March 31, 2021 Tony Morgan

How Sun Valley Church is Building Their Digital Strategy – Episode 186 | The Unstuck Church Podcast

What Digital Ministry Really Looks Like (Part 1)

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We’ve been coaching churches to find a leader for their digital ministry strategies, and in this week’s episode we’re sitting down with a church which has done exactly that.

As churches continue to embrace a hybrid model (with both online and in-person ministry strategies), we thought it would be helpful to hear some real-world examples of what that looks like and what shifts are being made.

Paul Alexander, the Executive Pastor at Sun Valley Community Church, and Mika Casey, their Digital Strategies Lead Director, join me and Amy Anderson to talk through practical questions around digital ministry strategy like:

  • What does your digital strategy actually look like?
  • Are you building a digital team or creating digital-focused roles on each team?
  • How do you find the right person to lead your digital ministry?
  • How do you reach new people online?
Your digital strategy needs to focus on connecting and relating with the person on the other side of that email address or phone number. It's about true connection, not convenience. #unstuckchurch [episode 186]Click to Tweet Digital ministry is a long-term strategy not a quick fix. #unstuckchurch [episode 186]Click To Tweet

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We use #unstuckchurch on Twitter, and we start a real-time conversation each Wednesday morning when the episode drops. We’d really love to hear from you during this time:

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Transcript 

Sean (00:03):

Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we’re exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. Over the last year, there’s been a lot of conversation about digital ministry. Many churches were forced into digital ministry almost overnight because of COVID. But now churches are asking questions about its effectiveness, how to measure it, and whether we should do it at all as we return to in-person services. On this week’s podcast, Tony and Amy start a two-part series of conversations with a church that’s going all in on their digital strategy. Joining them for this conversation are Paul Alexander, executive pastor at Sun Valley Church, and Mika Casey, their digital strategies lead director. Make sure before you listen to subscribe to get the show notes in your inbox. Every week you get one email with our leader conversation guide, all the resources we mention and access to our podcast resource archive. You can sign up by going to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast. Now let’s join Tony and Amy for today’s conversation with the team from Sun Valley.

Amy (01:03):

Well, Tony, I am so excited for our conversation today. You know, for months we’ve been coaching churches to find a leader for their digital strategies, especially in this hybrid church world now, and today we get to hear from a church that’s done that, and we get to hear what they’re learning, which is a lot. So Tony, how about you introduce our listeners to our guests today?

Tony (01:24):

Yeah, so first of all, I want to introduce Paul Alexander. Paul and I have known each other for many, many years. And he’s actually, I think, the longest tenured ministry consultant now for The Unstuck Group. And so Paul’s day job, he’s executive pastor at a great church in Phoenix, but Paul, I’ll let you kind of explain your role and tell us a little bit about Sun Valley, too.

Paul (01:46):

Yeah. Thanks, Tony. I appreciate you having me on. Hopefully the conversation’s helpful. I serve as the executive pastor at Sun Valley Community Church. It’s a large multi-site church out in the Phoenix metro area. And over the last 10 years, we’ve gone from one site to now six sites. It’s been a really fun journey. And now with all of the digital stuff that we’re doing, lots of brand new stuff to dive into.

Tony (02:11):

Yeah. And joining Paul today, Mika Casey. Mika is a brand new to the team. And we’re going to hear more about his role as Amy alluded to. He’s, I don’t know. Mika, what’s your official title? Do you have one?

Mika (02:25):

Yes, I do. I’m the digital strategies lead director. Sorry that’s kind of a mouthful.

Tony (02:27):

That’s fancy. That’s fancy. As Amy mentioned, it’s that new role that we’ve been talking about for so long over these last number of months, and several churches now have been in the process of finding their Mika, by helping the church think about digital strategy going forward. So, Mika, can you just give, because your background is unique too, so we’re going to talk about your role in the next few moments, but tell us about your background before you joined the team at Sun Valley.

