December 2, 2020

How to Make Disciples Online – Episode 171 | The Unstuck Church Podcast

making disciples online

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Building a Successful Digital Ministry Strategy (Part 1)

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We’re kicking off a new 3-part series on Building a Successful Digital Ministry Strategy. In Part 1 of this conversation, we’ll be diving into the 5 stages of the spiritual journey and how to structure your communication for both outsiders and insiders.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the push was just to get services online or optimize them for an online experience if they already were online. That focus was really just about replicating the in-person experience to an online format, but we’ve seen declining engagement with those online services, both in our data that we’re looking at and also in what I’m hearing from pastors personally.

Fewer and fewer people are tuning in to those online services. And for most church leaders, they also haven’t figured out a good way to measure whether they’re really engaging people online as well. This is a big deal.

And what’s more, most church teams aren’t structured to support this digital strategy going forward. Churches are mostly reaching people who are already part of the church and they’re struggling to connect with brand new people online.

This week, Amy and I dig into the nuts and bolts of…

  • How to communicate with insiders and what platforms to use
  • How to communicate with outsiders and what platforms to use
  • What to focus on in your messaging depending on your audience
  • How to use the 5 stages of the spiritual journey as a guide for structuring your digital ministry strategy
Churches need to strategically use digital content for both discipleship u003cemu003eandu003c/emu003e evangelism. #unstuckchurch [episode 171] Click to Tweet 85% of churches indicated that they were stuck before the pandemic. Just putting that ministry strategy online isn't going to work. We need a new strategy for the new reality. #unstuckchurch [episode 171] Click to Tweet

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Sean (00:02):

Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we’re exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. To say a lot has changed in 2020 would be a pretty considerable understatement. The entire world has changed in some ways temporarily and others for forever. Churches aren’t immune to the change either. Almost overnight, we shifted into, for many, a new digital way of ministry that seems to be here for awhile. But even after months of church online, most pastors would admit we haven’t figured it out quite yet. On this week’s podcast, Tony and Amy begin a three-part series on how your church can have a strong digital strategy in 2021 and beyond. 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, including our leader, conversation guide, access to our podcast resource archive and bonus resources you won’t find anywhere else. Just go to and subscribe. Now let’s join Tony and Amy for this week’s conversation.

Amy (01:03):

Tony, it’s good to be back here with you on the podcast and kick off a new series of episodes that’ll continue the conversation on developing digital strategies. You know, living, I don’t know if you feel this way, but living through the pandemic, it feels like Groundhog’s day to me. Every day seems to be the same. And to be honest, talking about digital strategy feels a little bit like that to me right now. It seems like every conversation I’m having with a church, we’re talking about digital strategy or something closely related. You experiencing that?

Tony (01:32):

Yeah. Actually it feels like every conversation I’m having with you, we’re talking about digital strategy. Yeah. From the conversations I’m having, it’s because church leaders know they haven’t figured this out yet, Amy. At the beginning of the pandemic, the push was just to get services online or optimize them for an online experience. That really was just about replicating the in-person experience to an online format, but we’ve seen declining engagement with those online services, both in our data that we’re looking at and also, in just what I’m hearing from pastors. Less and less people are tuning in to those online services. And for most church leaders, they’re just acknowledging they haven’t figured out a good way to measure whether they’re really engaging people online as well. So this is a big deal. And some of the team, that are currently around them, they don’t have the skills for developing digital engagement, and they’re not sure that they know how to structure to support this going forward as well. So Amy, all the way around, I think there’s just a lot of questions about, is it working? Are we doing it the right way? Do we have the right people in the right places to make this happen? And the biggest thing is, are we really reaching new people then? Because, in many cases, what we’re hearing from churches is that the people that are engaged are the folks that were previously a part of their church. Unfortunately, where they’re struggling, especially online, is connecting with brand new people.

Amy (03:13):

Yeah. That’s so true. And that echoes the conversations that I’ve been having with pastors these past several months. Why do you think digital strategy has more to it than just getting our worship services online? I know we’ve talked about it, but I think it’s good to revisit this.

