The Purpose of Content
by Nathan Artt on Mar 6, 2023 1:15:44 PM
For many years now, the strategy to engage people through the local church was built around the invitation to a church building. The attractional model of church, which reached so many people, was built on the idea that if we could get people into a church environment that is nothing like their parents’ church, we could then walk them through a process of assimilation: give, serve, join a small group. In short: attendance is the leading indicator of engagement. It’s why every single metric we have in the church is based on Sunday morning attendance. But now we are seeing the opposite: people have to be engaged in order to get them to attend. So how can we use our content to create engagement?
(Author’s Note: I became a Christian in 2010 through this model. Although I became a Christian before I went to church, I was amazed at how different the staff, people, and environments were at Buckhead Church from what I had experienced before.)
I believe that we have to recognize that the attractional model of church is now officially the church that people’s parents grew up in. Anyone under 35 years old who has been to church in their life has likely been to an attractional model church. It’s no longer the differentiator, it’s the standard.
In my opinion, the biggest change we are seeing in engagement is in the invitation, and that changes everything. The attractional model of church made it so easy for me to invite my friend to a church building, and then let the church take over the assimilation and discipleship from there. I could invite them into an environment that I wasn’t embarrassed to invite them to, and they usually thanked me for it. In short, the entire model was built on the invitation to a time and place event. If that changes, then so does the model.
The difference now is that most people are invited to “attend” a church message that was sent to them by a friend. Usually, the person sending the content knows enough about the person receiving the content to know what is and what is not relevant to them. The invitation to a large church building was an opportunity for someone to hide in a crowd before wanting to take a next step, and now the invitation to relevant content is an opportunity for them to hide behind a screen. The invitation to an attractional model church was an invitation to an experience. The digital invitation is one based on relevance.
However, what we are learning is that we are now in a time where attendance is the lagging indicator. People have to be engaged somehow in order for them to attend. The new faces you see on Sunday are people who have already engaged at some level with the church digitally. What we are seeing most churches do is attempt to take an in-person experience and place it online, hoping that the message and streaming quality will be so incredible that people will want to experience it in person.
If that’s you, let me ask you a question: how’s that working?
In short, we’re taking the content of our choice, putting it online, and hoping that the content resonates so well with people that it will compel them to want to experience us in person. It’s a shotgun marketing strategy. The first assumption is that the content's production quality compels people to come to church, not the content's relevance. The second assumption is that content is what moves people toward engagement or attendance in 2023. Both of these assumptions are borrowed from the attractional model of church, but is this really the highest best use of our content?
As discussed in The Real Purpose of the Online Church, people are looking for relevant content, packaged in a way that is consistent with their consumptive habits during the week (short form). But what do we want them to do next? Having a clear answer to that question is absolutely critical to understanding how we use our content.
Instead of using content to focus on aggregate sermon consumption (“how many people watched my amazing sermon online this week?”), I believe that the first purpose of content is to create conversation.
In other words, how can you create a digital environment where you can safely ask people to exchange their anonymity for your value?
If our apps and websites were designed to help people find what they are looking for when they need it most, which is how we define relevance, they are already telling us what is important to them by what content they engage with (raising kids, marriage, money, etc.). If we focus our websites and apps on what we want them to listen to every Sunday (our Sunday morning experience), we learn nothing about them because we’re too focused on wanting them to learn about us. If we package our apps and websites to focus on helping people find resources on topics that mean the most to them, we have an opportunity to create a value exchange. The focus of how we use our content to build that value proposition should then be based on creating relevance, not convenience.
So after someone watches a specific piece of content, how are we taking what we have learned about this anonymous person and creating a next step that is not “now that you’ve watched our content anonymously, please watch more content anonymously”?
As an example, what if after or during a short form digital message on marriage, you offer to send them an anniversary gift in exchange for answering two questions: what is your anniversary date, and where can I send your gift? (email address). Or, an offering to provide them a download of 5 questions they can ask their spouse (one for each day of the work week) based on the series they just watched. This second option also establishes you as a practical, daily resource versus a content provider. Even easier, let them know that there are additional resources available in the app, which allows them the opportunity to download the app to see all of the other different things that the church has to offer (i.e. non Sunday-morning community).
To give you an idea of how big of an opportunity that would be, Crossroads Church in Cincinnati had over Five Million prayer requests sent out to their online community within their app last year. That’s nearly 100,000 prayers per week. So imagine if a new user logged in ‘anonymously’ and the first offering from the church was someone wanting to pray for them?
