Published on February 25th, 2014 | by Josh Hafner
YP Spotlight: Former pastor Justin Wise, 33, is a social media evangelist
Justin Wise slid into a booth one recent Thursday at Smokey Row, the always-humming coffee shop where he wrote much of his new book, “The Social Church: A theology of digital communication.”
Wise once was a pastor at Lutheran Church of Hope, the fast-growing West Des Moines megachurch, where the leadership suggested Wise attend seminary when he joined its staff in 2006. A few months out from his Masters in Divinity, Wise realized he wasn’t called to be a pastor. He graduated, and left Hope’s staff four months later.
“How about that?” Wise, 33, said from the booth. “Isn’t that crazy?”
Crazier, some might say, is where Wise did find his calling: social media. Or rather, helping people find influence on social media. Through ThinkDigital, an online academy he launched last fall, Wise said he coaches 100 clients on how to spread their messages in the digital sphere.
“The Social Church,” then, is a melding of Wise’s past and present. It’s a plea for the leaders of his faith to embrace the technology of our times. And Wise believes he’s just the guy to make it happen.
For one, Wise knows churches online. He started Hope’s first Facebook page before its lead pastor understood what Facebook could do. He built the church’s online campus that still live-streams services. After leaving in 2010, he spent three years with a church-focused Web firm.
Second, he has a masters in divinity. He knows how pastors who lead churches think, even if he isn’t one.
And he’s worried for them.
Media have changed, Wise says, and with them, the way churches reach people. Online, we can read anything. Consume anything. Pick which voices we listen to and which we unfollow.
“It honestly scares me for a lot of churches, because I think they won’t realize this until it’s too late,” said Wise. “They will have to close their church because no one will be around … The culture is speaking a different language now.”
For a constant tweeter and confessed gadget geek, Wise is conversationally attentive. His laptop is closed. His iPhone sits on it, screen down. He grins often, laughs loudly. He looks boyish for 33.
“I look like I’m 12,” he contends.
ThinkDigital is an eight-part, once-a-month course focusing on various topics. They include how to audit your social media channels, how to build your email list and how to build a blog following. In short, how to gain a following that you can influence.
Wise began forming ThinkDigital in July and launched it in September, with the help of a business coach from Georgia named Casey Graham. The two discovered each other on, of course, Twitter.
“He has a unique ability to turn an ooey gooey subject like social media into how it fits into a business or church context and how to get results,” said Graham, who helped Wise develop ThinkDigital’s foundation in a two-day workshop last summer. The results since then, Graham said, have impressed him.
“Now he has 100 people paying him 99 bucks a month. He did that in four or five months,” Graham said. “From idea to income usually takes longer than that.”
And Wise is doing it all out of Iowa. “He lives in Des Moines, Iowa (by choice),” his book’s back cover reads, “with his wife, Kerry, and their two children.”
Technically, Wise lives in West Des Moines, where he grew up. While a sophomore at Valley High School, he became enamored with its student radio station. He co-hosted a morning show. He fell in love with the 100-watt station’s ability to spread a message to a wide range of people.
“I thought, ‘This is what I want to do.’ ”
Wise graduated with a degree in electronic media from UNI in 2003 but felt unfit for the demands of radio or TV broadcast work. He painted houses for two years and did other odd jobs — his “wilderness,” he calls it — before joining Lutheran Church of Hope as an intern in 2005.
There, Wise — described in a 2006 Des Moines Register article as a “shaggy-haired 25-year-old who wears an earring in each ear and loves techno” — started a ministry focused on talking about Jesus to people at nightclubs. Wise moved on to pastor young adult men in the church who had just graduated and landed first jobs at Wells Fargo or Principal, he said. He noticed something peculiar, for 2006 at least: “I saw firsthand how they communicated,” Wise said. “They keep in touch with each other differently than I do with my friends.”
By differently, Wise was referring to their use of social media. For the young men, church was no longer the primary place for interacting with people from church. Facebook was.
Wise latched on and learned the social platform in its earlier, simpler incarnation. He taught himself other social media as they came along, too, including Twitter. By the time Wise left Hope in 2010, he had taken on a new title and role: digital director.
“At Hope, it was the idea that the church has a message — just like any organization has a message — and that message now can be translated online and have the capacity to connect with way more people than are sitting there on a Sunday morning,” he said. “That parlayed into learning, in a strategic aspect, how to do that.”
Other pastors in the mid-to-late aughts were taking note of social too, like Rhett Smith, a former college pastor at Bel Air Presbyterian Church in California. He noticed Wise on Twitter and eventually met him in person at a church-tech conference in 2008.
Both became known among a handful of influencers in the then-niche world of social media-minded church staffers. They met at conferences and exchanged ideas on Twitter.
“Those people fell away. We went on to do other things,” said Smith, who now works in Texas as a therapist and book author. “Justin really grew his interest and knowledge in that base into something big.”
So big that Smith pointed his editor at Moody Publishing toward Wise’s work online. Which led to “The Social Church.” Which led to top-10 debut on Amazon.com’s “Hot New Releases” list when it came out Feb. 3.
“The majority (of churches) are beginning to see that Facebook just celebrated its 10th birthday. It’s not going away,” Wise said. “Church leaders are establishing their legacy plans, and they’re starting to come to terms that social is going to play a role in that.”