Covid has been like a mission trip.
We thought we were going on a short-term trip to a place that felt foreign.
We got there, and had to immediately learn some new languages and methods.
Turns out, this is becoming more like a long-term mission assignment. And since arriving in this digital Babylon (credit to David Kinnaman), we have been reaching people we never thought possible. It has actually led us to a stronger, more relevant and durable way of doing ministry with analog tools, digital tools, and everything in between.
For many leaders, the conversation around technology in ministry is relatively new. And not always welcome. Consider three postures that a leader might take when facing the possibility of innovation in the local church:
- Some leaders get excited at the thought of trying something new.
- Some leaders will try something new if they must (a good pandemic always helps).
- Some leaders will refuse to adjust methods no matter the circumstance.
Each leader has followers who take a similar posture, which usually enhances the confirmation bias of the leader. This makes it difficult to form a measured, objective opinion about how and whether to adopt the new method. All three postures can produce benefit or harm if taken to an extreme.
It's about change, not technology.
The debate about technology’s role in the church has ranged from wineskins and a torn curtain to pipe organs, radio, and streaming video. With each advance, church leaders have had to grapple not only with the new medium, but also with the implications on power, ministry, and trust.
In many ways Christianity owes its global spread to the work of people powered by technology. In fact, a sense of curiosity among Spirit-led pioneers of the past led us to adopt innovative technology for the work of the church. The implications were often positive, though often not fully anticipated. Consider:
- The printing press enabled not just Scripture distribution, but also increased literacy rates and changing roles in the church. It also changed the understanding of “prophets, priests, and kings,” which eventually led to full-scale reformation.
- Broadcast technology allows God’s Word to transcend borders, even into closed countries. It also enabled the rise of large-scale revival, and personality-driven ministry. This made possible the rise of the megachurch in the late 20th century.
- The combination of streaming media, video conferencing, and data-informed ministry made ministry possible during the Covid-19 pandemic. Quite literally, it was the lifeline that kept churches connected and, in some cases, made the decision between survival or closure.
Leaders who recognize the possibility of the moment are the ones who can smartly make new technology a tactic in their ministry strategy.
Are we in an awakening?
We are in a watershed moment for the Church. In a recent interview, James Emery White (pastor at Mecklenburg Community Church) shared this with me: “I think the pandemic may have just saved the church in many ways. It got us out of a Sunday/weekend-centric approach. It forced us online and into social media, it also made us open to change, being creative when we were not creative before, and open to innovation. It also got us back down to raw mission–what is our mission? You add all of that up, and it is dangerously close to an awakening.”
Here are 12 key trends that have emerged so far this year. I believe every leader needs to critically evaluate whether these are true in each local context, and if so… how to respond.
1. Attendance is Officially Dead
By most estimates, the average family attended church between 1.2 and 1.7 times each month in 2019. The reasons for this vary, but it really messed with attendance numbers. Do you have average weekly attendance of 500? That could really mean you are reaching as many as 750 or 1000 people, just not all on the same week. Sporadic attendance patterns also make engagement models tough.
So, we had a problem with regular attendance. Then Covid hit.
Our buildings shut down, so attendance crashed to zero right? Well in many cases, pastors actually watched digital engagement increase at the very moment that physical attendance became impossible.
Then we entered phases of the numbers dilemma:
- Tuning in: Digital viewership soared (we think)
- Church surfing: many people viewed sermons, devotionals, music, and content from more than one source
- Re-opening surprise: as churches opened their doors again, only 35% of people came back
- Habit change: it's looking like many folks will permanently opt for a more digital (or at least hybrid) model for engaging with the church.
What does “attendance” even mean anymore? Counting people in a blended physical/digital environment is challenging. Churches desperately need new ways to not just get an accurate number, but to know who they're reaching.
At Gloo, we've been talking to a number of churches about this problem, and they've helped us develop some early solutions such as the new Insights+ suite of tools. It's now possible for any pastor to know how many people are interacting with the church online, and to see the human side of the numbers. What are the demographics? How are marriages and relationships? What are the deepest spiritual needs in the communities I serve?
Rather than counting attendance, churches should start counting engagements and outcomes in the people they serve.
2. People (yes, even older ones) will learn technology if they have a good reason
Here's something that shocked us at my church during the quarantine. We had the highest level of Zoom participation in our Boomer groups and older. And although these folks were all-too-glad to get back to face-to-face fellowship, they've now seen that technology can work, and can help them maintain connection with people.
More broadly, according to a new Barna study, millennials have actually been more likely to stop engaging with church during Covid, compared to Boomers and Elders.
Pastors should consider technology-based solutions for effective ministry for the whole church, not just for the younger generations. Your middle and older generations may actually thank you for it.
