October 7, 2020

Best Practices for Digital Ministry Strategy – Episode 163 | The Unstuck Church Podcast


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The New Front Door of the Church (Part 3)

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If you ask 10 pastors to define “digital engagement,” you’re likely to get 10 different answers. The interpretation can seem vague, confusing, and sometimes just impractical.

And while we’re finding few churches are very far along in developing an effective strategy, there are some who are already out in front, leading the way, and finding best practices.

So in this episode, Amy and I wanted to share some of those best practices and stories from real churches who are implementing a digital engagement strategy.

I think you’re going to find some practical things you can implement right away, as well as clarity around the longer-term picture of where your church needs to make pivots.

Before you listen, note that this is Part 3 of this series on The New Front Door, so if you haven’t yet, go back and listen to the first part (Episode 161) on the three strategies churches need for connecting new people to faith and church, and the second part (Episode 162) on how churches build a digital engagement strategy.

I want to reiterate that digital strategies aren’t the only way to help people along their spiritual journey, but they are a key component in our new reality.

In this episode, Amy and I share…

  • Why you shouldn’t rush out to hire an Online Campus pastor right now—and what your first step SHOULD be
  • 6 specific components of your digital strategy you need to prioritize (make sure you’re subscribed to get the Podcast Show Notes via email… we’re including a printable this week to help you share this with your team)
  • Stories and examples from 5 real churches (Connexus Church, Grace Church, Crossroads, Westside Community Church and Sun Valley Community Church), and the good things we’re catching them doing with digital strategy
  • Why you—as the lead pastor—can’t lead the charge on developing and implementing this new strategy… and why that is a good thing
The days of hoping unchurched people will watch our full online church services are over. That won't be our primary model for reaching new people going forward. #unstuckchurch [episode 163] Click to Tweet It's not wrong to have an online service as part of your digital ministry strategy, but that's not the only thing you need. #unstuckchurch [episode 163] Share on X

Leader Conversation Guide

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Our Show Notes subscribers get a PDF download that recaps the episode content and includes a discussion guide you can print out and use at an upcoming meeting.

AND this week we’re also sharing a link to Connexus Church’s eBook on Experiencing God Personally so you can see an example of a content offer that’s working in a real church.

Opt-in here and get the Leader Conversation Guide for this episode, as well as access to the archive.

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You can follow me @tonymorganlive and The Unstuck Group @unstuckgroup. If Facebook is where you spend your time, I’m there, too.

Links & Resources from the Episode

Strategic Planning for Digital Ministry

Your weekend experience is no longer the front door of your church—

digital ministry is.

It’s time to shift away from defining your digital ministry strategies as putting your services online and to start thinking about how to really connect with people outside the church and the faith, and how to better engage with people who are already connected to your church. We can help. Let’s talk.

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Sean (00:02):

Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, each week we’re exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. If you ask 10 pastors what digital engagement means, you’re likely to get 10 different answers. The interpretation can seem vague, confusing and sometimes it’s just impractical. So how does digital engagement actually play out in the local church? On today’s podcast, Tony and Amy will share some of the best practices and stories from real churches who are implementing a digital engagement strategy. Before you listen today, though, make sure you’re subscribing to get the show notes every week. You’ll get one email with resources to go along with that week’s content, our leader conversation guide, access to our podcast resource archive and bonus resources that you’re not going to find anywhere else. Just go to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast and subscribe. Now let’s join Tony and Amy for this week’s conversation.

Amy (00:55):

In today’s episode, we’re going to be diving into some best practices that we’re seeing around the digital engagement strategies that churches are using to connect with people outside the church and outside the faith, and Tony, before we unpack some of these best practices, why is this topic so critical for churches today?

Tony (01:13):

Yeah, well, it’s critical for churches because we’re trying to reach new people online and we’re being, I hate to say this, we’re being kind of pushed into this. No doubt about it. I mean, COVID has forced all of us to be spending more time at home, more time online, more time making decisions online, more time making purchases online. In fact, I just saw Amazon is adding a hundred thousand employees due to just the increase in demand.

