One of the most common questions I’m getting from church leaders in this season is this: “Do we have to embrace digital ministry?”
It’s an honest question. Behind it is a deep desire to turn back the clock to February 2020 before Covid disrupted how churches engage their mission. After that, of course, all of us were forced to shift 100 percent of our ministry strategy online.
In the months since, though, we’ve started to re-introduce physical gatherings. And, if you happen to be in the right place in the country and with the right amount of space to meet your local Covid guidelines, you might be fortunate enough to see anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of your pre-Covid attendance.
But we’ve been wrestling with this question of digital ministry long before the pandemic. If we want to avoid dealing with the digital ministry strategy question, then we can’t just go back to February 2020. We really need to turn back the clock to 1991 before the first website was launched. Or maybe 1998 before we were able to Google our questions.
We can’t blame Covid for the questions we’re facing today regarding digital ministry strategies. That train left the station decades ago. Most of us just tried to ignore it for as long as we could. And now many of us are still trying to avoid it. But the truth is digital ministry is not going away.
In this week’s conversation, Amy Anderson joins me to talk through practical questions around digital ministry strategy including:
- Do we have to embrace digital ministry?
- Does this mean people aren’t coming back to physical gatherings?
- Do we really need to hire different staff people?
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Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we’re exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. There’ve been a lot of questions swirling around about digital ministry strategy. Maybe you’ve heard them. Maybe you’re even asking them. They’re questions like how do we do this? Should we do this? And will people stop coming to church if they get too comfortable with attending church in their pajamas? On today’s podcast, Tony answers 10 of your most pressing questions about digital ministry. Make sure before you listen, though, to subscribe to the show notes in your inbox. Each week, you’ll get one email with the leader conversation guide, all of the resources we’ve mentioned during the episode and access to our podcast resource archive. You can sign up by going to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast. Now let’s join Tony and Amy for this week’s conversation.
Well, Tony I’ve really enjoyed the last two weeks in the podcast as we interviewed the guys from Sun Valley Community Church about their digital engagement strategy. But after talking with them, I was a bit surprised to see this topic pop up in our podcast planning. So here’s the topic for today’s episode. Do we have to embrace digital ministry? (And 10 other questions you’re probably asking, but wish you weren’t). But to our listeners, I don’t get to always know what we’re going to be talking about, so genuinely surprised. So I guess the first place, Tony, to start is with that first question, right? Do churches have to embrace digital ministry?
Yeah, so let’s unpack that for a moment. Again, Amy, the topics that pop up on our podcast outlines here, they’re coming out of the conversations that we’re having. And this is an honest question that I’ve heard from pastors and church leaders in recent months. And I think one of the reasons why we’re hearing the question so often is there’s this deep desire to go back in time before COVID forced us to shift a hundred percent online. And now here we are 12 months later, and people are just tired of zoom. And I know some parts of the U.S. Have re-introduced physical gatherings. We’ve seen that continue to increase, especially in recent weeks, but it’s not uncommon for us to hear that churches are at 30 to 50% of their pre-COVID attendance. So here’s the challenge. Not everyone is ready to get back to physical gatherings. In fact, I was reading just last week, an American Psychological Association Survey. This is their quote: “Nearly half of Americans, 49%, said that they feel uneasy about adjusting to in-person interaction once the pandemic ends, and adults who received a COVID-19 vaccine are actually just as likely as those who have not received a vaccine to say that they’re concerned about this.” It was only 48% versus 49% of people who were vaccinated that said they’re concerned about in-person interactions.
That just kind of makes me sad.
Well, it does. Yeah, but it’s the reality of the world that we’re living in as of today.
Right? So at least for now it doesn’t seem like churches can abandon their digital strategies.
