March 24, 2021 Tony Morgan

Do we have to embrace digital ministry? (And 10 other questions you’re probably asking…but wish you weren’t.)

Why We Can’t Blame COVID for Questions We’re Facing on Digital Ministry

One of the most common conversations I’m having with church leaders in this season has to do with my prediction regarding this question: “Do we have to embrace digital ministry?” Behind that question is a deep desire to turn back the clock to February 2020 before Covid disrupted how churches engage their mission. After that, of course, all of us were forced to shift 100 percent of our ministry strategy online. 

In the months since, though, we’ve started to re-introduce physical gatherings. And, if you happen to be in the right place in the country and with the right amount of space to meet your local Covid guidelines, you might be fortunate enough to see anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of your pre-Covid attendance.

What we’ve experienced through the last 12 months has just accelerated the trends we’d been seeing in the years before the virus swept across the world. If we want to avoid dealing with the digital ministry strategy question, then we can’t just go back to February 2020. We really need to turn back the clock to 1991 before the first website was launched. Or maybe 1998 before we were able to Google our questions. Or possibly 2004 when we were able to start finding our “friends” on Facebook. Or 2005 when we were able to post our first videos on YouTube. Or, at a minimum, 2007 when Apple put all of this content right in the palm of our hands with the iPhone. 

We can’t blame Covid for questions we’re facing today regarding digital ministry strategies. That train left the station decades ago. Most of us just tried to ignore it for as long as we could. And now many of us are still trying to avoid it. We can’t blame Covid for questions we’re facing today regarding digital ministry strategies. #unstuckchurch Click To Tweet

I don’t blame you for wanting to go back in time. Frankly, it used to be a lot easier for me as well. Back in the early days, I could write a book and deliver the same talk about that book at a handful of conferences around the country and then pastors would call me on our toll-free number to ask for help. (I’m still holding on to that phone number, by the way. If you ever feel like going old school, you can call us at 844-4UNSTUCK. It’s still toll-free. When was the last time you paid for toll calls? I digress.)

I recently read a brief article in the Wall Street Journal about the changes that are happening at Best Buy. Things are good at Best Buy. Sales were up 23% in the third quarter of 2020…in the middle of a global pandemic. Every business owner would gladly take that especially, after what we’ve experienced this past year. Even though business is good, they’re cutting jobs and reducing hours. On the surface, that doesn’t make sense. Sales are up, so we have to cut jobs? 

Early in the pandemic, Best Buy had to close all its stores just like most churches had to close their buildings. You could only use curbside pickup. But by summer, the stores had reopened. And, unlike churches, there are very few limitations for customers who want to go to the store and shop rather than shopping online. Even with that option, though, online sales tripled after their stores reopened.

This was the telling quote from the WSJ article. A Best Buy spokesperson said this:

“As we have said before, customer shopping behavior will be permanently changed in a way that is even more digital. Our workforce will need to evolve to meet the evolving needs of customers while providing more flexible opportunities for our people.”

No, we are not in the electronics business. However, I fully expect that the way in which people interact with our churches will be permanently changed in a way that is even more digital. And, our staff and volunteer teams will need to evolve to meet the evolving needs of people in our congregations and the people we are trying to reach. The way in which people interact with our churches will be permanently changed in a way that is even more digital. #unstuckchurch Click To Tweet

Best Buy is in the process of hiring 1,000 engineers, data scientists and other technology staff over the next two years. They’re reducing jobs in their store environments while at the same time they’re adding jobs to support their online shopping experience. 

Almost every pastor is saying at this point, “I’m glad I don’t sell televisions.” You don’t, but we’re trying to reach the people who are buying those televisions…from their smartphones.

So, many of you may be asking….

Does this mean the church needs to mimic the business world?

Absolutely not. We get to fulfill the Great Commission. But we’re called to do that in today’s world…not the world of the 1980s. The people we are trying to reach today are engaging life in both a physical and digital world. It’s our mission field. Aren’t you humbled that God has called us to this mission? (But don’t we all wish we could go back to the 80s? I miss my mullet haircut.)

Does that mean people aren’t going to come back to physical gatherings?

Not at all. I think many of us will continue to gather in church buildings and in people’s homes. We need that interaction with other people. Even we introverts need relational connections.

Will people keep showing up for the teaching?

Fewer and fewer people will. Churches won’t be able to compete with the online option if it’s just about the content. It’s far too easy to find world-class, content online without having to get in my car and drive across town to consume that content.

So are you saying we should avoid putting our teaching content online?

That’s your choice. But avoiding it is not going to encourage people to show up at your church. It’s going to encourage people to find another teaching option online. The data we collected pre-Covid reflects that as well. We surveyed more than 175 churches in 2019 and found that growing churches are much more likely to share video content through live-streaming, on-demand, YouTube, Vimeo, etc.  Specifically, 85% of growing churches were sharing video content online compared to only 49% of declining churches. 

Then why will people show up for a physical gathering?

Again, it’ll be primarily because they want to engage with people they know. I’ll drive across town to be with friends. Which, again, means we need to help people move from showing up to a service to connecting with others in smaller groups or on smaller teams. That’s how we find our friends.

Is that the only reason why people will prefer a physical gathering?

No. Actually right behind that will be the desire to be a part of an experience that you can’t get online. This is where I think the church needs to revisit its commitment to the arts. Creativity has waned over the last 20 years of my time in ministry. Hearing the same worship song performed over and over again is not going to compel people to show up for a physical gathering.

But what about the “old” people?

Because old people don’t use the Internet or have smartphones? Stop it! That’s such a 2005 argument. My mom can out-Facebook you any day of the week. And, she’s watching three different online services every Sunday. And she’s participating in an online Bible study. If you have old people in your church, you better have a digital ministry strategy or they’re probably going to find another church.

But what about the people without the Internet?

That’s actually a fair question. I know there are rural parts of the country that don’t have access to high speed internet. To some extent, you’ve been shielded from having to deal with developing a digital ministry strategy because your community isn’t actively living their lives online. Here’s the challenge for you. Within the next year, even rural communities will have access to high speed internet. Thank you Elon Musk.

Do we really need to hire different staff people?

Yes. The people on your team now were hired because they know how to build teams and leverage physical ministry environments to help people take their next steps toward Jesus. Unless you have unlimited resources, you will likely need to prune that team to free up financial resources to hire the people who know how to build teams and leverage digital ministry environments to help people take their next steps toward Jesus. Smaller churches who can’t hire more staff? You will need to build new volunteer teams like you do in every other area of your ministry.

Does The Unstuck Group help churches make this transition to embrace digital ministry?

Yes, we do. We’ve been helping churches with this transition for a number of years, but we’ve certainly increased that focus in the last 12 months. Right now, we’re working with churches of less than 500 and churches of well over 10,000 in pre-Covid attendance as they develop their digital strategies.

You can reach out to learn more through our website or if you’re ready to get in touch with our team, get started here.

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Tony Morgan

Tony is the Chief Strategic Officer and founder of The Unstuck Group, theunstuckgroup.com. For 14 years, Tony served on the senior leadership teams at West Ridge Church (Dallas, GA), NewSpring Church (Anderson, SC) and Granger Community Church (Granger, IN). He's written several books and articles that have been featured with the Willow Creek Association, Catalyst and Pastors.com.