Tony (03:28):

Yeah. So we need to go back to, then this feels like eons ago, but even before COVID, as we were looking at our data, we were hearing from churches 85% of them indicated they were stuck before all of this even happened. And so putting a version of their ministry strategy online, it’s not going to help that church get unstuck. It’s almost like we have to go back to the strategy first and then talk about how do we move that strategy online? And the biggest gap for churches is that they tend to focus on believers, or people that are being discipled, but there’s a lack of strategy to engage people who are not interested in faith or people that are just spiritually curious, they’re considering the claims of Christ. And most churches don’t have a strategy for mobilizing believers to move beyond being discipled to actually making disciples. So churches need to stop trying to simply convert the in-person gathering to digital, and instead they almost need to reinvent the right digital experience that will connect with and engage people outside the church and outside the faith. In other words, the people that we’re trying to reach. So because of that, the win is not just having a digital strategy. The win is understanding what’s the mission? Are we accomplishing the mission through our digital strategy? And who are we trying to reach? Are we really reaching the person with our digital strategy? And the truth is your weekend service isn’t the front door of your church any longer. In fact, that was the trend even before the pandemic. COVID has just accelerated this truth for our churches. So kind of going back, if those 85% of churches are going to get back to health, a key step will be reaching people outside the faith through a digital strategy. And to begin, I would encourage them to gather some key leaders and ask these key questions again, why do we exist as a church? What does our community look like? Who are we trying to reach? What is our discipleship path? And then, do we have a digital strategy that accomplishes our mission, and are we actually reaching our community with that digital strategy? So Amy, again, it’s more than just getting stuff online. It’s more than just trying to get our congregation to share things online. This is really going back to the foundations of why do we exist as a church and how do we accomplish the mission God’s called us to?

Amy (06:12):

Yeah, Tony. You mentioned that churches tend to focus more on believers or people being discipled and less on the not interested or spiritually curious. Now we use these terms a lot at The Unstuck Group. And this is a topic that we touched on in the last Masterclass, but can you give our podcast listeners some more context for those labels?

Tony (06:30):

Yeah. So growing as a disciple of Jesus, it’s a journey. And when we’re shaping our ministry strategy, we need to begin with the end in mind. So our goal is for people to become disciple makers. They’re fully devoted followers of Jesus who are on mission for Jesus, and they are making other disciples of Jesus. To get them there, we want to encourage next steps and create movement in every stage of their spiritual journey. And Amy, this is not rocket science. I just went back and kind of looked at my own spiritual journey. And I know this, that there were kind of these five phases of what my faith journey looked like, beginning with having no interest initially in spiritual things, then moving to becoming spiritually curious and beginning to ask questions, not only about Jesus, but faith generally. Then I accepted Christ. I became a believer entered into that relationship with Jesus. Then I was being discipled. And then, I became a disciple maker. And I just, as I have heard people share their spiritual journeys in the past, I’ve just noticed that there are these kind of natural steps or phases of the faith journey that really all of us experience, but rather than just giving you the labels of these five steps, let me go into a little bit of detail about each one of them. And Amy feel free to interrupt if you have some follow-up questions on any of these, but let’s begin with that “Not Interested” stage. In this stage of the spiritual journey, faith, it’s really not on a person’s radar. And part of this, we may be too busy, or too disillusioned or maybe apathetic towards church and faith. And so it’s not, it’s not certainly top of mind. But in order for someone to take a step to the next stage, something needs to happen to pique their curiosity in faith. And honestly, Amy, many times, I think it’s usually a crisis that happens in a person’s life. It may not be some physical crisis or a relational crisis. It could just be a crisis of understanding, kind of the why? Why am I here? Why am I in this place? What is my purpose in life? And that type of crisis is going to hopefully pique somebody’s interest to begin to ask about spiritual things, which brings us to the next stage. And that’s when someone becomes “Spiritually Curious”. And you know, some of the characteristics here, that curiosity could come from a relationship, a life event, a crisis, as I just mentioned. It’s not unusual, as an example, as people are not only navigating marriage, but more importantly, having kids. Many times that’s when spiritual questions start to pop up. People become more interested in spiritual conversations and possibly what your church may have to offer in that as well. And I just remember, when I was in this season of phase of my faith journey, I did. I started reaching out to people that I knew were connected to churches in my community. So that’s the second phase, being “Spiritually Curious”. The third stage is when a person actually crosses the line of faith. They become a believer. In other words, they’ve decided to commit their life to Jesus. They begin to engage more intentionally with a church typically. We all know we can’t stay in this stage though, as a new believer. In other words, we need to continue to grow as a disciple of Jesus. So this person will begin to take steps on some sort of spiritual growth path or discipleship path to actually begin to take those next steps toward maturity in Christ, which brings us to the fourth stage. That’s all about being discipled. And in this stage, we experience those spiritual catalysts that help us grow our faith. Many times, this is about relationships. I mean, think about teaching, spiritual disciplines, actually using the spiritual gifts God’s given us. You start to think about all the ways that God grows our faith, and this is part of what the season is all about, being discipled. And with churches, then, we’re encouraging them to develop a discipleship strategy or a path so that people can experience all of those spiritual catalysts in their life as well. But for too many, the faith journey kind of stops here, and they don’t make that critical next step, which is to the fifth phase of the spiritual journey, to help every person get to this place of becoming a disciple maker. And obviously the characteristics here, this is the stage where people begin to intentionally build relationships with people outside the church and outside the faith. They begin to think more about what they can bring to their church rather than what they can get from their church, and our strategies as a church should be designed to help every person get to this stage of our spiritual journey. And, Amy, let me just highlight specifically, I think, one of the common challenges I see here is that churches many times will look at in this fifth step, their strategy is to get people to serve in the community or to get them to go on a mission trip as an example. So, if you will, it’s kind of about missions in this first step, which is an important part of spiritual formation, but I would argue those are examples of what you would want to offer people in the fourth stage, where they’re being discipled. And instead, here in the fifth stage, as as churches, I think our role is to encourage people to think about how they’re intentionally building relationships with people outside the church and outside the faith. And these are people, we don’t have to go look for them. God’s already put them in our lives. They’re our neighbors, they’re our coworkers. They’re our friends that we hang out with. They’re the people that we spend time with in our hobbies or with our kids’ hobbies. And so these people are already in our lives. I think what we need to do as churches is to equip people to engage those relationships more intentionally and begin to help people take steps on their faith journey as well. So a lot of detail there, Amy, I apologize, but that’s a quick overview of the five steps in that spiritual journey.