Yeah, that’s correct. And so what people forget is we’ve been wrestling with this question though about embracing digital ministry well before COVID. In fact, if we wanted to avoid the entire digital ministry conversation, we can’t just go back to February 2020. We probably need to go back to 1991, which is when the first website launched, or at least back to 1998, when we were able to first start to Google all of our questions in life, or maybe we could go back to 2004. That’s when we were able to start finding our friends on Facebook. 2005, we could go back then. That’s when we started to post all of our videos on YouTube. And so that’s when in-person gatherings and online gatherings really started to compete with each other maybe. Or we could go back to 2007. That’s when Apple put all of this content in the palm of our hand. Isn’t that unbelievable, through the iPhone. So again, this conversation about, do we have to be digital or not? We can’t just go back to a year ago. We actually have to go back many years ago because that’s when digital online content was first introduced. And so whether we want to admit it or not, as churches we’ve been competing with that for many, many years. We can’t blame COVID for the questions that we’re facing today regarding digital ministry strategies. That train left the station decades ago. But most of us have tried to ignore it for as long as we could, but now many of us are trying still trying to avoid it. And Amy it’s just, it’s not going to go away.
Well, related to this question about whether or not churches have to engage a digital strategy, you recently shared about changes that were happening with the lead team at Best Buy. And I’m not sure what Best Buy has to do with churches, but will you help us understand why we need to pay attention to those trends?
Yeah. So I read this Wall Street Journal article about the changes that are happening at Best Buy, and it was just fascinating because what the article indicated was sales at best buy were up 23% in the third quarter of 2020. So here we are in the middle of a global pandemic, and Best Buy is experiencing a 23% increase in sales. But at the same time that they’re seeing this increase, it said the article indicated that even though business is good, they’re cutting jobs and reducing hours. So, you know, I just I’m thinking if sales are up, why are you cutting jobs at this point? But early in the pandemic Best Buy had to close all its stores, just like most of our churches had to close their buildings, but you could still buy things online and use curbside pickup. But by last summer, best buy stores had reopened. And unlike churches, by that point, there were very few limitations for customers who wanted to go to the store and shop rather than shopping online. So a physical experience was possible at Best Buy, unlike at some of our churches, this past summer. But even with that option, online sales tripled after their stores reopened. So I mean, what we’ve experienced over the last month, again, is just accelerating what they’re experiencing with their online strategy. This was the telling quote that jumped out from me from this article. So this is from a Best Buy spokesperson, and I think it’s a he, I think he said this, “As we have said before, customer shopping behavior will be permanently changed in a way that is even more digital. Our workforce will need to evolve to meet the evolving needs of customers while providing more flexible opportunities for our people.” So, no. As churches, we are not in the electronics business. However, I fully expect that the way in which people interact with our churches will be permanently changed in a way that will be even more digital going forward. And our staff and our volunteer teams will need to evolve to meet the evolving needs of people in our congregations and the people we’re trying to reach as well. And by the way, talking about Best Buy. They are in the process of hiring 1000 engineers, data scientists, and other technology staff over the next two years. They’re reducing jobs in their store environments, while at the same time, they’re adding jobs to support their online shopping experience. So this is the pivot that Best Buy is making.
And Tony, I think that’s what we’ve been challenging churches to consider as well as we get to the staffing and structure part of our engagement. Most churches really can’t afford to just add staff for digital ministry. Although they need to, they can’t just add the staff for their digital ministry. And because of that, we’ve been asking churches, where can you reduce staff in your physical ministry environments so that they can add staff to support their digital ministry strategy? The bottom line. It sounds like you think churches have to embrace digital ministry going forward.
Yes, that’s very, very true. Yeah.
All right. Well that leads us to the 10 other questions related to digital ministry that you’re probably asking about.
This is going to be a long episode, Amy.
We’re going to do it a little rapid fire if that’s all right with you. Okay. All right. So number one, does this mean the church needs to mimic the business world?
Absolutely not. Of course. We get to fulfill the great commission. We’re not selling televisions and phones and things like that. But we’re called to do that in today’s world. Not the world of the 1980s. Though don’t you, Amy? Don’t you want to go back to the 1980s?
When you said 1991 for, I think, it was websites. I’m like, “Oh, I got married that year. How old am I?”
Yeah, the people we’re trying to reach today are engaging life in both a physical and a digital world. That is our mission field. That’s the mission field we’re trying to reach as churches. And I’m just, I’m actually humbled by the opportunity that we have to be on mission for God for such a time as this. I mean, this is our moment. And I’m just so I’m so thrilled that we get to engage our mission field today in both that physical and digital world.
