In a post-pandemic world, there is universal awareness that people spend their time differently. The mindsets that drive their behaviors have shifted and disrupted the weekly, monthly, and seasonal cadences for people and families. Businesses feel it. Schools feel it. And churches feel it.
Recently, Crossroads Church in Cincinnati commissioned a study that shows Sunday attendance is now a lagging indicator of engagement.
Let that sink in.
The mindset used to be that if we’re able to get someone to attend a weekend gathering, that would be our best chance to lead them to take next steps. This helped to push a lot of innovations on Sunday: modern music, welcoming environments, topical teachings, louder pastors, and higher (and higher) production budgets.
What about now? By the time someone steps foot on your campus, they’ve already learned a lot about you. They've engaged with your church in some way and are looking for something more.
Some churches are digging out old playbooks and returning to a less digital version of the local church. They believe an increase in physical, in-person programming is the remedy for a culture that has experienced a digital overdose.
Other churches are moving towards technological innovation. They are creating new playbooks with new tools and techniques. They are not leaning on yesterday’s programming (even if it is safe and comfortable). They are paving the way for a version of the church that is both physical and digital. Not a hybrid version, but an integrated one.
Neither approach is necessarily wrong. But I believe the church that retreats from digital environments will likely have short-term, generational gains, while the integrated church will have a long-term, multi-generational impact.
Let’s look a little closer at how behavior is shifting:
1. How are people receiving teachings today?…and not just Christian teachings. Online consumption of digital media has increased in every way imaginable, but through vehicles that provide higher relevance in shorter (but more frequent) bursts of time.
2. How are people learning about the needs and troubles of their community? Social media (and the algorithms!) have swung people to fixations on extremely specific and polarizing viewpoints of their world. These fixations manifest their way into everyday conversation.
3. How are people connecting with their neighbors? Their community? The constant state of busyness coupled with easy, minimal time commitment bursts of technology has continually disconnected people away from their physical neighbors, and towards new digital neighbors. Your community becomes defined by those that you are either also busy with (kids’ soccer games anyone?) or via short bursts of glamor-filled Stories and Reels.
4. How are people supporting causes they care about? Hint: People are still tithing, but it’s through platforms such as Kickstarter, GoFundMe, Patreon, Twitch, etc.
The FAANGs (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google) are creating dramatic shifts in behavior that the church has struggled to adapt to. In his book, MetaChurch, Dave Adamson says:
In a world of smartphones, smart homes, smartwatches, smart lights, and smart cars, the Church has found itself outsmarted. Somewhere along the way, we got in our minds that tradition was worth protecting at all costs – even at the expense of effectiveness.
So how do we innovate? How do we keep up with these internet giants?
(What? Is that not always the right answer?)
Okay, let me be more specific: the local church. Let me say that again. What is our greatest unique asset that we should not undervalue, especially in a time of great change? The. Local. Church.
The local church is not just your building. It's the community that gathers there and the spaces they gather at. It's the living rooms, coffee shops, front porches, maybe even the grocery store.
Despite the behavioral shift the FAANGs have driven, people still have an intrinsic desire for community, connection, and personal experiences. I believe we should look at the type of digital transformations that companies like Target, Home Depot, Chick-Fil-A, Starbucks, and more have gone through to not only stay relevant in a digital world, but to thrive both digitally and physically.
Think about your people. To them, they don’t care about online campus or hybrid or any combination of the above. From their perspective, it’s just church. I don’t consider myself a hybrid Starbucks customer because I use their app to place a pickup order sometimes. I don’t consider myself a digital Walmart customer because I leverage their home delivery services. I just need my caffeine fix and my life of busyness ain’t got no time for errands.
These types of experiences - those that help meet my needs, on my own terms, where I’m presently at - are how we can help drive people “back” to Church (notice the big-C).
Personally… I’ve actually started going to Walmart (in person!) after almost exclusively shopping on Amazon for years. That started with trying out their home delivery and pickup orders and a free trial of Walmart+. These services were useful: helped me to shop on my own terms and gave me value (goods I needed!) in less time.
But, something else also happened: through more frequent engagements on their platform I discovered more about the products they sell and the services they offer (like mobile checkout!). Eventually, I started shopping in-store more as a result of increased engagements that started digitally. I even told family and friends in casual conversation about these conveniences.
Has Walmart “discipled” me?
Before I finish, let me pause for a moment and clarify something. Jesus doesn’t need technology to reach the people He Loves. And He certainly doesn’t need us, either. Those may be sobering truths, but they are not a cause for inaction. I believe Jesus is honored when we use the tools at our disposal to help grow the Kingdom He Intends.
So, here are three thoughts to experiment with to help grow that Kingdom:
1. Don’t silo engagement: people shouldn't be defined as online or hybrid or in-person. Rather, let them engage how they want to and when they want to. Invest in ways that can increase those frequencies.
2. Re-consider your customer journey: realize that Sunday is just one part of that journey. Help understand what their needs are and develop experiences that make church relevant in more of those moments.
3. Shift your focus to relevance: as Nathan Artt shares in his blog, “Focus on relevance over convenience. Relevance is understanding what people are looking for at the time they need it most. Convenience is taking something someone may or may not want and making it more accessible.”