Mika (03:02):

Sure. So, coming out of high school, I went right into IT. I worked for companies like IBM, Discover Financial Services. And back in 2004, when I was 22, I started an e-commerce business in the mixed martial arts industry. In six years, we grew it from zero to $10 million. We kind of were a global leader in our space. So I did that for 15 years. But God had a different plan for me as we wound that down. And so I like to say, I’ve now gone from the hurt business to the holy business

Tony (03:39):

I like that. Did you even imagine that someday you would be working for a church doing all the things that it sounds like God’s really wired you up to do?

Mika (03:50):

No. No. I never imagined that. I mean, it was only God that led me here through a wild set of circumstances but clearly felt led to do something different with the rest of my life.

Amy (04:02):

No, that’s great. Well, Mika, tell us about your new role at Sun Valley. What were you hired to do?

Mika (04:08):

Sure. So I was brought on to help the unchurched and de-churched, primarily young families, determine their felt needs, choose Sun Valley to help them meet, know and follow Jesus. So no pressure there at all.

Amy (04:25):

Paul, how did you find Mika? I mean, how did this great collision of Sun Valley and Mika and his life and where God had him, how did you find him for this role?

Paul (04:36):

Yeah, I’d like to say dumb luck, but the reality is, God. I mean, that’s a really trite, quick, cute answer, but, really the Lord brought me to us. We were doing a search, we’re doing a restructure last year, bringing our digital insights team and our comm/marketing team together. And in doing that, I needed a big L-leader with experience in this kind of space to lead the team. We knew we were not going to find that in church world. This role is not replicated all over the world in churches. And so we knew we needed someone from the marketplace with marketplace experience, but who had a deep love for Jesus and to see people meet Jesus. And so, Mika was living here in the Phoenix Valley. He was actually attending another church, and he saw the posting and it kinda went from there.

Tony (05:26):

So, Paul, Mika has already hinted at this, but I think for churches, they’re looking at their digital strategy in one of two ways. One is we just, especially in this season, for many churches still, we need to be continuing to minister to the people that are already a part of our congregation. And then other churches are looking at this as an opportunity to engage with people that are outside the church and outside the faith. So as you’re thinking about your digital strategy at Sun Valley, what’s the focus? Is it one or the other or both?

Paul (05:58):

Yeah, the answer is yes, it’s both. We don’t have a unique digital strategy and a unique on-site, in-person strategy. We have a strategy to help people meet, know and follow Jesus. That delivery mechanism simply has to be either in person or online. And so, you know, we’re trying to help people stay connected to one another and stay connected to Jesus through a digital medium. And we’re trying to reach new people with the gospel through that digital medium as well. So it’s not one or the other. It is both.

Amy (06:30):

Mika, for a church like Sun Valley that has been a leader in leveraging digital strategies for, you know, to maximize the kingdom impact. Paul, I’ve known you for five years and watched what Sun Valley has done. While you’ve got a good start, I have to imagine, Mika, as you’ve dove into this role, there’s still a lot of work ahead of you. Is that true?

Mika (06:51):

Yes, there is. And I came in at an interesting time. So I came in in the middle of November of last year. So I missed all the chaos of COVID and just came into the normal chaos of Christmas. But Paul basically said, you know, don’t feel you need to come in here and do something right away. Sit back, observe, you know, meet all the team members you’ll be working with and kind of just, you know, absorb ministry and how that might be different than the marketplace. So what I saw, not being expected to do anything out of the gate was, you know, there was a lot of, you know, emails and documents flying around, you know, team meetings, trying to figure out what was outstanding, who was responsible. So that gave me a really good opportunity from an internal perspective, you know, if we were going to be doing some innovative and cool things going forward and reaching new people, were we equipped as an organization to scale to that? So one of the things that I saw and that we rolled out in January was rolling on an instant messaging tool that we use now across the organization and a project management tool. So already we’ve got 5,000 tasks out there or, you know, 4,000 instant messages being sent every 30 days. So I think that’s going to help us move into the digital strategies that we’re getting into. In parallel, we’ve addressed some low-hanging fruit, I’d call it, getting physical mailers, going very low-tech marketing, pay-per-click marketing, which we had only done sporadically in the past. And then also shifted our social media strategy to be a little bit more outsider focused. But the major impact project, which we’re just starting to get to now, is really addressing the first two stages of the digital discipleship pathway. I’ve been very much a student of your podcast since coming on board.