Yeah. All right. Question two. Does that mean people aren’t going to come back to physical gatherings?
Not at all. I think many of us will continue to gather in church buildings and in people’s homes. I mean, there’s a part of us, we want to be with other people. We need that interaction with other people. Even those of us that are introverts need those relational connections. So I don’t think physical gatherings are going away.
All right. Will people keep showing up for the teaching?
Well, here, I think the answer is fewer and fewer people will show up for the teaching. I mean, churches won’t be able to compete with that online option that’s available if it’s just about the content itself. I mean, it’s just too easy to find world-class content online without having to get in my car and drive across town to consume that content. So if it’s just about the teaching, then I think fewer and fewer people will show up for that.
For the in-person gathering?
So are you saying that we should avoid putting your teaching content online?
Well, that’s your choice. But avoiding it is not going to encourage people to show up at your church. It’s going to encourage people to find another teaching option online. The data, and again, the data we were collecting even before COVID reflected this. We surveyed more than 175 churches back in 2019. That was only a couple of years ago, but it feels like forever ago now. And we found out that growing churches are more likely to share video content through live streaming, on demand, YouTube, Vimeo, and so on. Specifically, these are the numbers. 85% of growing churches were sharing video content online compared to only 49% of declining churches. And so I know it was kind of a myth out there that if we put our content online, streaming or otherwise, then people are not going to show up to our services, but the data indicates otherwise. And so, no, if I were you, I would discourage you from avoiding putting your teaching content online.
So then why would people show up for a physical gathering?
Again, Amy, I think it’s primarily because we, deep down we need to engage with people that we know. So I won’t drive across town to consume the same content that I can find online, but I will drive across town to be with my friends, which again means we need to help people move from just showing up to a service to actually connecting with others in smaller groups and in smaller teams. I mean, that’s how we find our friends. And when that friendship develops, we’re going to be more inclined then, obviously, to connect in physical gatherings going forward.
Do you think that’s the only reason why people will prefer a physical gathering?
No, actually right behind that, I think there will be a desire to be part of an experience that we can’t get online. In other words, this is where I think the church needs to revisit its commitment to the arts and the experiences that we’re creating in our services. And Amy, we’ve talked about this on occasion over the last number of years, but I actually think creativity in the church has waned over the last 20 years of my time in ministry. Do you agree with that?
Absolutely. And I think, you know, with my experience in a multi-site church, we were so much more creative when we were smaller than when we had to find creative things that would work at every campus, but it has just continued to step down, like we’ve lost that creative edge in the church.
Yeah. So, I think, hearing the same worship song performed over and over again is not going to compel people to show up to a physical gathering. Though I will say this. I was able to go back to my church for the first time in many, many months just recently. And it was so good to finally feel the music again. I can hear the music. I can experience that online, but I can’t feel the music. So Amy, any other thoughts around this? I mean, I know this is the world you lived in for many years. Any other thoughts you have here?
I just think that music and creative in-person elements can really be a differentiator and a big draw to get people onto the campus again. Like you’re saying, I can watch concerts on TV. You know, I’ve watched the Eagles one several times. I can watch Cirque de Soleil specials. And they’re amazing, but it’s completely different when you’re in the room experiencing those things. There’s something that happens, especially in music, worship music, that when the body sings together, that you just, I don’t think we’ll ever really feel that watching on a computer. So I would just love to see… Pastors out there, I would love to see this creative resurgence in the church because three songs and a message is just so, so predictable.
Yeah. We have to get back to where we’re creating those moments again, where it feels like if we’re not in the room, we’re missing something.
That’s right. Okay. Next question. Tony, what about the older people related to digital ministry?
I think you’re asking that question because it’s the assumption that old people don’t use the internet or they don’t have smart phones. But you need to stop that if that’s what you’re thinking. I mean, that’s such a 2005 argument. My mom can out Facebook you any day of the week. I mean, she’s watching three different online services every Sunday. She’s participating in an online Bible study. If you have older people in your church, you better have a digital ministry strategy, or frankly, they’re probably going to find another church that can serve those needs in their spiritual journey as well.