Amy (01:42):

Wow, I believe that.

New Speaker (01:42):

People shopping on Amazon. A few of those boxes have showed up at the Morgan house, too in recent months, for sure. I mean, this is something we saw pre-COVID, obviously, that people were engaging more online, but COVID is definitely accelerating this trend. And because more people are staying home, we’re also more isolated, unfortunately, and I know, it’s out of necessity, but we’re more isolated from neighbors, our coworkers, the parents at the ball fields that we used to hang out, wherever we used to have our social gatherings. And we were just talking about this even before our recording today, Amy, we’re having to be careful. I mean, we want to protect our family members and things like that. So we’re just more isolated. And the challenge for churches with that is that I found pre-COVID, the number one way that people showed up to church for the very first time was through some word of mouth connection. In fact, when I’ve researched this in the past, I found close to 80 to 90% of first time guests showed up at church because someone invited them to join. And I mean, not much of that, if any of that, is happening right now in the season. And because of that, our old strategies for reaching new people, they’re just not working right now, and we’re having to adapt, and we need to adapt quickly. And that’s why this online engagement strategy, digital engagement, why it’s become our new front door. And we’re hearing from churches around the country that they also realize this is a big deal. And that’s why last week we talked about how to build a digital engagement strategy. And today we’re going to share some, you know, some specific best practices that we’re seeing in the churches that we’re working with. And because of that, we’re also offering a new one-day Masterclass on October 15th. It’s just around the corner here, that will focus solely on this topic. And you can learn more about that Masterclass at theunstuckgroup.com/masterclass.

Amy (03:52):

Yeah. Tony, in a moment, we’re going to talk about the good things that we’re catching specific churches doing that are increasing online engagement with new people. But before we do that, can you give us some specific examples of how churches need to be pivoting their digital engagement strategies?

Tony (04:08):

Yeah. So first of all, you do need to go back and listen to last week’s episode, if you haven’t already. And the reason why is we gave an overview of what a digital engagement strategy needs to look like for your church. Assuming you’ve already established that, and you know who you’re trying to reach, and you’ve talked about how you’re going to encourage them to engage this new front door, here are some specific components of that digital engagement strategy that you’ll need to address. This is a long list, Amy. So I’ll try to run through this. Feel free to jump in at any time, but first your website needs to become more visitor friendly. In other words, it should be obvious and seamless for a new person to take their next step, to connect to your church without calling someone or without emailing someone with questions. What I’m seeing is that most church websites are really designed to answer the questions and provide content for people who are already connected to your church. And we just need to make sure that the website is redesigned to think about the new person who’s trying to connect with your church or learn more or engage further. The website needs to be designed with that person in mind as well.

Amy (05:26):

Can I jump in, Tony? So I obviously watch a lot of church services, and I echo what you’re saying when people land on that website, it’s often like the first thing in a good way is watch this week service here. And I would even challenge churches to go, will that connect with a new person? Does that even make sense to them? Because also sometimes it just brings you to this page that says next online service starts at, and then there’s like this five day, two hour, ten minute countdown. So I would just think about that first landing space, not for your insiders, but what’s the first voicing you want to show to someone who landed on your webpage, outside the church?

Tony (06:08):

Yeah. Yeah. In other words, you have to answer the question why? Why should you look at this service? Why should you watch this service before you give them the details of how they should watch the service? Yeah. And for people that are already connected to the church, we don’t have to explain why they already know.

Amy (06:25):

And they know where to go. They know where to go.