Tony (08:41):

Thank you, Mika.

Amy (08:41):

Gold star. So let me just jump in for a minute. So for our listeners, if what Mika just said in the answer, you know, the last question, you’re like I only got about 10% of that. That’s why you have to go find someone who has worked in the digital area, you know, probably in the marketplace because there’s a whole new language to learn and new tools to learn. And like Paul said, they may not come from ministry, but they may come from your church or a neighboring church. And so we often get the question, where can we find these people? You find them in the marketplace and probably connected to a local church somewhere.

Tony (09:21):

And, Mika just referenced, and we’ve been talking about it for the last number of months, really, about how every person that steps from being not interested in faith to eventually becoming a fully devoted follower of Christ, who’s making new disciples of Jesus. There’s this journey that they go through. And we’ve talked about it in five phases from being not interested, to being spiritually curious, to becoming a new believer, and then being discipled, and then becoming a disciple maker. And Mika, I think I heard you say you’re actually beginning at the very beginning of that journey with your focus.

Mika (10:02):

Correct. So I kind of look at it as if we had a hundred thousand new visitors to Sun Valley’s website tomorrow, would that be good or bad? And, you know, the assumption is good, but we really, today, don’t address those first two stages, not interested in spiritually curious. So we wouldn’t have a great experience for those two people. Now, certainly if they checked out a service, I feel really good about what we put out on our weekend experience. But, you know, we really need more content to address those first two stages, their felt needs and where they’re at in their faith journey.

Amy (10:39):

Do you have an example of any products that you’re working on right now that address those felt needs?

Mika (10:45):

So really we’re just starting at the beginning and creating written content. We’re looking back through our sermons to find maybe at points in time where we’ve talked about those areas. So it could be parenting, it could be stress. It could be questions about who Jesus is. So we’re really starting at ground zero. And I think sometimes it’s kind of exciting to think about marketing and getting a new following, you know, expanding your reach, but this is kind of the hard work that has to be done. And a lot of it is content that we’ve worked really hard on at some point in the past as Sun Valley. And so let’s use that, you know, and put that out there and have it live on beyond, you know, all the work that went into it for that point in time.

Tony (11:29):

Mika, I heard a church leader recently, just being brutally honest. And he said, I know how to do church in a building, but I don’t know how to be Amazon. And so I have to, I have to sense that he was the first person to say it out loud, but that has to be what a lot of pastors and church leaders are thinking right now. So where would you encourage other churches to start as they begin to make this pivot? Because we really can’t compete with the digital strategies of Amazon and certainly not overnight.

Mika (12:04):

No, you can’t. And I would encourage that pastor don’t try to be Amazon. My credit card statement might tell a different story, but, you know, those big tech companies, they’re very transactional. So yes, they give us a lot of convenience in life, but very little connection. I don’t know who my Amazon delivery driver is. Maybe I know my Starbucks barista, but does she really know me and where I’m at? So I’d say that, you know, we have a product that none of them sell, and I don’t even want to call it a product, but I mean, we’re, we’re giving people eternal salvation, positive life change, real connection. So we should never discount that fact that what we do is so much greater, you know, maybe they make more on their balance sheet, but, you know, we make eternal impact. So what they have done, though, is given us tools to reach people in ways that we never could before. So to your question, what I would say is churches big or small, hopefully they’ve started making a pivot at this point, but I’d say start where you’re at. Do things like visiting your church website from a perspective of someone that’s never been there, maybe that doesn’t go to church. You know, browse all your different sections, both on a desktop and a mobile device. You know, does the navigation make sense to an outsider or only to those that kind of know church terms and organization? Is there friction? Is there friction in taking next steps? Even things like signing up for events, are we asking too much information of them to do things that we consider maybe to be simple? And then the big one that I think I’ve discovered we even have opportunities for is, are you connecting with all the people that are giving you their information today? Even if it’s just an email?

