The New Front Door of the Church (Part 1)
We’ve been producing a lot of content over the last few months to help churches figure out how to get a digital strategy going. From the masterclass we hosted back in July 2020, to all of the podcast and articles and resources we’ve been developing (see the list of links below)… pastors have been really engaged with all of it.
I’m both encouraged by that, but also a little discouraged by what I’m actually seeing and hearing from churches I talk to.
Many churches are moving services online and offering online groups. There are online classes, and they’ve shifted giving online. Lots of good stuff—many changes at churches that should’ve happened years ago. That’s positive and encouraging.
But I’m also seeing a few widespread challenges:
- Most churches are primarily replicating in-person experiences online, even though our data shows 4 out of 5 churches were stuck before COVID; in other words, their in-person strategy wasn’t working, and then they moved it online.
- Almost all of this effort to shift ministries online was to accommodate people already connected to the church, not designed to reach new people.
- And, most of these experiences could be summed up as online versions of in-person experiences. There’s no online strategy designed to reach an online audience.
In this episode, Amy and I dig deeper into what we’re seeing and offer some clarity around three strategies we believe every church will need to expand their front door in this new reality.
Specifically, we dive into:
- Why online versions of in-person experiences don’t work to help you reach new people
- Why I’m encouraged by how churches have pivoted to engage the people already connected to the church
- 3 CORE STRATEGIES to connect people to faith and church—and why ALL 3 are critical, especially in this season
- Why you need to start thinking of your weekend services as a NEXT step instead of a FIRST step
- Where pastors tell us most people are making decisions to follow Jesus through their ministries
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Links & Resources from the Episode
- Increasing First Time Guests
- Pre-Guest Church Engagement
- Why Church Communications is Stuck in 2004
- The Key to Reaching NEW People in a Digital World
- Clarifying Digital Engagement
- Does The Unstuck Group Help with Digital Strategy?
- A Real Digital Ministry Strategy: Where to Begin
- What Should Churches Be Measuring? 4 Questions You Need to Answer First
- (Part 2) How to Build a Digital Engagement Strategy
- (Part 3) Best Practices for Digital Ministry Strategy
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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Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we’re exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. Over the last several months, pastors and leaders have sensed the shifting in ministry strategies. The most significant of those may be how we’re connecting new people to our churches. The methods we used to use to reach people don’t seem to be working and for some churches, haven’t been for some time. On today’s podcast, Tony and Amy discuss three strategies your church can use to connect people to the faith and the church. Before you listen today though, make sure you stop and subscribe to get the show notes. Every week, you’ll get one email with resources to go along with that week’s episode, our leader conversation guide, access to our podcast resource archive and bonus resources you won’t find anywhere else. Just go to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast and subscribe. Now let’s join Tony and Amy for this week’s conversation.
Well, back in July, we did a one day masterclass on four shifts that churches need to make for a new normal. And we had over 600 people, Tony, who ended up participating in that event, and of the four shifts we covered that day, the feedback was very clear that the shift from analog to digital was the topic that most intrigued pastors and other church leaders. Were you surprised by that?
Yeah. Well, honestly, not really, because COVID actually has forced us to consider this shift. I mean, everything moved online a few months ago. Churches, we heard, were starting to reopen in May and June. And when that happened, what we were also hearing is smaller churches were having more success with in-person gatherings and it makes sense because they didn’t have to worry as much about the social distancing stuff and things like that. Larger churches were struggling back then with in-person services. And honestly, they sound like they’re kind of still struggling because what we’re hearing commonly from larger churches is maybe 30 to 45% of their pre-COVID attendance has returned. Some of that depends on whether or not they’ve reopened their children’s ministry spaces. But, I mean, what this has done, of course, is just forced churches to think about their online strategy, their digital strategy, that much more. By the way, side note, recent conversations that I’m having with churches, I’m asking them about, you know, their reopening strategy and what they’re seeing with attendance. But in recent weeks, for the first time, I’ve heard churches, some churches start to talk about challenges around giving. And for the first time in all of this, starting to see some dip in giving. And I think it’s too early to tell if it’s a trend that we’re going to see ongoing, but it’s something to be aware of. And if you’re experiencing that, there are other churches that are experiencing that as well. But needless to say, Amy, this shift online, it really wasn’t a choice. And I think midsize and larger churches are realizing the return to pre-pandemic attendance levels, it’s still many months away, most likely. And just as an example, outside of church world, the airline industry, they’re estimating it’s going to be maybe 2024 before they fully recover, which makes you and me sad because we used to fly quite a bit, but they’re projecting a 55% decline in passengers in 2020. And I just thought that was interesting because we’re seeing churches are experiencing kind of that same level of decline when it comes to in-person attendance. And so it’s highlighting, more than ever before, the need for a digital strategy. It’s just not going to go away anytime soon. And because of that, we’re actually offering a new masterclass on October 15th, that’s going to focus solely on this very topic. And so we’re going to be unpacking from beginning to end what it looks like to have a digital ministry strategy. And if you’re interested in learning more about that masterclass on October 15th, you can go to theunstuckgroup.com/masterclass.
