Practical Conversations to Help You Start Positioning for Long-Term Digital Success
As part of the most recent Unstuck Masterclass, I had the opportunity to interview Nona Jones and Jeff Brodie on the shift that’s happening from engaging new people with in-person services to engaging them online. Nona serves as the head of Facebook’s faith-based partnerships, and Jeff is the lead pastor at Connexus Church in Barrie, Ontario.
They each brought such a unique perspective on how the church can engage and reach people in a digital culture, so I thought I’d share portions of those interviews with you.
It’s a really practical conversation. Nona gives some memorable analogies that I think will shape your thinking about digital strategy well into the future (viewing our mission as the Church in terms of “fishing” vs. “tending an aquarium” is one I particularly loved).
And Jeff walks you through how Connexus pivoted at the start of the pandemic, and specific examples of what they’re doing that’s working, where they’ve missed it, and how they are restructuring their whole team around digital for the long-haul. I alluded to some of the things Jeff and his team are learning back in Episode 163, but here he gives specifics and goes much deeper.
Head of Faith Based Partnerships
In this episode, I talk with Nona and Jeff about:
- How social technology is completely different from broadcast technology, and how most churches are (STILL!) set up to broadcast
- What Nona Jones calls the “death spiral of church” and how prevalent it is across the Church today
- Why the idea that church requires a date, time and location is completely limiting, and ultimately, doesn’t match what Jesus modeled for us
- Why the opportunity for us to know WHO is in our mission field is greater than ever before
- The most untapped territory on Facebook for churches
- How Connexus Church has navigated the digital transition, reworked and simplified the staff structure, and made a new plan to connect people into community
- Lead magnets, and how much more effective they are than a digital connect card
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Links & Resources from the Episode
- From Social Media to Social Ministry by Nona Jones
- Barna 2020 State of the Church Report
- Connexus Church’s Lead Magnet
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Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we’re exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. As part of the most recent Unstuck Masterclass, Tony had the opportunity to interview Nona Jones and Jeff Brodie on the shift that’s happening from engaging new people in in-person services to engaging them online. Nona Jones serves as the head of Facebook’s faith-based partnerships. And Jeff Brodie is the lead pastor at Connexus Church in Barrie, Ontario. Both bringing unique perspective on how the church can engage a digital culture. And in this week’s episode, they share practical ideas of how your church can as well. Before you listen today though, make sure you stop and subscribe to get the show notes. Every week, you’re going to get one email with all of our resources, including the leader conversation guide, bonus resources and access to our podcast resource archive. Just go to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast and subscribe. To start us off, let’s listen to Tony’s conversation with Nona Jones on how churches can foster real relationships with people they’re engaging online.
Nona, you wrote in your book, “From Social Media to Social Ministry,” this line, “Churches were significantly underrepresented when it came to using social technology.” And this is, I think, from when you started your role at Facebook. First of all, when I read that, I thought it’s true and it kind of makes me sad. But why do you think it is that churches have been rather slow to embrace social media and technology?
You know, well, great question. And first of all, thank you so much for having me and even having this conversation. I think it’s honestly because I don’t know when it happened. I don’t know how it happened, but I think somewhere along the line of the history of the church, I think we’ve kind of come to define church as a place you go, as a program that you watch. And so, because of that, I think people have been slow to adapt to anything other than that which gets people to a building. And so even, you know, when you think about how social technology has been used, it was primarily predominantly for marketing to get people to the building, to the program. So I think that’s pretty much where the challenge has come in at and, you know, in full transparency, you know, my husband and I, we pastor a local church. And so when I came to Facebook, I came to Facebook really also having that same paradigm. It wasn’t until I began to, I think, educate myself on the potential that I realized, wait a minute, like we are not optimizing social technology at all for ministry.
Yeah. Well, and for those churches that are using digital ministry strategies, most of that has really focused on broadcasting information. And so you wrote a little bit about this in your book, and maybe the other way to ask question, you know, is this really the best way to leverage our digital ministry strategies? And is it okay just to be only streaming our online services or do we need to think broader than that?
