The Real Purpose of the Online Church
by Nathan Artt on Sep 19, 2022 10:50:19 PM
In last week’s blog, Why People Aren’t Coming to Church, we introduced the idea of Differentiated Value Propositions: something that sets an offering apart from other internal or external offerings. In order to understand how to create an in-person experience that people would want to come to, we posed this question:
What can we do in person that we cannot do online?
For this post, we are going to focus on the second question:
What can we do online that we cannot do in person?
For almost every church right now, “online church” is defined by taking a recording of the in-person experience and placing it online. It’s our 2022 version of TBN, but free and made for the iPhone. But is that the best opportunity for us to reach people digitally? In doing so, are we not simply commoditizing our in-person experience? How does that help us reach the 73M people who are interested in Jesus but don’t want to come to a church building to learn about Him? For that very large group of people, taking a recorded, in-person church service and putting it online is literally taking something they already don’t want and making it worse.
Before we get started, I want to ask you a question…. Let’s say you want to replace a ceiling fan and you need to brush up on your DIY skills. Where do you go? Probably Youtube, right? So you go to Youtube, and you see two options: first, a video from Home Depot that is 7 minutes long with a list of the tools and materials you need in order to complete the project below the video, and then a video from a DIY’r you don’t know that is 47 minutes long? Which one do you choose?
Does anyone actually watch anything on Youtube that is an hour long??? I don’t think so. But that’s the format we use to distribute our church content, right? Youtube’s biggest investment right now is in something called Youtube Shorts, where the maximum time for a video is sixty seconds. Why? Because most people spend at least an hour watching video content during the week, but never in one sitting. Most people will watch 20 3-minute videos, but will rarely (if ever) watch one video that is an hour long. They’re spending the same amount of time, but behaviorally approaching engagement very differently. So why are we asking these same people to change their behavior for us in order to participate with us instead of tailoring our experience to them?
I want to come back to our formula from last week:
Value = Experience / Time
The digital space is intended to maximize the time people spend to get to a desired result. People want to get to what they want in the most relevant and digestible format possible. While digital has decreased the amount of time per engagement, digital has vastly increased the frequency of engagement. People engage far more often, but in smaller doses.
So what does that mean for us as a church, and what is the role that digital plays in creating a holistic engagement strategy? Hang with me for a moment.
When we released Target Corp and the Flexible Church, one of the things that stood out to me was that Target’s mission statement for its engagement strategy was to “compel people to make Target a part of their everyday shopping experience”. Target saw Amazon as their biggest threat, but did not take them on as competition by playing Amazon’s game, which was to be a fully digital shopping experience. In fact, the VP of Digital Marketing for Target even stated that “our digital strategy is rooted in the local store”, and that “in order to be relevant to our customers (and to achieve our goal of making Target a part of people’s everyday shopping experience), we have to stop caring about when and where our customers purchase”.
Despite shifting the digital strategy from “drive people to the stores” to a strategy of point-of-sale agnosticism, focusing on their digital experience and differentiated value propositions drove 600% more traffic to the stores, which is why Target is building out 500 new stores. Target created three offerings: online, in-person, and curbside, and focused on making each experience the best it could be for what the medium was designed for, not taking one experience and delivering it across multiple platforms.
Home Depot did something very similar. Ironically, Home Depot also saw Amazon as their biggest threat, and not because people would start buying chainsaws online. They saw them as a threat because of how they were changing consumer behavior. When Frank Blake took over as CEO and focused the company on its digital strategy, he didn’t see Lowe’s or Ace Hardware as his greatest challenge. The problem he wanted to solve was that 94% of people in America did not shop at home improvement stores because they “did not identify as DIY’rs, and Home Depot is for DIY’rs” (aka “I am not a church goer and the church is for churchgoers”). So how did they focus their digital strategy? Equipping. HD believed that the more people they could equip to be better DIY’rs, the more tools and materials people would buy from Home Depot. They also used the digital platform to make it easier to find what you need in the store, which improved the in-store experience. Ironically, Home Depot also saw 700%+ increases in in-store sales by focusing on a digital strategy.
So here is my challenge to the Church. Instead of taking a time and place experience and putting it online, or focusing our digital strategies on aggregate sermon consumption, what would it look like for the Church to instead focus its digital strategy on “compelling people to make the Gospel a part of their everyday lives through the local church?”. What if we used our digital resources to focus on equipping people to be better parents, spouses, leaders, community members, and Christ-followers (aka equipping the saints for the work of the ministry), or “seeking to save that which is lost” versus “attending online”.
Going back to the original question of what we can do digitally that we cannot do in person: If our goal is to make the gospel relevant to people every day, we cannot ask people to come to a church building on a daily basis. However, the digital platform allows us the significant opportunity to bring the Church to people where they are on a daily basis.