Tony (06:27):

Yeah. But for the new person, we have to be able to answer that question. All right. So along those lines, then, someone on your team needs to be thinking about search engine optimization, SEO, for your website. So that people you’re trying to reach are finding your site when they’re searching for answers and questions online. And, this is actually a specialized aspect of website development and strategy. And really no one on your team should know how to do this. This is something that you need to find somebody to help you with, but I would encourage you to contract out this work. You don’t need to have this specialist on your team. Similarly, you’re going to have to think about, on social media. So not your website, but on social media, how do we engage people there as well? And the reason why I call this out is Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and all of those apps, they’ve gotten savvy. They’ve caught onto us, and they’ve realized if we’re going to make money, we have to sell advertising. And because of that, they’ve created these pretty complicated algorithms that just sharing information on social media is not going to get that information in front of the people that you’re trying to reach. And so you’re going to need some people to help you think about what your advertising strategy needs to look like in those different social media platforms as well. Another aspect or component of this digital engagement strategy, it’s chat features. In fact, chat features are common on just about every website now with exception of churches. More churches are doing this, but if you, again, if you just start searching church websites, you’re going to find not many of them include chat features. And this needs to be a feature that you add to your site, especially for young adults. I was just reading some more research just this past week. Millennials avoid phone calls. They just don’t pick up the phone and call anybody. In fact, my generation, we get phone, what do I want to say? I want to say subscriptions. That’s not what I wanted to say. Contracts. I think that’s the word I was looking for, Amy. I’m showing my age here, too.

Amy (08:49):

I’m trying to figure what you’re talking about.

Tony (08:52):

My generation looks for phone contracts with unlimited minutes, because we actually like to call people and talk to people. My kids’ generation, they don’t care about unlimited minutes. They care about unlimited data. Yeah. And so we just have to be thinking about, especially for those churches that are wanting to reach the next generation – young adults, we need to start to offer ways to connect with them, engage with them through our website that it actually is the way they communicate. So we need to make sure that chat feature’s included as well. We also need to engage with the people who we’re trying to reach online, and primarily this would include strategies around email lists, newsletters, social media again. We need to stop using these platforms only to promote what’s happening at our church. And we need to start using them, though, to interact with the people who we’re trying to reach. And here, I think the key thing is to think about building relationships rather than promoting our church. And so, how are we increasing our email list? How are we increasing newsletter, subscribers, YouTube subscribers, social media followers? Not for the purpose of promoting who we are as a church, but engaging with people relationally online. And here’s the good news. As you increase that interaction, it’s also going to help you shape your content strategy. And that’s another key component. We talked a lot about that in last week’s episode, but you need to shape your content strategy to address the opportunities and challenges that people are facing in their lives. So in your community, you want to become that trusted expert in all areas of health. So think about relational health or emotional or mental health or physical health or financial health or family and parenting health or spiritual health, all of those areas, you want to become the trusted expert in your community. And so that people, not only in your church, but in your community as well, start to share the great content that you’re offering. And so here, it’s probably articles or podcasts or videos, things that can be easily shared on social media. In fact, one of the churches I was talking with earlier this week acknowledged they’ve shifted from weekly meetings to design their Sunday services to having weekly meetings to design their content strategy. So part of that content is going to be included in what gets shared on Sunday morning, but a large part of that content is just going to be a part of their strategy to connect with people outside the church and outside the faith.

Amy (11:45):

Tony, that is such a great example of what we mean when we talk about content strategy and shifting and pivoting, that we would take the “Holy weekly service gathering meeting” and shift that to actually talking about what content can we put out and in what forms this week or next week. Wow.

Tony (12:06):

Yeah. And it’s one example too of, I mean, we’ll get into some structure conversations in the masterclass that we’re going to have on October 15th. But it’s one of the reasons why when we start to talk about next steps churches need to make related to structure, rather than having a team dedicated for just the weekend experience, you and I have started coaching churches is that you need to consider more of a broader, how do we reach people team? And one component of that team is the weekend service. But actually the broader scope of that team is how do we reach new people? How do we engage with new people? And that’s obviously where this content strategy would land. And to get even a little bit more specific around content strategy, another component of this digital engagement strategy is you need to be creating dedicated landing pages on your website for specific content offerings. So what you want to do is to begin to offer things of value, articles, again, videos, webinars, things like that. It’s actually just a well done content piece that you can offer to people in exchange for them providing their contact information, their name. And what you’re trying to do, again, is not just to build an email list, which you should be doing by the way. But what you’re trying to do is open the door for you to continue not only to provide helpful content but to begin to nurture a relationship with somebody you’re trying to reach.