Great question too. So let me say, when it comes to media, the traditional form of media is, as you said, it’s broadcast, which is this idea of, I have a message. I’m going to send it out to the masses. Hopefully they receive it. I don’t really know. And think about it, you know, our services are set up in a broadcast format, right? So someone gets up and they speak to the audience, and the audience hopefully receives what they have to say. Then they go home. But social media, social technology is completely different than broadcast technology because broadcast is A to B. Social is from A to B, B to C, C to A, A to C. It’s meant to be between and among. It’s meant to facilitate relationships. And that’s a very different approach than broadcast. Broadcast is about sharing information. Social really, should be about facilitating and fostering relationships, which is why, when I wrote the book “From Social Media to Social Ministry,” my entire approach was using social technology for discipleship, because discipleship is the relational maturation of your faith. It happens in relationship. What happens on a weekend is not discipleship. That is communicating the message, but discipleship requires being in relationship. And so, broadcast media, in my view, is really kind of the lowest form of ministry because what you’re doing is you’re just kind of standing up and saying, I have something to say. I hope somebody listens. Whereas social technology and social media is saying, I have something to say, but before I say what I have to say, what’s on your mind? And let me talk to you and engage you in a conversation.
Nona, you wrote “relationships really are the foundation of discipleship,” but I don’t know. I mean, you and your husband are pastors. You’ve probably heard this from pastors. There’s a pushback when it comes to any digital ministry strategies, this sense that relationship really can’t be built online. And so what do you think? I mean, can online church be real church? Can it work that way?
Well, I’m laughing because I’m going to answer your question by giving you a real story. February 4th of this year, I was heading to London, and I was heading there to speak at a digital ministry conference. And the day before, February 3rd, Barna Research had released their 2020 State of the Church report. And I bookmarked it on my iPad because I planned to read it on my way to London. And so, you know, we get up in the air and I, you know, I pull out my iPad, and as I’m reading through the 2020 State of the Church Report, one of the sections discussed what were the top concerns on pastor’s minds. And there was a list of 22 items, and they were ordered chronologically from number one being most important to number 22 being least. The first thing, the most important thing on pastors’ minds was watered down gospel teaching. So they were concerned about teaching that, you know, tickles the ears, but it doesn’t transform lives. Number 21. So we’re getting down to the bottom of the list, like last thing on people’s minds. Number 21 was a concern about disruptions to the traditional model of church, such as online church or house churches. That’s number 21. The last thing on pastor’s minds, number 22, was trends in digital technology. And so February 4th, right? I’m reading this. Who would have known two, three weeks later that the entire global church would be forced to close its doors. And suddenly we will be confronted with the reality that, wait a minute, if church doesn’t happen in a building and we can only do it online, what does that make church? So to answer your question, I think pastors all over the country and the world have now been forced to realize that, whereas before, we thought that I had to be eyeball to eyeball with you in order to minister to you, now we’re realizing that digital spaces are filled with real people who have real needs and who have real desires to know Jesus and who want to grow in their faith. So it’s never a question of whether or not we can somehow, you know, impact people’s lives digitally. It’s a question are we willing to trust the power of God to impact people’s lives, whether we see them or not? You know, I think about, you know, this is something that I’ve been thinking about deeply. I think about the story of the woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment, and she was made whole because of her faith. She didn’t have to look Jesus in the eye and say, “Hey, Jesus, would you please heal me?” Like she didn’t have to do that. All she had to do was to get proximate to the power of God, and God’s power does not cease to move when we leave a church building. So I think, I think people now have that recognition.