3. Kids still need age-appropriate ways to learn and engage
What has been one of the most stressful parts of quarantine? For parents, it's trying to juggle daily responsibilities while keeping kids occupied.
What has been one of the biggest impediments to engaging with church, including watching the weekend streaming service? It's the fact that kids don't like it. And for those churches who have been doing virtual kids' ministry, many have been trying to combine several grades together so they can all watch together. This can result in a watered-down or too-young programming that the older kids will tune out.
Try thinking more strategically about engaging kids online, such as:
- For middle and high-school students, schedule your digital programming sometime other than Sunday morning. They likely aren't awake anyway.
- Segment younger elementary from older elementary. Fourth grade is probably a good cutoff; the older kids will likely lose interest in the songs and message if it feels like they're targeting the little kids.
- Kids crave community and like to learn when it's fun. Try using various online tools such as YouVersion plans (groups can read together), Journey Studio to develop age-appropriate growth plans with a facilitator, or other learning tools like Kahoot for live quizzes on the material.
- Since you're not spending money on snacks and stage props, invest in some tangible books, curriculum, swag, or other items you can physically send to every kid's home. They'll be excited to get mail and much more likely to tune in digitally when they have the materials you sent.
- Don’t forget the kids without phones and tablets. Some of them might be able to watch a YouTube video on a computer or complete a hands-on study lesson and then send it to a friend.
4. Our buildings and budgets need to change
Leaders may never get a better opportunity to scrutinize every budget line. As you consider re-opening and adding back programs, ask:
“What does this enable us to do?”
“Does this help us accomplish our mission?”
“How can we measure the success of this program?”
“What should this program look like if we want to serve both our physical and digital communities?”
“Is our church the best one to create or own this program, or should we curate/partner with the work of another organization?”
Every dollar you free up from old, outdated programs is a dollar you can now invest in reaching people in ways that are culturally relevant, measurable, and effective.
5. There is hope for the exhausted pastor
This year has probably been the hardest leadership environment we've seen. Here are just some of the heavy, mind-crushing decisions that pastors have been asked to make:
- Should I close my building?
- How do I set up streaming?
- Should I re-open my building?
- How can I address racial equality in a way that is helpful?
- Should we close again?
- What if our government imposes rules on us that violate scripture?
At every turn, many leaders approached these decisions with a rigorous, careful process that included many voices and data. Yet some pastors resorted to an isolated, gut-feel decision-making process that left them wondering (maybe deep down) if they were making the right call. This is exhausting.
Healthy leaders are a prerequisite to a healthy organization. Operating for an extended period has taught us that using data to make decisions is very freeing. You'll never have 100% of the information to make any decision. But when you have more of the information you need:
- Your decisions will consider a wider range of factors
- You will reduce your blind spots
- You will be better able to defend your decision to critics (you'll always have at least one)
- You can stop guessing
The best tool of the Covid season, from my perspective, has been church-specific assessments. Asking your people for input on everything from face masks to job loss and financial disruption to protesting racial injustice has helped thousands of churches know their people better so they could make more informed decisions. And Gloo offers a wide range of these assessments for free.
Every church should be in the habit of checking in with people both physically and online; it's one of the easiest ways to take the burden off the shoulders of a pastor and let the Holy Spirit, wise counsel, and objective data guide the decision.
6. Knowing people has never been easier
There's no replacement for face-to-face. But does that mean digital is impersonal? Quite the opposite. Here's what one pastor told me in April:
“I was a critic of digital ministry until we were forced to switch. I'm completely converted. The quality and depth of the conversations I'm having with people online is incredible. Never have I been able go so personal, so quickly as I am right now. People are willing to share very personal things with me that they would never talk about in our building.”
Not only can personal interactions be surprisingly intimate online, but it's also now possible to know more than ever before about your community, and your engaged audiences (whether online or physically present). Churches are using macro-level information to learn things such as:
- What are the demographics of the communities I serve?
- Are the marriages in my church healthier now, compared to a year ago?
- How many people are visiting our website for a 1st, 2nd, or 3rd week in a row?
- What are the spiritual postures of people in different neighborhoods nearby?
These questions and many more can be answered and can lead to incredible ministry opportunities. Churches can attract, get, keep, grow, and multiply people more effectively now than in any prior time period.
7. Digital is diverse in every way
You don't need a big budget to leverage digital tools. In fact, congregations from the inner city to the suburbs are finding creative ways to reach more people than ever before. What's working? It's not slick production, fancy lights or multi-camera setups. Those are nice-to-haves.
What reaches people is authenticity.
A pastor recording a 3-minute honest comment on a smartphone can touch people in places where a 30-minute sermon cannot.