Amy (13:45):

Via email. Via content. Right? Well, Tony, before you go on, are you done?

Tony (13:51):

I could go on and on. Yes. I’m sorry. That was a long list.

Amy (13:56):

Yeah. I’m guessing most of the pastors who just heard you list all of those components that make up a digital engagement strategy are a little overwhelmed maybe at this point.

Tony (14:06):

Yeah. Good. Because if you’re thinking, I don’t know how to do any of that. And honestly, I don’t want to know how to do any of that, then I’ve accomplished my main goal for today, Amy. And that is because you, as the pastor, can’t develop and execute the strategy. Instead, you need to find a leader who will help you build a team around all of this to develop and execute the strategy that we’re talking about, including all of those nitty gritty specifics of that digital engagement strategy that I just talked through.

Amy (14:43):

Yeah. We haven’t changed our stance on the four things a senior pastor can’t delegate. This is something they should delegate to an excellent leader who can really be a load lifter in this space so that senior pastor can, obviously, create a lot of the content, you know, with their teaching gifts.

Tony (15:00):

Yeah. And in larger churches, most likely this is going to be a staff leader and a team of staff to support them. In smaller churches, there are people in your church that know how to use Facebook. They know how to use Twitter and Instagram, and you need to identify a faithful lay leader to help you drive this portion of your church’s ministry strategy. But those people are in your church, and they’d love to be a part of the mission that you’re trying to accomplish through your ministry.

Amy (15:29):

All right. Well, Tony, let’s jump to some of the specific best practices that we’ve identified. I don’t know about you, but I love catching churches doing some new things to accomplish their mission, especially in this season. But where do you want to begin?

Tony (15:41):

Yeah, so, first of all, I’ve been putting out content online since Brooke was born, my youngest daughter was born, and it’s, gosh, it’s about what, 15 years ago? It’s hard to believe I’ve been creating content to encourage pastors for that long. From the very beginning, I’ve always kind of taken the stance, if there’s something I want to push against that I’m seeing pastors or churches doing that I don’t think is helpful for the future or the mission that we’re trying to accomplish, I never mentioned that pastor a church by name, but I love to catch pastors and churches that are doing great things in their ministry. And so, I have a list of churches that, in recent days, I’ve caught doing some great things around this digital engagement strategy. I want to begin with Jeff Brodie and the team at Connexus Church up in Barrie, Ontario. They, by the way, they’re still able to use TikTok in Canada, I think. And here in the US, I think we’re, I know, Amy, you’ve been on the TikTok, haven’t you?

Amy (16:53):

Yeah. Wipe, wipe, wipe. That’s the one that really got me to start watching TikTok.

Tony (16:58):

But, Connexus Church, one of the things I learned from Jeff in a conversation with him recently, is they were struggling using a traditional contact card to get new people to provide information. Even an online version of that. So they’re, obviously in this season, all of their services are online, and they were trying to get new people to fill out online contact card information. Instead of doing that, what they started to do about two months ago was to offer an ebook. One example is an ebook on “How do you experience God personally?” And, so if you go to their website, something may even pop up on their website. I haven’t been on in the last couple of days, but it’ll be clear if you’re interested in that ebook, you can just share your name and email address and the church will provide that ebook for free. And then, what they do is they get all those names and email addresses and compare them to the list of people that they know are already a part of their church, so that they can follow up with email and video messages to all the new people. And so what Jeff explained is they’ve seen more people, just in the last, I think he said six weeks that have downloaded this ebook and provided their contact information than they had in the previous six months. And so it’s a good example of having a digital engagement strategy with some of these specific ways to engage new people. It’s the new people part of this that I love. So if you want to check that out, you can go to Connexus, C-O-N-N-E-X-U-S church.com and just see what they’re doing with that. Another church that I caught recently doing something good is Grace Church in Massachusetts, I think Avon, Massachusetts, to be specific. I’ve never met this pastor, but I was looking at some of what this church is doing. I mean, it’s phenomenal. A multisite church on the East coast. Pretty exciting cause that’s uncommon and that part of the country as well. But one of the specific things that they’re doing are these Webinar Wednesdays. And if you go back there, I think a couple dozen of different Webinar Wednesday episodes that you can go back and look at, and they’re all on topics that are, I think, pretty spot on around the opportunities and challenges that people are facing today. And so examples of some of those topics include overcoming fear and anxiety, talking with kids about racism, starting a thriving business, which, given the economic downturn we’ve experienced through all this, I think they’re going to be more people that are going to be looking for opportunities to start their own businesses. And as a business launcher, I think that’s a good thing, by the way. Keeping our kids safe online. And there are a lot of different topics there, but what I love is they are acknowledging there are key questions that people are asking, and these are people we’re trying to reach with the gospel message, but if we can provide some help around these questions, eventually maybe we can continue to encourage them to take next steps toward Jesus. And so if you’d like to see more of those examples, you can go to thatsgrace.org/webinars. So I like that idea, don’t you?