Amy (13:38):

Yeah. Those five phases, it’s such a great concept. And I think the concept is so clarifying. It helps us as leaders maybe take a step back and ask, do we have a plan for helping everyone take a step forward in their spiritual journey? In other words, in each of those five phases, do we have a plan for everyone to take a step there? It’s also helped us identify the two key audiences that we have as churches. There are those we’re trying to reach who are outside the church and faith. And then there are the people who we’re discipling, who are already connected to the church and the faith. And Tony, I think what I’ve seen, especially since the beginning of the pandemic, is that churches often don’t have clarity when they’re trying to engage these two audiences digitally. What do you think that they should be doing differently to reach those two different audiences?

Tony (14:27):

Yeah. Amy, it’s funny that you should mention that actually, because, I was just reading again in the book of Acts about the early church and the ministry of Paul and Barnabas. And I think it was in Acts 14, specifically talking about how Paul and Barnabas were carrying out their mission and where they’re proclaiming the good news to make disciples. That was part of what they were doing, but at the same time, encouraging teaching believers, too. And so, I think our challenge as churches is too often, we focus on one side of that, either too much on the making disciples, new disciples, or too much on discipling the believers, but the mission we’ve been called to is both. However, the focus I’ve seen from many churches since the beginning of the pandemic has been to try to keep the people who are part of the church connected when they can’t gather in person, and don’t get me wrong, I think that’s important. Again, especially around how do we encourage and teach and equip people who are believers or being discipled? But often it comes at the expense of trying to reach people outside the church. And I think we need to do both. The rub right now is that you’re communicating with insiders in public places where you’re actually crossing paths with outsiders. So in other words, you’re trying to engage, you’re teaching, you’re communicating with people that are already at step three and four on that spiritual journey in places where you’re actually crossing paths with people that are at step one and step two. And so when we just take what we were doing inside our churches and we put that online, then we’re really missing the people at the beginning of that spiritual journey. There are two different ways you need to be thinking about digital engagement and content strategies with that in mind. And we’re seeing very few thinking about both. We have to get more strategic about using digital content, both for evangelism and for discipleship. And right now it seems like churches are using just about every channel and every platform they have to try to keep insiders engaged, and our churches are missing opportunities with people outside the faith and possibly even alienating them by not communicating intentionally with them about the questions that they’re asking, both about life and the spiritual questions that they’re asking as well. So the churches that have successfully pivoted from thinking of ministry primarily as being gatherings for people that are already convinced and shifting from analog to more digital to engage with people outside the church and the faith, those are the churches that I think are going to have success in carrying out the full mission that God’s called us to as churches.