So, you know, I’ve been working with churches for, on the ground at least, for more than a dozen years now, Nona, and there’s this natural reflex where when church attendance starts to decline, our natural tendency, I think as pastors, is to try to hold on to all the people that are currently connected to our church. And we start to neglect the mission God’s called us to, which is to go fish for people. In this first session, we’re trying to push against that tendency and to begin to think outward again, to think about the mission God’s called us to, but how do we to do that, especially thinking about a digital approach to this?
So this is one of the most important aspects of digital discipleship to me. I think the scripture you’re referencing is Matthew 4:19, where Jesus said, “follow me and I will send you out to fish for men.” Jesus said, “follow me.” That’s the first call to action. The second call to action is when you follow me, I will send you out. I think what you have articulated is frankly, what I consider to be the death spiral of church, which is, yes, I know Jesus told me to go out, but instead of being fishers of men, I’m going to go ahead and keep this aquarium that I have. I’m going to attend to the aquarium. And what’s happened is we are now the keepers of fishbowls, not even aquariums. The average church in America has less than a hundred people as members and sometimes maybe 20 or 30 people attending on a weekend. And so I think we do have to get back to a missional approach to ministry. That’s what we’ve been called to do. We’ve been called to go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations. You know, I’m speaking as one who leads a ministry. I think it is gratifying when you’re standing up, you know, on a platform, and you have a room full of people looking at you. Of course that’s gratifying, but that’s not what we’ve been called to do. Jesus did not say, Hey guys, I have this incredible parable. I have this miracle working power. Come see me at the temple this weekend at 11. And I’ll share it with you. That’s not what Jesus did. Jesus met people where they were, where they were at any moment. If they needed healing, he would heal them where they were. If they needed insight, he would give it to them where they were. I think if we truly want to build God’s kingdom, we are going to have to realize that this idea that church requires a date, time and location, is completely limiting. And I think the last thing I’ll say is this, something I’m deeply passionate about is really helping us get back to a kingdom-building mentality. It doesn’t matter how many followers you have if those followers are not following Jesus through you. We’re called to be conduits. And my hope and my prayer is even through this conversation that people will return to that mindset. If you have two people in the building, but you have 2000 people connected with you through social, that’s still winning.
Absolutely. Well, we’re beginning this first session talking about how to design and build a digital engagement strategy with this foundational aspect of needing to know who are we trying to reach and what are their needs? In other words, we need to know our mission field. So I’m reading your book and I’m looking through this, and I’m realizing, my goodness, the opportunity for us to know our mission field and know the real needs of people in our mission field is really greater than it’s ever been before. Can you help us think about how we can be leveraging social media and actually specifically Facebook to understand our mission field even better?
Yeah. So, I’ll explain it by asking you to imagine your Facebook presence as a house. All right. So I’ll give you that analogy. So your Facebook presence is a house, your page is like your front porch. That’s the public space. Anybody driving along the street can see your front porch. Facebook live becomes like you opening your front door. So you’re interacting with the people on your front porch. They’re the audience. They’re on your front porch to learn more about you, so you’re giving them that opportunity. Now, if you only have a front porch and a front door, what you essentially will have is what I call a movie set. All right. It doesn’t really help. It’s just aesthetic. What you need is a living room. You need a space where people can go so that you can sit down, have conversations. And that is what Facebook groups are. Groups are the space where people can actually gather together, get to know each other, get to know you. It’s the place where ministry can happen. Within Facebook groups there are a ton of tools. One in particular that I really like are learning units. What learning units lets you do is it lets you organize content so that people can actually take them as modular learning, also known as discipleship. So let’s say you do a series on prayer, and you can create a prayer learning unit with video, with texts, with graphics and people can take each module in that prayer unit. It helps people grow together. It helps people learn together. I think that’s probably the most untapped territory for most ministries. Everyone has a page. Everyone’s going live, but after the live stream ends, you need a place where people can do life together. The live stream really represents the episodic nature of a church service, but now we have to create an actual place for people to go and grow together. And so Facebook groups is what I talk about extensively in my book because I believe that’s really the next level of ministry on social.