Amy (20:38):

Yeah. It’s creating trust and connection with your organization, with your church. That’s not assumed anymore, that the church is a credible, helpful place. And so you’re actually talking about the things that people who are far from faith in God, and even people close to God, are asking and dealing with. It’s a great example.

Tony (20:57):

Yeah. And Amy, I watched snippets at least of several of their webinars. And I thought this is just brilliant rather than the pastors trying to be the experts on these topics, the pastors and other staff people at the church interviewed experts. And I’m assuming some of these experts were in their church already, but experts in their community on these different topics. So again, I think it’s just, it’s good for pastors to recognize I don’t have to have all the answers to these questions, but I can help facilitate conversations that get to the answers people are seeking.

Amy (21:35):

That’s great. All right. What other examples have you seen out there?

Tony (21:38):

So we’ve talked about this church a little bit in recent weeks, but Crossroads Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. Again, another great multisite church. They’ve completely revamped their website to reach an online audience. And actually, it’s a completely new branding for the church, too. So they’re using kind of this outdoorsy adventure type branding for their church and on their website. I like this. They’re trying to position themselves as “spiritual outfitters” to help people take their next steps on their spiritual journey. But this is the nugget that I caught that I thought this is just brilliant. They’re offering a 30 day trial to equip people with resources to begin the spiritual journey. And I love that because it’s simple. I’m not committed for the longterm. And I get to kind of test drive whether or not I’m liking how this church is approaching how they would encourage me to take steps of faith. And so, if you’re curious to see what they’re doing there, you could go to crossroads.net/30daytrial. And so, I thought that’s a fun way to engage new people and to encourage those very first steps of faith.

Amy (22:56):

So just one thing. It’s a forward slash.

Tony (22:59):

Thanks, Amy. This internet thing is just brand new for me.

Amy (23:04):

I just try to contribute a little bit during these podcasts.

Tony (23:09):

All right, this next church. This is actually a good friend of mine. It’s Westside Community Church. Gabe Kolstad is the pastor, and he and his wife, Melissa, are starting a new podcast. Only it’s not like your typical church podcast that’s just a replay of Sunday’s messages. Gabe and Melissa have started a “Marriage Monthly” podcast. And it’s specifically for marriages that are under pressure. And there’s no doubt, in these last number of months, it’s interesting. When you get two people in a house locked down six months, how that brings out the best, and it brings out the challenges in relationships, and marriages are no exception. And they’ve recognized that. So they have a brand new podcast dedicated to helping marriages under pressure. And of course, I’m assuming people in their church are going to be listening to this, but Gabe’s intention here is to use this as a way to engage new people outside their church that they’ve not connected to in the past.