Amy (13:52):

So good. So good, Mika. Preach it.

Mika (13:55):

You know, what is the follow-up like? Even, you know, what I guess you consider a low-tech tool, but are you texting people? If you have their mobile number, we’ve seen great response rates when we text people, especially if we text them with an open-ended question? You know, how did you like service this weekend? Or is there anything I can help you with? Not just texting at them with information, but actually looking for a response. And that’s something I think any church, big or small can start doing if they’re not already.

Tony (14:26):

Yeah. Let me just double down on that. That’s one of, I think, the distinctives I find between how churches are leveraging technology and how other businesses are. I mean, you mentioned, I mean, the big businesses, ultimately it is about a transaction, but it’s interesting. I find that businesses do a better job of relating with people in their digital strategies than churches do, and you would think churches would be taking the lead in that area, but churches tend to be very, in their digital strategy, they promote who they are and what they’re doing rather than trying to figure out how do I connect with and relate with the person on the other side of that email address or that phone number?

Mika (15:09):

Exactly.

Amy (15:10):

Paul, you know, I work a lot in the staffing and structure area for Unstuck. So I’ve been excited to ask you this question, but are you building a separate digital team, you know, as you’re structuring now or are you planning to integrate digital strategy in roles into all your ministry teams?

Paul (15:28):

Yeah, that’s a really good question, Amy. Again, the answer is yes. In one regard, we want everybody waking up thinking about how do I help connect with people in a way that they want to be connected with, and in today’s world, that is digitally, like what Mika said, over text and things like that. But at the end of the day, we needed somebody waking up thinking about this every single day. And so having a guy like Mika at the table is incredibly helpful for us. We felt we needed to staff to this and we needed to staff at a senior leadership level. This couldn’t be removed a couple of layers down and really have influence down into the organization and across different locations and even in different departments. And I know churches don’t want to talk about that because that feels like siloing, but that’s real. And so we needed someone to sit in a seat where they had enough authority and influence where they could cut across the organization as well as influence down throughout.

Amy (16:25):

Yeah, I liked the way you said that. I’ve said it on the podcast before, but when I was over our weekend experience, I was the one who laid awake at night if our numbers weren’t growing, if we weren’t reaching new people, if people weren’t getting baptized. There were indicators that our weekend was ineffective. It was me who laid awake at night, but I wasn’t the one playing the guitar. I wasn’t the one greeting people at the door. I wasn’t the one preparing a message. I was just the aggregate owner of how all of those different parts come together. And so I like how you’ve described Mika’s role.

Paul (16:57):

Now that’s not to say that I don’t get texts from the children’s staff where my kids check into the kid’s ministry. The student staff are filming content, so my kids can interact with content throughout the week. So they’re involved and engaged with that. I mean, some of our student staff do Fortnite competitions, and they’re connecting with students over Fortnite, and they’re doing small groups digitally. And so our staff are thinking digital, but not the same way Mika’s thinking about it.

Amy (17:28):

That’s right.

Tony (17:29):

So Mika, we’ve talked about this a bit already in the conversation, but trying to reach new people online we’re hearing is a huge challenge for churches, and many churches have learned that just getting new people to watch their services online probably isn’t going to be the first step that someone outside the church and outside the faith takes. I’m curious to hear what you learned about new customer acquisition in your previous jobs that might be helpful as you’re trying to shape digital strategies to reach new people and connect them to Jesus and to Sun Valley Church.