I’m really looking forward to that. I’ve seen some of the content that’s being pulled together, and I think it’s going to be really helpful. Tony, are you encouraged that more and more pastors are aware that they have this need to shift from analog to digital?
Well, yeah. Yes and no, I guess, is the answer to that question, Amy. I mean, I’m seeing churches moving services. They’re having on online groups. There are classes. They’ve shifted giving online as an example. All of this is good. I mean, these, I think personally, were changes at churches should’ve made many years ago, but they’ve made those changes and that’s positive, but there are a few challenges that I’m seeing. For example, primarily churches are focused on replicating their in-person experiences online. And even though all the data shows that the vast majority of churches, I think four out of five, based on what we were seeing in our data, we’re stuck before COVID, they’re just taking those in-person strategies that honestly were not working before the pandemic, and they’re moving those experiences online. And so I don’t think for those churches that felt stuck before the pandemic, moving those experiences online, that’s probably not going to fix that. Secondly, almost all the effort to shift ministries online was to accommodate people who were already connected to our churches. In other words, the online experiences are for church people. They’re not designed to reach new people. And so that’s a challenge I think that we need to overcome. And then finally, most of these new experiences are online versions of in-person experiences. In other words, it’s not an online strategy designed to reach an online audience. And so, because of that, what I’m seeing is misfiring there as well. I mean, Amy, you’ve actually seen probably more of these online experiences than I have. Do you agree with what I’m seeing there?
Oh yeah, definitely. I’m watching what they are doing, you know, they have some gathering now and it’s a broadcast of what an in-person gathering can look like. And of course there are some things you can do in person that don’t translate online, right? And I pick on this one a lot, but singing is very different when you’re in a room of people who worship versus being in your living room watching people or on your phone watching people sing. And if I’m not connected to the church, it’s just hard to keep me engaged. And it’s hard to keep online viewers engaged for 60 to 65 minutes. It’s just a difference when you engage online versus in person. And so I agree with you, the primary thing that I am seeing, and maybe even 10 out of 10 what I’m seeing, is what you’ve just described.
Yeah. So, you know, for the people who love Jesus and they were previously connected to our churches, they’re not really impacted by these gaps that I’m talking about related to our digital strategies. First, because they’re Jesus followers, I’m assuming they’re going to give us a lot of grace, give pastors, churches a lot of grace around what churches are trying to do online. And for the most part, I think churches have done an admirable job trying to replicate online ministries for their existing congregants. It’s not perfect, but it’s good enough. But for the people we’re trying to reach, I think our digital strategies are woefully lacking, just to be honest. We’re seeing some glimmers of hope, and I’m looking forward to sharing some of those examples and one of our upcoming episodes. But here, when we’re talking about engaging new people using our digital strategies, I think that there’s a lot of room for improvement. You know, going back to your original question here, I’m encouraged by what churches are doing. I’m encouraged by how they’ve pivoted to move church online for the season. For the most part, that seems to be working for people who were previously connected to the churches, but what has been revealed through all of this is a huge gap that churches have around their ministry strategies to reach new people, to reach people who are outside the faith and outside the church.