Now let’s shift to Tony’s conversation with Jeff Brodie, lead pastor at Connexus Church. Jeff shares thoughts on how his church has navigated the digital transition as well as some practical ideas of how your church can, too.
So we’re talking about digital engagement in today’s Masterclass, and actually, Connexus Church, you’ve made a pretty big pivot when it comes to digital ministry strategy. Can you give us the thinking behind why you’ve made this move?
Absolutely. And just really looking forward to the opportunity to have that conversation today. I think, for us, we had been providing services online for about five years. We’d done that. And so I would say we’re up to our ankles maybe on the digital church front. And we knew that. We knew that, and we really did feel like digital was going to be a huge part of the future. And I think we had experimented with some different things along the way. But we couldn’t figure out how to staff it. We couldn’t figure out how are we going to scale up all the staff that we would need to really do it well? And so, if there is a gift from COVID that we would take, it was all of a sudden we had the ability to staff whatever we wanted digitally. And so on one hand, while it was a really challenging time back in March, April for everybody, I was also excited. I mean, I actually got accused by some staff of being overly excited because I was just so excited about the opportunity that was ahead. The other thing that we saw was the things that we had experimented and felt like, ooh, they weren’t really catching. I’ll give you an example, like small groups, we’d experimented with digital small groups and felt like they didn’t really get momentum pre-COVID. All of a sudden everybody wanted to be online for group. And so what happened was the thing that we saw coming, I felt like it was like a 10-year advancement in the church on the digital front all in one day, and we had the staff to do it. And so it was okay, what is the kind of horsepower that we need to do this? So probably I would say it was probably eight days in. I think it was a Friday. I was sitting at my desk eight or nine days in and thought we need to restructure the whole staff. And so I came back on Monday, met with my exec team. And that day I rolled out here, this is a brand new staffing structure, and we basically simplified it, broke the staff at that point into two categories. One category was content and communications. I knew enough to know that we were going to have to put out a lot of content really quickly. And our kids in our student ministry weren’t yet online in the way they needed to. There’d be a big shift content. So all of a sudden we’re going to need a ton of stuff, content pumped out, and we’d need to communicate it well. And then I knew we would need to connect people really quickly, that we would see a lot of people joining us. We’d see a lot of groups having to move online. And, such a significant number of groups we knew would be the backbone of the church. And so we needed somebody to think about how’re we going to connect people into community. How are we going to connect new guests? And it was bumpy. But we did it. It was like all in one day. We said here we go. This is what we’re doing. We actually weren’t on Slack yet. We also moved to Slack that day. It was hey, by the end of the day, no inter-staff email is allowed. By the end of the day today everybody’s on Slack, and we made that pivot in one day. The team was very, very gracious to me. And I would say once we made that pivot, it allowed us to be able to think differently. And the way I kind of did that, which might be helpful to people, is I called a couple of people I knew who ran online companies to ask them how they structured. So Carey Neuhoff is a good friend. So obviously I called him and said, how do you do it? My brother-in-law is one of the owners of ArtStation. If anybody wants to check that out, it’s like Facebook for digital artists. They work with Industrial Light & Magic and get artists for star Wars. And he runs a totally online massive company. And it really, when you talk to everybody, these were the two categories it kind of broke down to.
That’s good. I wanted to hear from you, what have been some of the early wins for you as you’ve made this shift to digital strategy? And if you’re willing to share the things that haven’t worked too, gosh, that would, I think, really be helpful for the churches that are participating today, Jeff.
Yeah, we made a lot of mistakes. So if you’ve made a lot of mistakes, you are in the same camp as us for sure. I think for us, some of the things that we tried, I think a lot of trips have been in this boat, struggled to connect what you would term a “new guest.” And that’s because new guests have shifted. So 90+ percent of the new guests we had at our facility pre-COVID had watched online for up to a year. Now when you get a new guest, they’re seeing you for the very first time. And so early on, we tried “new here” cards for a couple of weeks. We tried, hey, we’re going to deliver a gift to your house. We’re going to make a donation in your honor. Jeff’s going to come give you a high-five. I mean, we would give anything to get you to fill out this card, which was way too much information. And a lot of churches have realized, hey, that doesn’t work. And so I would say that the solution that we’ve come up with that we’re really happy with is we use a lead magnet, what you would term lead magnet in kind of the content marketing world.