Mika (18:06):

Sure. So as I kind of touched on before, and I think it’s just worth reiterating, make sure your house is in order so that when you do get those visitors, they’re going to have a great experience, no matter where they’re at on their faith journey. Do that before you spend a lot of marketing dollars. But what I really learned in e-commerce is unless you’re kind of selling a commodity, the sales funnel or the digital discipleship pathway funnel, it’s a long-term game. So you really need to be in it for the long haul. It’s not going to be about one big campaign or one big exposure. People need to see and hear about your church anywhere between 6 and 12 times. So, you know, when you’re making your marketing plans, have a long-term perspective in mind. Don’t do any kind of big shot, you know, spend. Make sure you’re going to be present wherever that is, whether it’s, you know, digitally, or something in person, over and over again. You never know when someone might be at that stage of life when they want to check out a church, and hopefully they’ve seen and heard about you enough that you’re going to be top of mind for them.

Amy (19:10):

Yeah. You probably have to have some diversity in how you’re getting your name out there, right? I’m sure Sun Valley does things locally in the community that gets their name out there. I’m sure you do actual marketing where you’ll get your name out there. I remember back in college, I have a marketing degree, they would say you have to see something seven times before it actually starts to register with you. So when I led the weekend, you know, we had billboards. We put ads in the back of bus butts. And, back then, you know, the gathering was invite your friend, and you can trust us. We’re going to have a great experience for them. But we actually put ads in the back of bar-room bathrooms, you know, so people can see, you know, would see it there, on marriage or on your relationships or something like that. So a lot of just creative ways for them to just continuously, at least, have the opportunity to see it so that they can hear us sooner. Is that what you’re talking about?

Mika (20:03):

That’s right. Yeah. Just being top of mind for them so when they’re ready to take that step, they remember your name .

Tony (20:12):

And you just mentioned another marketing term, but I think it would be helpful for churches to understand a little bit more. You talked about a funnel. Can you explain that concept?

Mika (20:23):

Sure. So a funnel is basically like we think of a funnel. It starts wide at the top and gets narrow as you go down. So in the sales world, that might be awareness, interest, consideration, intent, and then a purchase. For more elaborate purchases, like a car, there might be some steps there in between where you’re, you know, evaluating different options, things like that. But I really look at that as, you know, we could apply that to every step of the digital discipleship pathway. So there’s a funnel into the, you know, spiritually curious step as there is a funnel into the disciple maker step if someone’s looking to change churches. That’s not really who we’re going after, but, you know, everyone, wherever they’re at in their faith journey, is going to be going through that same type of decision-making process in choosing a church.

Amy (21:18):

Let me just have you say it again. So first there’s awareness, awareness of Sun Valley, right? Awareness then consideration. And then what was the third?

Mika (21:27):

Well awareness and then interest. So, okay. I’ve heard some good things about this church. I might want to check it out. Maybe. Then consideration might be actually, you know, attending a service, probably more likely, you know, watching an online service first or consuming some online content. Then intent might be okay, I actually want to go to a in-person or online service. And then, I guess purchase in our world would be, you know, going to church and maybe becoming a regular attender and taking next steps in your journey.

Amy (22:06):

Well, Mika, again, with my staffing and structure background, I can hear all the questions in pastor’s minds right now, but what are some of the other roles on your team? What did they look like? And are they staff? Are they volunteer, contractors, a combination of that? And then after you give us that overview again, how are you finding the people that are filling those roles?