To effectively accomplish this, we have to shift our focus towards relevance and away from convenience. Relevance is providing people with what they’re looking for at the time they need it most. Convenience is taking something someone may or may not want and making it more accessible.
Putting a sermon online every week and calling it a digital experience creates convenience, not relevance. It also comes with a huge problem: we are not helping people find what they’re looking for when they need it most.
Every week we are choosing the content and the delivery mechanism and make it available at a time and date of our choosing. If you are in the middle of a sermon series on Joshua, how does that help the young married couple who is struggling and looking to the Church for answers? How does it help the single mom dealing with anxiety? The person who is new to town and looking for community? The person who has questions about faith? How does it help me parent my children going into second grade and kindergarten? Is the Joshua sermon valuable? Sure. Is it convenient to watch it online? Sure. Does it address my most pressing needs as a dad? Not a chance.
You did not ask me for my opinion on this, but I am going to give it to you anyways. I think this is an area where the Church is losing the most. Every time people in your church and in your communities go to the Church for answers to their most pressing needs and have to find the answers elsewhere, the Church and the Gospel become increasingly irrelevant to them.
The Church is the best at creating content. World class. In fact, you probably have great content on each of the subjects in that list above. But is your app and website designed to help people find the content and resources they’re looking for when they need it most? Is the format digestible, or is it simply a recorded in-person experience you’ve put online? Does it help me connect with other people who share the same questions and life stages? Does it provide me with a next step or an opportunity to engage? Does it create a safe place for me to ask for care? Does it help me on Wednesday afternoon as much as Sunday morning? Does it help me apply the Gospel to my everyday life? Does it equip me to be a better spouse, parent, leader, volunteer, and friend? Does the website or app help you as the church leader get to know me so you can provide relevance to me, or is it just designed as a billboard for me to get to know you and what you want to tell me?
The typical website and app simply let me know that the church is doing a series on Joshua that I can watch at a certain time on a certain day, either online or in person. Oh, and how to give. Forgot about that one, because obviously the first reason a new person is coming to a church website or app is because they want to give you money. In short, it’s a missed opportunity to provide gospel relevance for the people we’re trying to reach.
I want to paint a picture for you. When Jesus looked down from Heaven and saw the sin and brokenness of this world, He left His sanctuary to seek and save us, the lost. And when He was here, He spent His time going from town to town, where the people were and meeting people in their most pressing need. To the hungry, He was the Bread of Life. To the woman at the well, He was Living Water (at noon on a weekday, not Sunday morning, btw). You get the drift. He did not post up in a city and market for people to come to Him, and He did not ignore people’s highest felt tangible or practical needs. In fact, He focused on those needs first. And what happened? People engaged. They told all their friends about Him. It created crowds of people who followed Him.
Digital Engagement is not a new strategy.
It’s a newish tool to maximize the effectiveness of the original strategy.
I personally believe that Jesus is allowing the deconstruction of the Church we made for Him so that He can focus us on reconstructing the Church He made for us.
What do I mean by that? The Church is God’s healing agent of redemption for the world. At some point, we confused our mission for our methods, which is that going to church on Sunday morning is somehow being the Church. We convinced ourselves that filling our buildings with people was a goal, and forgot that filling buildings with people is just a tool. But if we look at Jesus’ ministry on earth, the Church in Acts, and all of the greatest movements of the gospel in our history from Gutenberg to the Great Awakenings, the Church has always been at its best when it’s focused on the people outside of its walls. Jesus is simply decoupling our mission to make disciples of all nations from our methods of requiring people to come to a building at a certain time and place in order to receive that message of hope. He’s removing the barriers we’ve created for the Gospel so He can move us towards the mission of seeking and saving the Lost. So what does the Church of the Future look like? A lot like the original one, with better tools and a longer reach.
But won’t that move people away from our buildings on Sunday morning? No, based on all of the data, the opposite is true. The more relevant you are to people during the week, the more they will desire to have a tactile, in-person experience with you and your community.
That same Jesus is the Lord of the Harvest. He’s looking out right now on a country and a world in desperate need of what only He can provide. We don’t pretend to have all the answers, but we know Who The Answer is and raise our hands to volunteer as laborers in His Harvest, and we want to connect with as many people who feel that same passion. The mission field is huge. The churches and leaders willing to adapt their models to reach the people in that mission field are much fewer. But if that’s you, just know we want to know you.
If you’re interested in learning more about the ideas and strategies behind digital engagement, we’re in the middle of a series with Resi right now on this specific topic that I’d recommend you check out.
Also, we love partnering with churches to help them create engagement strategies. If you are a leader who wants to increase holistic engagement, reach, and relevance, we’d love to talk to you. Let’s schedule a time to connect.
A four-segment digital engagement series developed by
Executive Leadership Solutions & Resi to equip leaders as they grow their church and maximize evangelism through digital engagement.