Tony, my mom is 86, and we’ve got her set up on the iPhone and the Apple Watch and all that. And so she often replies to my messages via her Apple Watch. And I reached out the other day and she said, I’m in a meeting. She chose by accident one of those automated responses. I laughed. I’m like, well, call me when you’re done. But she is a great example. She has just embraced technology, and she can out shop anyone on the technology. All right. What about the people without the internet? You brought it up. What about those people?
Yeah, I mean, honestly, that’s a fair question because I do know that there are rural parts of the country that don’t have access to high-speed internet. One of our teammates actually just moved to a very rural area, and they’re struggling to get high-speed internet to that area. But so to some extent, you’ve been shielded from having to deal with developing a digital ministry strategy because your community isn’t actively living their lives online there yet. But here’s the challenge for you. Within the next year, even rural communities are going to have access to high-speed internet. And if you think I’m lying about that, you do need to do a little bit of research. Both SpaceX, that’s one of Elon Musk’s companies, and Amazon are kind of in this competition now where they’re trying to, as quickly as possible, offer high speed internet through satellites. And so it’s pretty amazing how quickly that technology’s evolving. And even the rural parts of our world are going to have high speed internet.
That is fascinating.
It is, it really is.
There are some smart people in the world. All right, Switching gears a little bit. Do we really need to hire different staff people? This is a big question. Do we really need to hire different staff people?
Yeah. So Amy, I’m going to give my answer, but you work on staffing so often, I want you to have an opportunity to just to react to what I’m about to share. The answer to that question in my mind is absolutely yes. The people on your team now were hired because they know how to build teams. They know how to leverage physical ministry environments to help people take their next steps toward Jesus. That’s a good thing. We still need people with that type of giftedness on our team, but unless you have unlimited resources, you will likely need to prune that team to free up financial resources to hire the people who know how to build teams and leverage digital ministry environments to help people take their next steps toward Jesus. It’s a different skill set. There’s no doubt about it. And smaller churches who can’t hire more staff, well, guess what? You need to find new volunteers who can help you in this area. I mean, you’re not off the hook here. There are opportunities, and this is the best time ever for the church to find volunteers in our church that have some of the skillset as well. So, Amy, that’s my perspective. What’s your perspective on the staffing question?
Well, I’ll just play the movie forward. If we don’t get some people who can help us be really effective with our digital ministry strategy, we will really stop the reaching of new people. We need to make sure that’s the first step anyone takes. We often talk about the spiritual engagement journey, but if we aren’t moving not interested people to spiritually curious, and the spiritually curious to become a believer, we don’t have any ministry. So that’s just gotta be, I often call it the lead goose, right? When geese fly in a V formation, that lead goose is the one that’s gotta be healthy and strong so that all the other ministry can draft behind that. So, yes, and I know it’s hard, and that’s a real thing, but I’ve been encouraging a lot of my churches, let’s just take a step back in the current context. If we had to start over, you know, how would we build out our positions? What would their responsibilities be? Who are the key owners of each of the major strategies? Now what do we have to prune to make this happen? Not just people, but what ministry do we have to prune so that we can get the right resources in the right place?
That’s good, Amy.
Well, Tony, that was actually only nine questions. Normally I would ask you at this point if you had any final thoughts to wrap up today’s conversation? Instead, let me ask you this more specific 10th question. Does The Unstuck Group help churches make this transition to embrace digital ministry?
Yeah, so yes we do. And we’ve been helping churches with this transition for a number of years, but we’ve certainly increased that focus in the last 12 months. And right now, we’re working with churches of less than 500 when it comes to their digital strategy. And we’re working with churches well over 10,000 in attendance as they develop their next steps around what they’re going to do online, to help them move their ministry forward. So if you’re interested, we’d love to help you with this as well. And you can reach out to us at theunstuckgroup.com.
Well, thanks for joining us for today’s conversation on the podcast. And like Tony mentioned, if you’re sensing that your church could use a clear plan in digital strategy, both to reach new people and help everyone grow as disciples, we’d love to help. We’ve partnered with dozens of churches over the past year to help them clarify their plan. And if you’re interested in learning more about how your church can thrive online, visit us at theunstuckgroup.com/digital. Next week, we’re back with another brand new episode. So until then, have a great week.