April 17, 2016 Ryan Stigile

Future Church: Leaning into the Digital Disruption

Digital

Digital disruption has been at work for a while. It has ripped newspaper companies to shreds, flipped the music industry on its head, and given the United States Postal Service a fit. We’re starting to feel its effects in the Church, as well.

Harvard Business Review recently shared a study of industries anticipating moderate to massive digital disruption. Nonprofits were only a few points behind Technology companies with over 50% of executive leaders anticipating digital disruption in the next 12 months. Though the Church was not ranked separate from other nonprofits, there are a couple reasons I believe we are prone to major shifts:

1. We’re still thinking small when it comes to technology.

Church leaders still tend to think of digital as “that thing the Communications Director deals with.” But as HBR put it, “Digital is no longer the shiny front end of the organization – it’s integrated into every aspect of today’s [organizations].” Websites and social media pages are no longer enough. Building a mobile app is no longer enough. All of those are “add-on” approaches to digital; a fresh coat of paint on a rusty old car. When true digital innovation comes to the Church, that car won’t even run anymore.

2. Our “industry” has the makings of a perfect, disruptive storm.

The author at HBR indicated two forces within an industry primed for disruption: (1) it’s easy for new startups to get involved and (2) most current organizations are utilizing large, legacy models. It should be no surprise that the Church has both qualities. This generation of church planters has proven they can start without large resources or even a building. And many established churches are running off the same model they’ve used for years. These are the makings of a perfect, disruptive storm.

 

So what will digital disruption look like in the Church? It’s going to be hard to predict. (That’s what makes it a “disruption.”) But you can get a sense by paying attention to digital trends in business, other non-profits, and new church plants.

How are they utilizing technology to serve people in new ways?

Here are a few trends I’m seeing:

  • More and more businesses have highly engaged customers who have never stepped foot into their physical store.
  • If you ask anyone under 30 to grab their Bible, they’re most likely going to reach for the phone in their pocket.
  • Online education isn’t an idea anymore. It’s quickly becoming an accepted approach.
  • Online dating and dating apps have lost their stigma. Pew’s latest research shared that about one-in-five 18- to 24-year olds are using mobile dating apps. And, nearly half of Americans know a couple who met through online dating sites.
  • Millennials are rapidly replacing cable with Netflix. They’re done trying to consume content on somebody else’s schedule. (How might that impact Sunday service times and teaching series?)
  • Uber succeeded by giving people the same service as a taxi but in a way that was more convenient for them.
  • Compassion International has made it possible to send a letter to your sponsor child directly from your phone. No need for pen and paper on your part.

What might these trends mean for your church? What ministry opportunities could they unlock if you choose to embrace them? You can wait for disruption to hit and then try your best to catch up. Or you can be a part of creating it. It’s much easer to thrive in seasons of change when you’re on the front-end driving innovation.

So how can you engage the coming shift and help create the Church’s future?

Here a few ways to start:

  1. Stop “Doing Digital” and Start “Being Digital”

Most churches think about technology on a project-by-project basis. They decide to start online streaming or hire someone to build an app. That’s “doing digital.” You’ll cross the project off your list only to find yourself behind the curve once again a few months later. “Being digital” requires you to think about how you can apply technology to every scenario. Launching new small groups? How can “being digital” make them easier to get connected? Seeing new people meet Jesus? How can “being digital” help them grow in the weeks ahead? Look to “be digital” in every aspect of ministry.

  1. Put a Digital-Thinker on the Senior Leadership Team

Communications Directors and IT staff have long been looked at as executors of strategy. But as technology continues to rise in importance, you need them at the table to create the right strategy. I often find these staff members have more to offer than they’re asked for. Many have valuable ideas but lack the influence needed to implement them. At The Unstuck Group, we believe in getting the right gifts at the senior leadership table, regardless of where they sit on the organizational chart. To fully engage the digital disruption, you need a digital-thinker on the senior leadership team.

  1. Make It Easier to Miss a Sunday and Stay Engaged

It is no secret that people are attending church less often. You can fight that trend but you are going to lose. (Remember Sunday nights and Wednesday evenings?) Rather than trying to strong-arm people into attending every week, spend your time making it easier for them to stay engaged when they miss. Encourage them to catch the message online or via podcast. Resource them digitally to study the topic throughout the week. People are used to staying connected with companies without ever walking through their doors. It is possible to keep them connected with your church.

  1. Build Data Into Your Decision-Making

As the world around us is changing faster than ever before, our assumptions about ministry are quickly becoming outdated. Gut instincts and past successes are becoming less reliable. You need real-time information to form the clearest perspective and make the best decisions. Just a few weeks ago, I was talking with a pastor about his church’s health metrics. After our conversation he shared, “I had felt unsettled for a while but I didn’t know why. These numbers made it clear.” Data isn’t everything. But it does bring a clearer perspective to decision-makers.

I’m very excited to see what the Church looks like in the years to come. Our future is bright as our methods develop. Let’s continue to share the transformational message of the Gospel in formats most relevant to those far from God. Let’s lean in and lead toward digital disruption.

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Ryan Stigile

Ryan Stigile

Ryan is the Director of Strategic Resources for The Unstuck Group. Previously, as Director of Expansion at NewPointe Community Church (NE Ohio), Ryan led the launch and development of new multisite campuses. With Mount Paran Church (Atlanta, GA), he guided the leadership team through a strategic change initiative to simplify and align its ministries. Ryan has a Master of Business Administration from Kennesaw State University and degrees in business administration and discipleship ministry from Lee University.
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