Change is good for churches

I’ve seen a lot of blog posts and videos lately on how to do streaming and what to use. All good stuff, and I don’t disagree with the vast majority of what people are saying. The problem is, whilst a lot of churches need hand holding in this current climate, it isn’t going to solve a longer term problem. That problem is making your digital outreach a core part of church life.

Yes, most churches have websites. A big part of my job is church website design. I’m an advocate for churches using digital platforms as an extension of church life and outreach. But the mindset, at the moment, seems to be what can we as a church do to get through this? They are looking for temporary digital measures to replicate the regular church events.

The issue here, is two-fold. Firstly, social media platforms weren’t built for this and users’ online mental model differs vastly from someone walking through the door of a church building.

Secondly as soon as normal life resumes a lot of good work from churches online will be undone as they stop their digital outreach. The mindset is temporary; the mindset is to do what we’ve always done once the lockdown has passed.

Let me say at the outset, I truly believe in the physical gathering of God’s people, this should be central to church life and nothing should replace that. I do, however, want to urge those that have the power, to think these things through carefully. We are in a unique situation right now, we as God’s people have a chance to adapt, innovate and grow.

In thinking through these things I want to make some quick points about why it’s worth reviewing our mindset about the way we do church.


Reaching new people

Have you ever despaired that the church isn’t making an impact? People don’t want to listen and certainly won’t walk into a church building. If only we had the opportunity to reach those that don’t know Jesus? If only people were willing to listen?

Well guess what? This is that moment, an opportunity to form new relationships, for the church to be central to their community. Sure not physically but online is a great place to start. There are a load of people, with a lot of time on their hands, skimming through their facebook feed looking for some entertainment, some distraction, some hope.

Where are you? Where is the content that your church members can share to their friends online? The church has a great chance to be central to online discussions on the situation we are in. People are questioning the very things that they thought would provide safety and comfort, health, jobs, money, friends, family, it’s all been stripped away and where are we? What is our message? How are we enabling our church members to have these discussions?

I have been amazed how many churches are using closed facilities for their online messages. Messages of hope and challenge are being preached and who is hearing it? Church members! You’ll have to excuse my annoyance but these are the very messages that should be pumped out on social media platforms, that people can pick up on and hear. That Christians all over can share with their nearest and dearest. What an opportunity, don’t waste it! If you are using a closed platform that only invited guests can access, stop it now.

I know it’s easy right now to only think of church members in this time, and yes they should be a priority. However, my personal belief is your focus with digital platforms should be everyone else. The lost, the scared, the worried, the angry, the grieving. These people who do not know Jesus need to be reached, make them a priority.


Church isn’t Sunday

If we accept the premise that first and foremost the churches social media channels are for those that don’t love Jesus, the shape of the content we produce should change accordingly.

For instance, I’ve been amazed how many churches are trying to just replicate a Sunday service online. Why? Because if it isn’t exactly like we do it on a Sunday that somehow the church body will fall apart?

Sure, praying, singing, God’s word, all vital. But they don’t need to be stitched together for online consumption. Are you expecting people to sit through a whole service online? People aren’t used to that, you know who are used to it? Christians.

Social Media was not meant for such things. The mental model of the majority of social media users is quick digestible content with memorable moments that resonate with the end user.

We have the ability to break the mould of church. Instead of playing into the stereotype that church is Sundays, we can share church all week. Smaller bite-sized content throughout the week. Youth talks, kids songs, daily messages from pastors, maybe even take some parts of the Sunday sermon and published as smaller sound-bytes? Instead of spending hours putting together a well designed Sunday service during the week, spend that time on your social media channels producing content that your members can share and the end user can easily digest. Get church members involved, make it natural, make it interesting – that is the point of social media.


Church isn’t a building

There has been the often argued stance, that the minute a church starts streaming their service people will stay at home to watch instead of meeting with their brothers and sisters. I have spent some time talking with churches who stream their services about this and there is absolutely no evidence that this is happening.

We need to stop thinking that church is the building. That everything the church does has to be through the building. I know we say we know that, but honestly, when churches organise things, it’s always in the building, always in the same format.

This is a time to learn that Gospel outreach can and should happen outside of the building. I’m sure church members are encouraged to do so but how about the church as an entity? Could you do your Christianity Explored somewhere other than the church building?

Hopefully in this time we can learn that church activities don’t need to include the building, they can happen whenever, wherever. They should happen where people can be met.


Innovation can be good

A few weeks ago our midweek bible study group met for the first time using Zoom. It made my heart soar, it lifted my spirits and I couldn’t wait for the next one. It wasn’t because I got to watch something other then Peppa Pig (honestly this lockdown has me hating on that pig family). It was mainly because for the first time in probably ever that all 18 of us were together. We have a number of young families in our group and obviously only one partner can come. But not now! Everyone can join in and although it’s not the same as being in the same room it was great to share that time with those who have felt sidelined because of having a young family.

Churches who innovate are able to draw in those on the fringes, that can’t engage as often. It is an incredible moment to ask, how can we do church differently? Think differently, approach it differently, deliver it differently.

I know several churches using a dial-in phone service to hear the live sermon preached, which is great for those without internet access or find the whole thing too confusing. Those churches have also said they plan to keep it once normal life resumes.

Churches often shy away from creativity and innovation because it moves away from the tried and tested models of yesteryear. Which of course have their place, but we must always look forward. Who can we engage with that we aren’t currently? Who are sidelined that we can draw in? How do we do it?

Answer those questions and you will find ways of doing things that you weren’t previously.

It’s certainly my hope that we keep something of our online midweek group so those that aren’t able can still share that precious time.

Once this is all over ask members what they liked and what they want to keep, what was helpful, what worked. Don’t throw it all away, move forward armed with extra tools, not replacements.


A new mindset

My hope is churches through this will gain a new vision for how church is done. That their digital offering isn’t just to promote the Sunday gathering or the midweek youth group, but actually to support the work of the people with content made specifically for digital platforms.

This is a new horizon for gospel work, finally churches are being made to use the very things they have avoided, they are using digital platforms in a way they never have done before.

My prayer is churches, passed the current horrific situation, grab the opportunity to learn how to best utilise digital platforms, to serve their members and to reach out to their communities.

God’s work is not restricted to a Sunday, it is not restricted to a building. We have the ability to reach people in new and different ways, take what you are learning in this temporary situation and decide what things could be made a permanent function for God’s glory.