So maybe let’s start talking about reaching new people. I’ve heard you mentioned in recent months that churches need to be thinking about three strategies to connect people to faith and church. So what are those three strategies?
The first one, actually, the first couple are going to sound pretty familiar. It’s the third one where I think we need a new push, but all three of these are critical. The first is a strategy to mobilize people to reach other people. Actually, this is the original strategy for reaching new people. This is the strategy that Jesus gave us. And for this to work, though, what we’ve learned is this strategy, whatever this looks like for your church, needs to be connected to your discipleship strategy or discipleship path. And so if that path, as an example, includes encouraging people to participate in a worship experience where there’s biblical teaching and corporate worship, and then take a step into serving, using their gifts, and then maybe connecting in community, with a group or a class or something along those lines, all of that’s great, but somehow we need to include in that discipleship strategy encouraging people to reach other people. And so, here we have found it’s not enough just to encourage people to engage missions experiences or to participate in outreach projects, as an example. What’s more important is that you coach, encourage, inspire people to engage a strategy to reach to their neighbor. And we’ve talked about some examples of what that can look like in previous episodes. So I’m not gonna dive deeper here, but this was the original strategy that Jesus gave us with the great commission. And I believe it’s really the priority that we need to be embracing, not only as churches and how we’re discipling people, but as Christ-followers and how we’re living out the mission God’s called us to. So that’s the first strategy. We need to mobilize people to reach other people in our lives. The second strategy is the one we’re probably more familiar with, at least pre-pandemic. And it’s the one I think most churches had been using to help people cross the line of faith, to be honest, it’s the weekend services, the weekend worship experiences, that combination of teaching and corporate worship that happens typically on Sundays. The challenge here, in this season, is that we need to, I think, begin looking at our weekend services as a next step, rather than a first step. In other words, it’s probably not going to be the first thing that people experience that really connects them with a relationship with Jesus and ultimately connects them with the church, but we still have to be sensitive to the fact that hopefully there’s going to be unbelievers that are participating in our weekend services. In fact, this is a tension, I was talking with another church this past week. They’re wrestling with, should our Sunday services be for believers or should it also be sensitive to people who are not yet in relationship with Jesus? Churches land on both sides of that topic. I happen to think the more biblical approach is to follow the direction that Paul gave us and he taught about this, wrote about this for us in 1 Corinthians 14. In that passage, he was talking about speaking in tongues, but he’s talking about in that passage being sensitive to unbelievers joining us for our worship gatherings. And so, I think, we need to continue to consider worship as one strategy for helping people take these initial steps toward Jesus. And Amy, you’ve probably seen, again, more services than I have in churches. And mainly because you used to do this for a living. This was your job, but do you agree that most churches design their services assuming everyone has already crossed the line of faith?
Yeah. They give indication that they’re thinking about people who are new. There’s almost always a greeting, you know, if you’re new with us this weekend, which is good. That feels welcoming. But when I start to look at my, you know, when I put my hat on as someone disconnected from the church, none of the churches are scoring well in engagement and relevance and life application for someone outside of the faith and outside of the church. It’s not clear what I should do next. They’ll reference things that I don’t really have any place for to understand, you know, whether it’s a book of the Bible or someone in there. And so yes, they are primarily designing that experience, whether they know it or not, for the people already connected to their church. In fact, when we do these assessments, we often say, “Who’s your primary reach?” And these last few months, I find myself writing again and again, people already connected to the faith and the church, people already connected to the faith and church.
