What if you and I are moving into a sustained period of unpredictability and dislocation moving forward? And what does that mean for us as leaders in the church?
Here’s what is true: the mission of the church isn’t going away.
It worked in the first century.
It worked in the fifth century.
It worked in the 17th century.
And it’s going to work in the 21st century.
But the first thing that happens in a crisis is that methods break, and that’s true for us too. The church’s methods are broken. Parents can’t come to church anymore with their kids. We can’t host large gatherings, and we can’t do some of the things we have always done.
So what do we do when the methods break, but the mission stays the same?
If you look at it, there are many lessons we can gain from history and even businesses within our lifetime. For instance, we can look at Kodak, who famously invented the digital camera and then went bankrupt in 2012. However, we know that photography is still alive and well. And someone has made the argument, and I think they are right, that it wasn’t a better camera maker or film that killed Kodak. It was Instagram.
Kodak went bankrupt because they forgot that the mission was photography; the mission was not film.
That is a danger for the church when our method is telling people to be in the building at a set time, at a set hour, and you better be there. We risk losing influence when that is how we do church.
We need to remember that we can do church in a different way. We can still be a gathering community that maybe isn’t quite as central facility-focused.
As the church, we need to rethink our methods to preserve the mission.
So what does that look like practically? What would I do if I were starting tomorrow to build a church for the future?
Start by being a digital-first church.
That means staffing, strategizing, and behaving like everything that is done online is the default. Digital is the default for the church. Amazon did this, right? They started as a digital company first and now has physical expressions. On the other hand, companies like Walmart and Costco are doing the opposite as they started as physical stores and are now pivoting to offering more online options. In the same way, churches need to think about that. So I would prioritize online resourcing and discipling parents and adults, and that could include distributive gatherings. I would also prioritize hiring a next gen director and online service programming director. Basically focus on next gen and the online experience and then reverse engineer from that.
However, this requires a shift in mindset towards digital ministry.
For years people have been afraid about going online, because they were afraid that it would be a backdoor and people would stop coming on Sunday. The issue is that the people who wanted to leave the church already were and people who wanted to go to church online have been doing so for years. The real potential of online church moving forward is that it’s a front door and a side door.
Think about it. If you take your family on a vacation, you are going to check out the restaurants, shops and amenities out online and look at their social media before you arrive. That’s what everyone has been doing for years, even before COVID. So, in the same way, a church’s online presence is a front door.
It’s a side door because long before COVID, attendance was going down due to travel sports, weekends away, and even cold weather. So for years even regular attendees were attending less often, but now with an online presence, they can still engage. So you can actually get greater engagement for both new people and regular attendees with a strong online presence.
The truth is this may make some of us nervous as we think about all of the communicators people can choose from when engaging with church online, but here is the good news.
No one can out local the local church.
The really successful and engaging preacher who has millions of views is not coming to your town. They are not coming to your county. They are not coming to your street. So just do a really good job loving your people. If you can’t afford good lighting or a special microphone for your online programs just get beside a good window, do your best and be authentic. Most people will not watch a really bad video with terrible audio, but you also don’t have to have high production either. If your video has decent sound, you show your heart, and you love your local community including the people who don’t go to church, you will be just fine.
So as we think about the future church and lead in an unknown and unpredictable future, we have to prioritize digital ministry and loving your community as the local church.