So explain that because in marketing world, we understand that, but for church leaders, that’s a whole new conversation.
Yeah, I still believe in Jesus, but I think we can learn from content marketers. And so lead magnet is a huge thing. I’ve learned from Carey on this. My friend, Rich Birch, actually has been, you know, when they started, they both started Connexus, I was a part of the team then. So I know both of them. And, Rich is really good at this. I’ve learned a lot from him, but it’s a resource, a piece of content that people want that they’re willing to make a value exchange for. They’re going, this is valuable enough to me that I’m going to give you my email address if you’re going to give me that content. And people want it now. They don’t want like a mug that I’m going to ship in the mail that they’re going to get a week later. They don’t even want the gift I’m going to deliver to their house on Sunday afternoon. They want it. This sounds great. I want it now. And so, what we’ve done is we’ve done an ebook that I made out of one of my previous series. We wrote an ebook. It’s got links in it. It’s called “How to Hear from God.” Super practical. And we plug it on Sundays and say, hey, if you don’t have this resource, we need you to get it. Then what we do is, it’s open to anybody. Then what we do is we cross reference it against the database and pull out all the people who signed up for it, who weren’t in the database. We know they’re new, and then they get personalized, we use BombBomb. There are other sort of email, video strategies, personal messages, video message from one of our staff members reaching out to them to connect them. And so we’ve seen more new guests share their information with us in the last six weeks than all the rest of COVID put together. Probably two to three times as many. But it’s work. You have to kind of run it by your database, and depending on the quality of your database, gives you more or less ability to do that. And our hope now is I’ve just finished working on another ebook now. We hope to have five of them rotate through and that hit felt needs that a new guest is going to say, hey, I want to get my hands on that. So that’s something that’s worked really, really well. I would say a couple full of good learnings for us is we’re not meeting them person on Sunday mornings, but we’ve been holding some kind of like outdoor nights of worship. So we can hold that for up to a hundred people here currently. And so we would hold an outdoor night of worship and we made these pop signs that we would hold. You know the pop signs, super trendy, everybody, you know, holds them up by the road? And they said, we were going to make some pop signs. We’re going to put “Welcome Back” on them. And I’m like, okay, great. Like go for it. And then I saw us with the “Welcome Back” sign. But as I talked to people who were there, I realized many of them had felt like they hadn’t left, like they hadn’t been to our building, but they’re still just as connected to us. I love the message you gave last week. And this is what I found out. People were saying to me, I really loved this series. And what I realized, Tony, is the reason they loved the series is because they watched it all. Because when they attended physically in the summer, they only came two of the four weeks, but they watched the whole thing because they watched it on their vacation or they watched it when they’re by the lake. So they’re actually more connected, think about that, than when they attended our actual building, and so I realized welcome back is not the right word. And then we had, we had families there who were new. It was the first physical event they’d ever attended with us. They’d never been to our building. And so you’re running into those families and like, they’re not really first-time guests. They don’t consider themselves first-time guests. They consider themselves a part of the community, and they’ve come to this environment. And so, part of it has been, oh, wow. We need to really start to think about our language. I would encourage everybody to do that around who’s a guest? What does engagement mean? What is connection? What is community? What’s a gathering? What’s in person,? Tony, you and I are, I think we’re meeting in person right now. So, but we’re not in the same room. So what is it because people on your team are using all of those words, and they’re just saying whatever they mean to them. And the question is, what are those things mean to you? And I would say, I wish we had defined those things earlier. We’re really getting to define some of them now. So, that’s something I wish I had done much, much earlier is thought a lot more about the language that we use.