Yeah. So, again, this is the newer strategy when it comes to reaching new people if the original one was us sharing our faith, us engaging the mission God’s called us to. The second one is the church gathered and using that as an opportunity for us to help people cross the line of faith. But, you know, again, it’s probably going to be some of those early steps that people are taking that are going to lead people to connect to our worship gatherings. And so the big shift here is we maybe need to be thinking about the worship experiences as the next step rather than the first step for new people. And that leads me to the third strategy. The third strategy is the digital strategy. And to me, this is really the new front door that churches need to be considering and atleast for the near future, but I think for the long term. It may be the primary way that we connect with people who aren’t currently interested in the faith, or they’ve become spiritually curious. Rather than expecting people to engage with online versions of our in person experiences, though, we need to clarify who we’re trying to reach and then design an entirely new digital strategy to engage that person. It needs to be a strategy that’s designed specifically for an online audience. And again, this is where the challenge that I’ve witnessed in recent weeks and months is churches are doing things online, but the experiences that I’m seeing, the strategy that churches are using was really designed for an in person experience. So rather than expecting someone who’s not interested in faith to watch or attend a service as their first step, the digital strategy, instead, needs to offer smaller first steps. And the strategy will need to be designed around who we’re trying to reach and what’s currently most important to them. And so we’re going to have to dive into not only understanding the person but what that person is wrestling with. What are the opportunities they’re facing in their life? What are the challenges they’re facing in their life? What are the real needs that we as a church can hopefully address to encourage them to take a next step towards the gospel, the good news. So here we need to nurture connection. We need to nurture engagement and relationship online before they’re going to connect with our church in person. And the good news is that we have some models to learn from. Many businesses have successfully leveraged a digital strategy for years, and now, a handful of churches are beginning to do the same. But just because your service is online doesn’t mean that you have an effect of digital strategy. To reach people outside the faith and outside the church, you need to have more than just an online service. You need to kind of step back, go back to square one. Who are we trying to connect with and how can we leverage online tools, content, and hopefully clear next steps to encourage people to eventually connect with the church and connect with the faith?
So, Tony, do you think it’s possible for a church to have an effective outreach strategy to reach new people if they only engage in two of those three strategies?
That’s a good question, Amy. I really think all three are important though, and especially for the season of ministry that we’re in today. So as an example, if you were missing the digital strategy, I think the challenge that you would overcome, even if you had the other two strategies in places, especially in this season, you really wouldn’t have a front door available to people outside the faith and outside the church. In other words, it’s a huge first step, I think, if you’re asking people to join an in-person worship service or even an online worship service in the season. And without that digital strategy there, you wouldn’t have shareable content for people in your congregation to be sharing in their social media circles online. I think it would be more challenging for people to encourage their friends to take next steps without that digital strategy. And especially again, because most of the engagement people are having with each other right now isn’t face-to-face, unfortunately, I mean, hopefully those days are ahead of us in the coming weeks and months. But right now, most of that interaction people are having with each other, it’s happening online. And so without the digital ministry strategy, I think even with the other two, it’s going to be a critical issue. Let’s talk about if you have that kind of face-to-face, one-on-one strategy and the digital strategy, but you’re missing the weekend service component or you’re not designing your weekend services with unbelievers in mind. Then I think you’re missing that critical environment for people to take that final step of moving from being spiritually curious to actually becoming a disciple of Jesus. And when I ask pastors, as an example, where do you see the most people in your church crossing the line of faith? By far, most pastors are telling me they’re seeing those critical moments where people are experiencing salvation, they’re making that first decision to follow Jesus, most times that’s happening in worship experiences rather than other ministry environments and experiences. So because of that, I just, I think it’s critical that we have that weekend experience available as part of the strategy to connect with new people. Otherwise we may be missing that most important opportunity for people to cross the line of faith. And then let’s pretend we’re not mobilizing people to reach their neighbor. There, I think, the critical piece that’s going to be missing is the relational connection. I mean, if there are no relationships, they’re probably not going to be conversations about faith. They’re not going to be conversations about how we can be serving our neighbor, the people that we’re trying to reach. They’re probably not going to be invitations to take next steps. There’s not going to be that sharing and conversation happening online. And so we need that effort to mobilize people to reach their neighbors, to reach their friends. All three of these are, I think, critical to effectively reaching new people with the good news.
Tony, pastors and church leaders are telling us a digital strategy is important to them. And I can tell you have a little bit of passion about this as well as you’ve been talking, but can you give us a preview of what The Unstuck Group is offering in the coming weeks to help churches with their digital strategy?