Further, digital pathways provide the means for any congregation to reach any individual–crossing the lines of ethnicity, community and social station.
Pastor Samuel Rodriguez told me, “The digital platform is multi-ethnic. It's not like there are groups left behind. It's multi-ethnic, multi-generational, and it becomes our primary faucet for disseminating the Gospel.”
8. Digital is both gathered and scattered, and it's neither
Is small group still small group when it's over video? Does virtual prayer still count? Can a person grow spiritually in a community that interacts through screens?
Hang in there, I'm not saying that Matthew 18:20 is irrelevant. But what if “where two or three are gathered” could extend to new definitions of “gathered?” Could God still move through pixels?
Things you can only do in person:
- Face to face fellowship
- Corporate worship
- Community care and outreach
- Local ministry
Things you can only do online:
- Targeted communication
- Data-informed leadership
- Measuring growth over time
Things can actually be better with a blend of analog and digital:
- Bible teaching
- Leader Development
9. People may not be looking for church, but they are looking for answers.
There are 5 core areas of human flourishing, and our world is disrupted in all of them.
Research on Google Trends reveals that each of these topics has experienced spikes in traffic since March 2020 (health and money are the leaders). If your church is preaching scripture, then you have something to offer your community in all of these areas! The question is, will you be able to reach these people in new ways?
Reaching people through an area of their lives with acute need (see the list above) can lead to gospel conversations, spiritual formation, and deeper discipleship opportunities. This applies in person, and it applies online. This is your moment to think about how to be a more externally focused church.
10. The fields are ripe
Is the world hurting right now? You bet. Is your community in need of gospel-centered love, restoration, teaching, and truth? Absolutely. Are they finding it in church buildings? Not so much.
The gospel message is not tied to any one delivery mechanism, and regardless of medium, it never returns void (Isaiah 55:11). As many are hearing the groans of a broken world in need of a savior, the gospel message is more needed now than ever. And people are responding online!
Terry Storch, Digerati Pastor at Life.Church, shared a breathtaking statistic with me after our first all-digital Easter. Across the thousands of churches that interact with the Church Online Platform that his team manages, they saw 75,000 people indicate a first-time decision (online) to accept Jesus Christ as savior on Easter alone. Praise God for the technology to reach people who need to hear the Good News.
We must hold each other accountable to evangelize. Not later, but right now. By any means available to us.
If your church is solely using its online presence as a content delivery channel for existing members, you are missing the bigger opportunity to reach and win souls. Whether it's neighborhood evangelism, Google ad campaigns, or any form of social media outreach, there are countless creative ways that you and your congregation can reach people right now.
11. New technology makes discipleship more accessible and measurable
There are rich and effective tools available to draw each person forward on their spiritual journey. One of our core tenets that Gloo acknowledges is that relationships catalyze growth. Intimate, life-on-life discipleship often involves in-person connections (as it should), but we can leverage additional tools in the process. Not just as an alternative, but to enrich the personal connection!
Have you ever used a personal trainer or a nutritional coach? These relationships work. Using a trainer/coach helps me reach my goal because I am combining a relationship with the right steps, and we can measure the result. Your discipling process might look slightly different but should mirror this sequence for the most part.
Effective discipleship ministries are leveraging tools to equip their people to disciple each other effectively. These might include:
- Bible app
- Videos, books, and resources from networks, denominations, or other movements
- Discipleship apps such as One 2 One, LifeCoach, or Blue Book/Green Book
- A comprehensive growth step delivery platform such as the Gloo Journey Studio, which lets you create a custom plan for any person or group, deliver it in the context of a discipling relationship, and measure the results
12. Waiting for the other shoe to drop is a bad strategy
The church has adopted new tools before—with significant consequences. Consider things we take for granted now such as printed Bibles, musical instruments, buildings with climate control, websites, online giving, and live streaming.
Every leader has a choice on whether to keep pushing forward. Sometimes that means doing the same thing for a while. Sometimes that means trying new things. I get it.
We're tired of disruption. Tired of pivots. Tired of hearing about the “new normal.” But a big reason we're tired is that we're in uncharted territory, and it's hard to keep guessing at what's coming next.
Change involves curiosity. Sacrifice. And often, getting outside your comfort zone.
Don’t wait for the world to throw your church another curveball. You can be more prepared for what’s next if you continually seek ways to reach people no matter the landscape. The future of the local church will be shaped by how we handle the digital opportunity now.
Brad Hill is a senior executive leader at Gloo. Based in Boulder, CO, Gloo is a technology company built on a passion for personal growth and transforming lives. By connecting an innovative suite of products and resources for church leaders, Gloo supports a trusted platform that helps church leaders know and move every person they serve. You can learn more at gloo.us.
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