Mika (22:29):

Sure. So, our team on staff today is four people on the communication side. We also do some online and graphic content creation, three people on the data side, and that feels about right, because we’re kind of forging the pathway digitally. And then we’re hiring for a writer that’s really going to help with that not interested and spiritually curious content. We’re also hiring for an online pastor. Writer has been a little bit easier to find. Online pastor has been a little bit more difficult. I think a lot of people in the ministry world don’t, you know, quite understand what that means or, you know, it’s a bit of a, you know, kind of requires a little bit of someone who’s pioneering and innovative and wants to take on the challenge of a role that might, you know, change quite a bit over the next few years. So those haven’t, that one hasn’t been as easy to find, but we are on, you know, places like LinkedIn, church staffing. We’ve got a recruiter to helping us out with that. Volunteer wise, so we have an interim, someone serving as an interim online pastor now. They’re staffing our services with volunteers to make sure that we’re, you know, in chat, engaging with people across multiple platforms. Once we do bring on a full-time online pastor, I’d like to try maybe more online services throughout the week, which would require getting a bigger volunteer team. Definitely would like to get more group leaders developing online groups, kind of like you mentioned earlier, no one’s kind of owning getting online groups or online baptisms going. So we’d like to do more of that in the future, and on the contractor side, we’re partnered with a marketing agency that’s essentially a creative arm of our church. So we lean on them. They can get a campaign targeting at different levels of the funnel that we just talked about, getting the creative assets and copy much more quickly than our team could with all the other things that we have going on. So we lean on them. And then lastly, we have contracted developers. We use Rock RMS. So there’s a lot that we’re always kind of tweaking and changing in there. The benefit is that they live in that world every day. They’re helping many different churches solve the same problems we’re asking them to, and then we can kind of lean on them as a team rather than an individual. Although I’d say, as we grow, I could definitely see us bringing developers in house.

Amy (25:01):

Yeah. Just a side note. Tony, did you ever think we’d be talking about online baptisms?

Tony (25:06):

No, I didn’t. Never. Never did I think that, but I’m glad that that came through because it’s just a reminder. All of everything we’re talking about is just a method to help someone experience the life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ, which is going to end up, hopefully, them going public with their faith through baptism. So I love that reminder in all of this. Paul, I think I cut you off.

Paul (25:34):

Yeah. I was just going to say, along with that, we’re kind of joking a little bit about online baptism, but last year in the middle of COVID where we were shut down in the sense that we didn’t host physical services for a majority of the year, we still baptized almost 600 people. And that was all over the country, not just in the Phoenix Metro area, because we offered, we’d made the choice to when we did baptism, it wasn’t just in the room. It was also at home. And we heard stories of people in Minnesota that had family members here in Phoenix, and they both chose to be baptized. They didn’t know that until later talking to one another. They both ended up getting baptized. One of them in the room and one of them at home in Minnesota. We’ve had people in Iowa who watch our services every single week, and they use our small group content, and they use our daily devotions. And we had somebody fly here from Iowa and bring an offering and said, Hey, we’re Sun Valley, Iowa. And I don’t know why they didn’t just do that online, but they just felt compelled. And they wrote notes, and it was just really, really special for them. And it was really honoring and humbling for us to receive that.

Amy (26:50):

Tony, I think we have a lot more to cover with these guys. And so I’m wondering if we should maybe end the podcast for now, here, and let’s pick it up again next week. And I don’t know, what subject do you want to start with next week with Paul and Mika?

Tony (27:04):

Yeah. So we’re constantly getting questions now about not only what does digital ministry strategy need to look like, but what do we measure to know whether or not we’re actually winning? And so I have a lot of questions, I know you do too, about what that looks like. So let’s pick up the conversation there next week.

Amy (27:22):

That sounds good. A lot of good nuggets today. So to our listeners, I hope there was something in this interview so far that you can grab onto as you begin to think about building your digital ministry strategy. But join us again next week where we’ll pick up the conversation.

Sean (27:36):

Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. If you like what you’re hearing on the podcast, we’d love your help in getting the content out farther. You can do that by subscribing on your favorite podcasting platform,, giving us a review and telling somebody else about the podcast. Don’t forget to come back next week for part two of our conversation with the team from Sun Valley. Until then, have a great week.

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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.
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