Yeah. So first of all, we have a couple more weeks in this series, which is really about the new front door of the church. And so, I’m looking forward, over these next couple of weeks, I’m going to give you an overview. Amy’s going to help me with various components of the digital strategy, a digital ministry strategy. I also want to share some best practices that we’re beginning to see in churches to help put handles on what this actually looks like. So we’ll be covering that type of content in our podcast over the next couple weeks. But as I mentioned upfront in today’s episode, this masterclass that we’re going to be doing on October 15th, I think is going to be super helpful if you’re curious to know what does this need to look like for our church going forward? And Amy will be joining me for the full day, but I’ve also invited guests from seven different churches who will be offering what they’re learning about digital ministry strategy as well. And the good news is they’re learning some things that are working, but they’ve already paid the price of learning some things that don’t work as well. And so that may be the most important part of the day that you want to hear is the stuff that you don’t need to test out because another church has already learned it’s not going to work. But just to give you a framework for what the day’s going to look like, we’re going to help you think about how to clarify who you’re trying to reach. We’ll talk about creating an effective digital engagement strategy and the various components of what that looks like. We’ll share how to put that engagement strategy in action. And here, this is where we’re going to invest a lot of time hearing from several churches who have already done this. And then finally, we’re going to talk about how to restructure your team to support this digital strategy going forward. And again, you can learn more about all of what we’re going to be talking about on October 15th at theunstuckgroup.com/masterclass.
Hey Tony, when you talked about the structure piece to that, when we were talking earlier, you mentioned a conversation you had with the pastor about this, and can you share that with our listeners?
Yeah, yeah. So, and I wish this was the only conversation I had like this, but it seems like almost every conversation I’m having with a pastor now is like this. This is a larger church, multisite church. And they reopened just within the last couple of months. All of their ministries now, children’s spaces are open, everything’s open, but a third of their church has come back for in-person services. And what the pastor shared with me is the challenge that we’re facing now is only a third of their church is engaging in-person services. The majority, two-thirds, of their church is still online, but a hundred percent of their staff team is designed to support in-person services. And so no one has their eye on, or has responsibility for, where the majority of their church is currently engaged. And that, I think, again, I wish that were the only conversation like that that I’m having, but almost every conversation now that I’m having is related to now, we realize online is with us for the foreseeable future. Not only do we need to figure out what that strategy looks like, but we have to deal with the structure question as well.
That’s so good. The other trend that I’m hearing, Tony, probably four or five times the last couple of weeks is that online engagement is actually decreasing. Meaning everyone rallied at first and was watching. And now it’s been declining and pastors are asking why, and I go back to what you shared earlier. You know, if you do nothing as a result of this podcast today, I think do this one thing. Start designing that online experience for online viewers, right, with people outside the faith in mind. I talked to one smaller church in Virginia, and they can pivot. They’re smaller, and they saw this decline happening, and they shifted their service order and they saw an immediate rebound in participants. They just started to design it for the people watching online. So anyways, this will all be fascinating to get into. I’m looking forward to the masterclass. Any final thoughts that you have before we end the conversation today?
I have lots of thoughts, Amy.
Me too. Me too. I’m fired up now.
I know, but here, I think this is important for me to share, and hopefully you receive this as an encouragement. You don’t have to do this on your own. If you feel stuck related to your strategies to reach new people, especially around your digital front door strategies, please reach out to us. We’re called The Unstuck Group. We do this for a living. We help churches get unstuck, even around digital ministry strategy. This is what we do. We’re helping pastors, churches, really across the world now, around these key questions that we’re talking about, and they are churches of all different shapes and sizes. So, if you’re pastoring a large church or a small church, and you think can The Unstuck Group help? Yes, we can, and we’ll right-size our process so that it works for you. We’d welcome the opportunity to share how we can help you get your church unstuck as well. And you can reach out to us, of course, at theunstuckgroup.com.
Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s conversation. If you like what hearing on this podcast, and it’s been helpful for you, we’d love your help in getting the content out farther. You can subscribe on your favorite podcasting platform, give us a review and tell somebody else about the podcast. As always, you can learn more about how we’re helping churches get unstuck by visiting us at theunstuckgroup.com. Next week, we’re back with another brand new episode. So until then, have a great week.