Tony (24:14):

And then, finally, I want to mention Sun Valley Community Church out in the Phoenix area. We may have talked about this one, Amy, but I just thought this is brilliant. They were about ready to do a marriage retreat, and they were going to do it in-person with all the protections, with social distancing. And then they just thought this is going to be too much for us to overcome all those challenges. And so they moved all of the marriage retreat online, and to their surprise, they had over 900 couples participate, but here’s the big win in that. A third of those more than 900 couples had never been connected to Sun Valley Community Church previously. And so what they found is by again, addressing a felt need that people in their community were experiencing and making that easily accessible online, they were able to engage with hundreds of new people that they had never connected with before. And by the way, this is not just a one-off thing that Sun Valley did. They realized that digital strategy is part of their future. And so because of that, they’re actually in the process of hiring a lead director for digital strategies. Again, they took my advice that we just talked about earlier. Pastor Chad is not going to design and execute their digital engagement strategy. Instead, they’re going to hire somebody to do that. And if you’re curious to know what their role will look like or maybe someone’s listening that’s going to get hired for that role, you just never know what might happen through a podcast, Amy.

Amy (25:56):

Paul is going to appreciate this promo.

Tony (25:58):

You can check out that position at jobs.sunvalleycc.com, and there’s no backsplashes or forward slashes in that.

Amy (26:13):

Tony, just as you’re running through those examples, I noticed something’s missing from that list. Am I correct?

Tony (26:19):

Yeah. Yeah. If you’re talking about online worship services, is that what you had in mind? Yeah, you’re absolutely correct. Here’s my sense. I think the days of hoping unchurched people will watch our online services. Those days have passed us by, and yeah, every once in a while, somebody brand new is going to check out and engage with a full service. And that may be their first connection with our church. I mean, I’ve seen God do some amazing things in people’s lives and prompt people to that take steps like that. But I don’t think, going forward, that’s going to be our primary model for engaging new people. And that’s why we’re talking about this new front door. So because of that, as we talk about all these strategies, please don’t rush out and hire an online campus pastor first. Don’t try to create a new platform for streaming your services initially. Don’t try to redesign your weekend services for an online audience. You’ll do all of those things eventually, but your very first step needs to be more about this broader digital engagement strategy, including all of those things that we talked about earlier in today’s conversation. Eventually you may encourage someone to watch a service online, but it’s likely not going to be their first step. There are probably several earlier steps people are going to take before they watch a service and you need a digital engagement strategy to help them along that path.

Amy (27:55):

So what you’re saying is it’s not wrong to have an online service as part of your digital strategy, but it’s not the only thing that you need. And, you know, Tony, we talk about this all the time. If we don’t get shifting our thoughts to this “reaching new people through our digital strategy,” that that whole thing of being in the maintenance mode and sliding down, you’re just going to be an aging church without new people joining. And so I would just say, senior pastors have to create that urgency and find the right leader to help move this thing forward as quickly as possible.

Tony (28:28):

That’s right.

Amy (28:30):

Hey, Tony, any final thoughts? I think that’s enough by the way. I think we gave them enough today in today’s podcast.

Tony (28:35):

Yeah. Yeah. I think I gave you enough thoughts for one day. And so hopefully some of those best practices will get your ideas flowing among your team. But related to all this, I mean, again, it’s really impossible for us to unpack in a podcast episode everything that’s required to build a digital engagement strategy. And that’s why we’re hosting this masterclass on October 15th, and Amy is going to be joining me for those conversations. We also have conversations that we will have prerecorded with seven different churches that are in the middle of actually building these digital engagement strategies. And they’re going to share some of what’s working and what’s not. We’re going to talk about clarifying who we’re trying to reach, creating an effective digital engagement strategy, putting that strategy into action and then as I alluded to earlier, this is key. How do we structure the team to support this digital strategy going forward? So if you want to join us and we hope you do, please register at theunstuckgroup.com/masterclass.

Sean (29:43):

Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. If this podcast has been helpful for you, we’d love your help in getting the content out further. You can subscribe on your favorite podcasting platform, give us a review and tell somebody else about the podcast. At The Unstuck Group, we work everyday with church leaders to help them build healthy churches with coaching and planning that focus them on vision, strategy and action. If that’s a need in your church, we’d love to talk. You can start a conversation by visiting us at theunstuckgroup.com. Next week, we’re back with another brand new episode. So until then, we hope you have a great week.

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