I’m sure you and your team can come up with great ideas of your own, but the point is to create a value proposition where they gain intrinsic value from the content they found relevant, and you now know something incredibly important about them: what they care about and their life status. But more importantly, you’ve also identified someone who is ok letting you know who they are.
Why is this important? Because the second purpose of content is to create community. Now, some of you jumped in your head directly into a Sunday morning building invitation, but that is not at all what I mean. As you begin to learn more about people and what they’re engaging with, you now have the opportunity to create a relevant community for people simply based on what they have in common. You now know that all of these people have one very important thing in common: they are actively engaged with content that pertains to marriage, so you know that they are both interested in the topic; but more importantly, interested in growth in that area.
As for the Church, I believe that the “invitation” we are talking about has always been to community and never to a building; it’s just that we’re coming out of three decades where the building was the primary tool we used to accomplish the creation of community, and times are a-changin’.
So if you now have the contact information for all of these people who are engaging with marriage content, there are SO many different things that you can do with that, but here is my suggestion (as Larry Osborne would say, this is “descriptive”, not “prescriptive”):
Minimize The Commitment
Put a start and end date on whatever the offering is: 21-day online cohort, a weekly 30-day virtual small group with other couples, a marriage night, a “21-Day sprint towards a better marriage”, etc. People want to feel like they have control and optionality, and don’t want to commit to “becoming a church goer”, which has no defined start and end date. It’s a first date, not a marriage proposal. They’re still checking you out. So let them know they are not committing to anything more than what you are offering them, emphasizing the limited commitment.
Focus on Value, Not Commitment
Focus on what you want for them (a better marriage), not from them (come to a building, watch online, give, serve, attend, join a small group, etc.).
Focus on the Person’s Felt Need
Not everyone wants to know “what the Bible says about marriage” as much as they want to know how to “build a better marriage”. Even married non-Christians want a better marriage. Do they need to know what the Bible says about marriage? Yes, but if you lead with that, you will eliminate a lot of people who are focused right now on how to improve their marriage. Remember that Jesus always met people’s most pressing tangible needs before He called them to a spiritual “next step”.
For more insights into ideas on this subject:
Watch Reaching the Lost and Unengaged with Kyle Ranson.
I believe that the third purpose of content is discipleship. If our goal is to “compel people to make the Gospel a part of their everyday lives through the local church”, we cannot do that in a monolithic Sunday morning model. Our people won’t come to a church building every day, and they won’t watch a one-hour sermon every day. However, the beautiful thing about the digital platform is that it allows us to bring the church to them every day within the context of their daily spiritual disciplines.
How are we using the Sunday morning content and making it relevant throughout the week? What could that look like? Is it possibly taking pieces of the message and breaking them down into daily devotionals and focuses? Is it providing parents with questions to ask their kids at the dinner table, based on what the kids are learning on Sunday morning? Is it a “daily challenge” or a reminder of how to put what they are learning from the pulpit into daily practice? Is it providing a list of topics/thoughts/questions that can be used to facilitate small groups and house churches during the week so that we are the catalyst for safety, vulnerability, and growth in those environments?
How you package and reuse content should be based on what you are trying to accomplish. But if there is an interest in making your local church more relevant to the people within your church, then we have to start thinking about how we lead people in a growing relationship with Jesus on a daily basis, and not just an hour every week from the pulpit. The digital platform is an unparalleled tool we can use to accomplish that. But for this to happen, we have to start thinking differently than we have in the past about how we’re using our content and what we want people to do with our content.
How can we do this?
To make this work, we have to begin the process of owning platforms and not borrowing platforms. We need to get out of the habit of sending the implicit message to our congregation to go to Youtube when they need an answer to an important question, even if it’s on our channel. If our content is designed to create conversation, community, and discipleship, we have to have some level of control over how people take next steps, and that should be facilitated by our own platforms. For this to work, our websites and apps need to become solutions in themselves to evangelism and discipleship strategies and not billboards for Sunday morning services.
Ultimately, our buildings and our digital platforms are tools, not strategies. Tools are ultimately used based on what we are trying to build, which is defined within a strategy. But no church right now can ultimately land on a strategy without clarity: who you are and who you are designed to serve. We see too many churches right now letting tools and opportunities define strategy, versus letting strategy define the tools and opportunities.
In short, in order for your church to have an effective digital strategy that employs the right tools, you have to have clarity and alignment at the executive level. We've worked with some of the top churches and leaders in the country to put together an assessment of four major areas of your organization: organizational leadership, engagement, data, and buildings.
The best part is that you will be able to share it with your team so that you can see how aligned you are in these important areas. The questions should take no more than 5 minutes to answer! To take the assessment, click on the link below or click here.
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