook page is genuine "Scripture engagement"?
Yes and no. Yes, as in every few hours Scripture is presented in people's contexts; and no, in that we need to take them deeper still. We are just on the path. We need to engage them more fully.