Our short attention culture demands a time-boxed and carefully choreographed worship service akin to “fast food”. Yet making church more “convenient” by improving physical facilities while utilizing them less hasn’t been a solid financial, operating or discipleship model. The days of Sunday School before worship and fellowship lunches afterward are long gone. Businesses and service providers adapted to culture by diverting energy to more efficient and effective online options for training employees, reaching out to consumers and empowering brand advocates – 24×7. The corollary for churches would have been web-based discipleship for members (i.e. Kingdom “employees”), digital compassion-oriented outreach to the unchurched (i.e. prospective “consumers”) and online evangelism tools (i.e. “advocates” for Jesus) – all week long.
Yet even the most innovative churches have implemented a small fraction of the digital capabilities available to them – and only those supporting a definition of churchgoers as the “consumers” rather than as the embodiment of “church”. Streaming a weekly service, a web site, online giving and e-newsletters are primarily geared toward growing and sustaining the institution, not building and deploying disciples.
The past few months have revealed the digital divide between churches and most other facets of our society. Lower-cost channels have long been available for churches to engage existing members, reach more people and impact the community between Sundays. The world has gone digital – for good reason. People want to plug in to dynamic content anytime, anywhere. They want to run a quick search and find out what they need to know in an instant. They want to stay in touch remotely with those they don’t have time to travel to go see – through FaceTime, WhatsApp or Zoom. But churches don’t accommodate many of those evolving needs, still keeping everyone on their own rigid weekend schedules.
The Digital Alarm Clock
The forced migration to online channels during the pandemic has exposed the weakness of the Church’s near-exclusive brick-and-mortar orientation. Commercial real estate is likely to suffer post-pandemic because companies in many industries have realized the benefits of remote workforces. Likewise, many churchgoers have realized the benefits of tuning into any church they want to experience – those with a better quality of music and more dynamic speakers. The downsides of focus on sustaining a physical building rather than innovating in discipleship, compassion and evangelism have been apparent during Coronavirus. When churchgoers were relegated to their homes and couldn’t invite friends to the building, most were too concerned with self-preservation and ill-equipped to share their faith with their neighbors. Now we’re learning that nearly 1/3 of practicing Christians in America did not stream online church services in August (Barna). Those facts make it all the more surprising that the primary emphasis of church consultants and technology vendors remains providing high-quality worship services online.
COVID-19 could have been a wake-up call to a Church that was already in decline in growth, impact, influence and public perception. Instead what we’re likely to see is simply a shift from a Walmart “store” experience to a web-based Amazon option. Do We Really Want Church to Return to Normal or does the Post-Pandemic Church need revival? For example, studies report the challenges churches are having reaching Gen Z, who are glued to their phones and tablets, expecting interactions and messaging measured in milliseconds on Snapchat or TikTok. Driving to a building on a weekly basis to sit through a sermon they could find in bite-sized chunks on the web is of little interest to most high school or college students who are aging out of youth group. Investing in improving facilities is a poor use of capital for churches who would like to access future generations.
Instead there’s a tremendous opportunity right now to expand God’s Kingdom through web-based multiplication instead of terrestrial addition. The key to seeing the big picture is asking the right questions, not based on conventional wisdom around how churches should operate, but bold enough to think outside the proverbial box…
- Not “How can we keep momentum going if fewer show up on Sundays?” but “How can we equip members to be more effective for Christ wherever they are throughout the week?”
- Not “How can we keep people from leaving and window shopping elsewhere?” but “How can we extend the church’s reach to more people who don’t know the Lord?”
- Not “How can we use online capabilities to transition people from Crowd to Community to Core?” but “How can we build online capabilities to practice Agape love better within our congregation?”
- Not “How can we leverage our production capacity to turn this into a growth opportunity?” but “How can we leverage online tools to demonstrate God’s love to a hurting world?”
The first set of questions seeks to take advantage of digital to maintain the status quo and ensure the institution’s survival, while the second considers how digital could open new doors for Kingdom impact.
Digital: The Great Equalizer
The average church has 125 members, unable to match the facilities and entertainment value megachurches can offer in children’s ministries, music and high-profile speakers. The high cost of operating Church as We Know It (CAWKI) – seminaries, structures, staff and sermons – create economies of scale that benefit larger churches. The debt, fixed costs and overhead tied to those investments entraps and ensnares them in order to keep the machine running. Many of the thousands of churches I’ve worked with over the past 20 years delayed local missions work until after building campaigns – and then often never got back around to it. Earthly obligations can inhibit heavenly ministry.
The playing field suddenly equals when reach and impact are not determined by the size of a building or the number of people on staff. Smaller churches can “compete” with megachurches in discipleship, evangelism and compassion through web-based channels – appearing much bigger than they actually are. Pastors who have something important to say aren’t constrained by physical facilities. In fact, if young kids can produce YouTube videos that are viewed by millions, a 75 member church can certainly create content of comparable quality. With some creativity, any church leader can lead an unlimited number of women, men and children within and outside its “4 walls” into a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ. Knocking the walls down clears the path to making and empowering disciples who personify “church” so that we don’t repeat the mistake of recent history – seeing faithful churchgoers miss opportunities to live out prayer, care and share with their neighbors.
Rethinking “Online” Church
America’s churches stand at a crossroads. The vast majority instituted or beefed up online worship service capabilities but are praying COVID-19 will end quickly so they can return to the only version of church they ever knew. Those less myopic see this as a “wilderness” moment, pushing pause at an already perilous time for the Church, inviting leaders to reroute toward a better future. The pandemic is a chance to redefine “church” around people and not a place, which will require a radical shift in priorities more aligned with Kingdom goals than institutional survival. It will call for a significant reallocation of church budgets, although overall expenditures will go down as emphasis transitions from buildings and weekend services to more efficient and effective means of equipping and empowering congregations all week long. No aspect of CAWKI should be left untouched – reconsidering how churches communicate, connect, convene and collaborate – and taking advantage of today’s increasingly digital culture…
- Depth – Self-paced studies and journaling that go well beyond (and apply) sermons
- Men’s ministry – Online content and forums that engage men in 1-on-1 or triad discipleship
- Women’s ministry – Dedicated social networking channels enabling ladies to share and discuss relevant content from pastors, publications or Pinterest
- Young adults – Short, engaging content (e.g. email devotionals) every week for college students and recent grads
- House churches – Conduct leadership classes, launch outposts and equip with digital curriculum
- Testimonies – Encourage members to share their testimonies with friends on Facebook
- Children’s ministry – Produce short, impactful clips for kids through their preferred apps (e.g. TikTok, YouTube) and online parenting classes
- Missions – Connect weekly with missionaries across the globe for encouragement and updates
- Platform – Pastors create video and written content to build a “following” through multiple channels, increasing the church’s breadth and reach
- Small groups – Convert small groups to neighborhood groups that are intentional about praying, caring and sharing Christ with their communities
- Inside Congregation – Meet The Need is starting beta tests of an Artificial Intelligence app that forms loving circles of support to wrap around families in need
- Outside Congregation – Meet The Need built Love Your Neighbor after COVID-19 closed church doors to enable members to post and communicate needs of their neighbors to the church body
- Generosity/Finances – Fewer building campaigns and more digital delivery frees up dollars for community impact, but only a Generous Church will redirect those dollars toward compassion
We’ll soon know whether churches revert to centralized (i.e. “Invite, Involve and Invest”) growth models where members are treated as “customers”. We pray instead they’ll choose to implement many of the above recommendations.
It’s Your Turn…
Has your church moved beyond online worship services and considered how digital channels could open the door to greater depth and breadth, even for a small congregation?