Amy (17:37):

You mentioned we need to be communicating differently to those that we’re trying to reach. Are there specific ways of communicating that you’d recommend to churches as they start to think about insiders and outsiders?

Tony (17:50):

Yeah, there are specific platforms I think churches should be using that are unique to both audiences, but the messaging and the call to action is just as important to think through before you start communicating. So internal communications is well, it’s internal. It’s not intended for everyone. So for those people inside the church, you should use platforms that are less public. Examples would include email. So specifically communicating to your email list. Facebook groups or closed groups on social media, these again for insiders. GroupMe, my wife, Emily was talking about how many different GroupMe groups she has going right now. I couldn’t juggle all of those, but it’s a way to communicate more privately and internally with people that are in your immediate circle. Or you may have a church app. That’s a great place for internal communications with insiders. Your messaging needs to be unique to this insider audience as well. For example, here you could be focusing on celebrating your mission as a church, the vision for where you’re going in the future, the life of the church family. Here you could be inviting insiders to take next steps in faith, like gathering for worship, being generous with their finances, getting baptized, to go public with their faith, connecting in a group or serving. This is also where you want to communicate how you want to equip them to apply the teaching that they’re hearing on a consistent basis. And you should also be equipping them to reach outsiders. So the messaging that you have for insiders looks a little bit different and the call to action for insiders should be to point them to their next step in their spiritual journey. And here I’m thinking about actual steps, not events.

Amy (19:47):

All right. That was a good overview of how we should be communicating with insiders and some practical ways we can do that. Let’s shift to really the people who are outside our church. Now, how do we need to adapt to communicate with them?

Tony (20:02):

Yeah, Amy, so your communication to outsiders is obviously more external. So that means you’ll use platforms that are more public than you did for insiders. For example, your website is a great public platform and contrary to what we see on many websites, it should lean more towards addressing outsiders and the questions that they have.

Amy (20:26):

Yeah. Tony, just to jump in, again, secret shopping, online experiences. We should get some focus groups. Our churches should get some focus groups to see what it’s like to experience that website because I think they think that the first thing, watch the message, you know, hear this week’s message, but it’s an internally organized or developed version of their weekend service. So many churches, I’m just gonna use Grace Church, you know, good morning, Grace family. And then we have, you know, songs again that we don’t know and announcements we don’t care about, where it’s just a dial or two off, and they could really reach and connect with those outsiders.

Tony (21:07):

Absolutely. Yeah. So the website is one key place to be thinking about how we’re communicating and connecting with people outside the church and outside the faith. Social media obviously is another great place. And let me highlight specifically YouTube here. Those are powerful, external communication tools when they’re used well. I just was looking at a church in Oklahoma. They have over 1.2 million people subscribed to their YouTube channel. So, I mean, it’s just recognizing here’s a platform where we can engage. They don’t have 1.2 million people going to their church, Amy, But it’s a good example of how they’re using a social media platform to connect with people outside their church. And this may surprise you, but email can actually be a good external communication tool as well. One of the mistakes, though, I made early on in The Unstuck Group is that I actually stopped building my email list. I was so focused on getting people to subscribe using social media and to my blog and things like that. And I neglected building my email list. And what I learned several years ago is if I’m intentional about building that list, it will help me communicate with people that don’t currently engage with our ministry. So be thinking in those same terms about the people you’re communicating with, trying to connect with, and get intentional about building an email list for that group as well, for those people that are not currently connected to your church. But just like for insiders, your messaging, your focus, what you try to communicate to outsiders is unique as well. For them, you want to focus on things like celebrating your community and the people in it. So being for your community. And we talked a number of months ago with Jeff Henderson about how we can be for our community and he shared some great principles, but this is where you need to invest some of that focus. Amy, were you just going to suggest something?