Would you be willing to share what you can about some of the structure shifts that you’re making so that this becomes a part of who your church is going forward?
Yeah, I think, talking about the kind of change moving forward. I was in a meeting yesterday where we would normally plan our sermon series for the year, and we didn’t do that. We’d planned, it was like what content that we need to do and what avenues do we need to do it in? It wasn’t about Sunday morning preaching. I mean, that’s just one little example of how everything is going to change. And some content we were preaching that we shouldn’t have been preaching. What we should’ve been doing is, we shouldn’t have been preaching it. We should have made it a course. We should’ve made it an article so thinking that through. On the staffing structure standpoint, yeah, for us, I had just two weeks before COVID, he started. A gentlemen named Joseph Swan, from Life Church in Australia, joined our exec team. And on the side of his role at his previous church, he had a web design/app design company, familiar with SEO optimization, all those pieces. Joined our team. We thought it’s nice to have, you know, that he has these digital skills. Little did we know two weeks later. He and my other exec director actually are so new that they’ve been with us in COVID longer than they are on our staff team prior to that, so all they know is digital with us. And what we’re going to do is basically Joseph’s role, his role, is going to become a majority digital. He’s going to be responsible for our service experiences and digital, and it’s all about digital content, how it goes out. He’s going to have a team around him that’s analyzing the data, all of those pieces, you know, from the analytics standpoint to what platforms do we want to be on to what social media platforms don’t we want to be on? What should our social media be focused on? Which platform saying what? What’s our angle? He’s going to handle all of that stuff, which I think is going to set us up well for the future. Because digital prior to COVID for us was probably 25% of one person’s job. And now we’re moving to, okay, now we’re going to turn this into a whole team that’s really going to move this forward because it really is going to be, you know, the foreseeable future. We can see that for sure. I think even in how we think about on online and how we compare it is going to teach us a lot about that. You know, you look at digital services, we’ll say, hey, in-person service versus a digital service. We’ll look at those, and we’ll compare them apples to apples, but they’re not. If you’re a single mom, a physical service, that means you’re only going to go once a month. A digital service means you’re going to go every week. It’s not the same for everybody. And that’s ministry. That’s figuring out where people are at, trying to reach them, setting yourself up well to do that. So I really do think digital would be a huge part of the future.
Any sense of what percentage of your staff is going to be dedicated to digital going forward? I won’t hold you to it.
Yeah. I mean, I’ll tell you what we’re thinking about doing. So this is like fresh. My staff don’t know this, but I’m sure nobody on this…But I think what we’re going to do is we’re going to actually split the budget. We’re going to split the budget, and we’re going to look at the percentages of salaries. And we’re going to look at what is actually digital? What is actually physical? And then that gives me the ability to dial up or dial down the resources. So if I want to dial up on the digital-side more, where can I dial down on the physical side and vice versa? Now in people’s worlds, these things meld together now. They’re not two separate categories anymore. Nobody will ever see them that way again. You know, when I went to Starbucks today, I looked the thing up on my app, and then I pay with my app, but I went through the drive-through at a physical location. It’s a melded experience. That’s what church will be like moving forward. But for me to be able to figure out how to resource it most effectively, I think we’ll separate it in two. And so I don’t know what the percentage is because I think it’s higher than I think it is once we actually drill down on everybody’s time and how they’re actually using it. But I would guess, at the very least, it’s gotta be a third, maybe as high as a half.
Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. If you’d like to get access to the full four-hour masterclass on “The Church’s New Digital Front Door,” as well previous masterclasses, just go to theunstuckgroup.com/coaching. If you like what you’re hearing on the podcast and it’s been helpful for you, we’d love your help in getting the content out farther. You can do that by subscribing on your favorite podcasting platform, telling somebody else about the podcast and giving us a review. Next week, we’re back with another brand new episode, so until then, have a great week.