Amy (23:18):

Well, I think sometimes when we say “community” at church, we start to think “community” is the people that come to our church, but you’re talking literally about the community where God has placed your church before that “community.”

Tony (23:31):

That’s right and then, answering real questions that real people in your community are asking. So, you have to know your community to know what those questions look like. My suspicion is, if your community is like a lot of communities, especially in this season, the tension in relationships, the tension around parenting, the tension around emotional and mental health. I mean, there’s a lot there, but people are asking spiritual questions too. Why would God allow this? Does Jesus really love me those? I mean, there are a lot of basic spiritual questions, or how can I get God to love me? That might might be the question that lot of people outside their faith are asking. So you just need to begin to answer those real questions. Be helpful for people, that that’s key, too. So don’t just spew information about your church. Actually try to be helpful for the people that you’re trying to engage. And then, this is gonna sound like, well, that’s pretty spiritual, but it really works. We need to demonstrate love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, self-control. I mean, is there any question that in our culture today, if we started to demonstrate those attributes, that fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives, how much that would stand out in the culture today? So here, the call to action for outsiders should be to point them to their very first steps and make sure that those are baby steps. In other words, it’s really a big step to say, okay, you’re not part of our church yet, but you should every Sunday start watching our services online or come to a service at our church. It’s a very big step to say, you should join a Bible study or you should join a small group. That initial baby step might be just read this article and then consider these next steps you might take in your life, or subscribe, or share a prayer request. It’s going to be a very baby step, but you start to build on those. And eventually people start taking significant steps toward, not only your church, but more importantly toward a relationship with Jesus.

Amy (26:04):

Yeah. And I go back to the fishing analogy that we’ve been talking about, if we’re fishing for new people. I thought our conversation with our team yesterday was really insightful. I think it was Tiffany who talked about when we engage online, we’re skimming a little bit. We’re trying to see if there’s something very applicable to my life. So when we think about what we’re even teaching on right now, think about teaching on things and branding it in ways that people will be interested in it. And by the way, if they are, and they liked that first experience, you don’t have to tell them to come back because we tend to, when we’re online, you know, we’ll go through that entire series. I think it was our friends in Canada who said they have engaging now in their full series because before, when they had to come to church to take in the service, they’d only get one or two of the messages in the series. So I think that, you know, you went through a lot of good things on the messaging, but I think that one on answer the real questions that people in your community are asking or going through is really paramount in this season.

Tony (27:05):


Amy (27:06):

Well, Tony, this has been a really helpful start to this podcast series, this spiritual journey, those phases, that’s going to become very normal language for those of us who are Unstuckers because we’re starting to measure movement between those phases. So I’m glad you were all listening. Hey, Tony, any final thoughts before we wrap up today’s conversation?

Tony (27:26):

Amy, thanks for asking. I’m always prepared when you ask, have you noticed that?

Amy (27:29):

I have. You’re onto me.

Tony (27:34):

Yeah, so today, I think this is an important conversation that we’ve had talking about the steps that people take, the stages of someone’s spiritual journey. And you know, the big push that we’re encouraging you to think about is not only do we have in-person environments to help engage people in all of these phases of their spiritual journey, but do we also have online digital strategies to engage people from being not interested or spiritually curious to helping them become followers of Jesus who ultimately are making disciples of Christ? I know for many churches right now, you’re looking at that and you are just overwhelmed. It just seems like I’m trying to figure out how to do church church. Now you’re challenging me to consider how do we engage people online? So if that’s you, and you’re trying to figure out what next steps that you need to take, we would love to help. And we are helping churches right now. We’re helping churches assess their current strategies and then build new digital strategies to engage everyone, no matter where they are in their spiritual journey. So don’t try to do this alone, reach out to us today at

Sean (28:52):

Well, thanks for joining us on today’s podcast. As Tony mentioned, if you’re sensing that you need a clear plan and digital strategy to reach new people and help everyone grow as disciples, we can help. We’ve partnered with dozens of churches over this past year to help them clarify their plan. If you’re interested in learning more about how your church can thrive online, visit us at Next week, we’re back with part two of our series with a conversation on how to know what to measure online. Until then, have a great week.

Photo by Jenny Smith on Unsplash

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