The world has been suffering through the global pandemic of COVID-19 for approximately seven months. In that time, churches have been making various adjustments to continue their missions. As I surf the digital tidal wave of ministries and services, I have noticed some things I would like to discuss.
In the early days of churches venturing into digital ministry through television and radio, it seemed obvious the target audience was the congregation in the room. Those of us who were not members of various churches were looking in to see what a particular church service was like. Everything seemed geared to cater to the physical audience with a few mentions to those watching. It seems most churches are continuing to follow that model. But is that the best idea at this time?
Could it be there is a better way, today? Many more people are “unchurched” than churched these days. The captive audience of members in a building does not currently exist due to governmental regulations limiting the size of indoor crowds, even at church, to try to slow the spread of the novel virus. Consequently, there are more people watching service than attending service. And the mission of the church is to “go make disciples” (Matthew 28:18-20). If there are more “unchurched” than churched people, should not that be the primary target audience? Would not the church be better served and more effective if the needs of that audience were the focus during the main services of the church?
I recommend a shift in thinking to focus on the “unchurched” during the primary service times that are being streamed to the world. If this is done, some things must change in how service is conducted. This does not mean the members should be ignored. Far from it. This is not an either/or proposition.
I have yet to watch a church service that does not give announcements at some point in the service. Believe me, people who are not members of your church do not care about when the next board meeting is going to be held. They are interested in programs and services they can participate in. So, it is appropriate to announce or emphasize other ministry opportunities, e.g., prayer lines, bible studies, and special programs. Those of us who are not members can be included. It is not appropriate to announce or emphasize “in-house” issues that nonmembers have nothing to do with, e.g., when board meetings will be held, who had a birthday, etc. Now, you might ask, “Is not the main service when most of my members are watching and they need that information?” The answer is, it may be the main service but if your target audience is the “unchurched” with your members looking in, it is not appropriate to invest time talking about issues in which a nonmember cannot participate.
Nonmembers must become central to the primary, streamed church service. A system of welcome and follow-through can be targeted to the nonmember to make them feel they have found their church family, their church home. This cannot happen if the primary focus is on the current members in the primary, streamed services. Some thought must be put into how to attract, engage, and keep the nonmember interested long enough to become a member. By the way, I think I know an author, who wrote a book about how to do this. And I know he understands how to adapt those systems to the digital environment. Ask me in the comment section if you want to know who he is.
So, how will members get the information? I am glad you asked.
If the primary focus of the main church services is the nonmember, “unchurched” person, there must be an intentional communication system directed at the members. This could take the form of using church management software that allows for targeted emails, texts, and phone calls. The added convenience of such software is you can keep track of interested visitors until they become members. Those who refuse or cannot access Internet technology might have a phone number where announcements pertaining to them can be recorded and retrieved. But member communication should be just that — communications to members, specifically. Then, nonmembers may not be tempted to leave while you talk to yourself.
Please update and keep your website updated. I cannot tell you how many church websites I have visited in the last seven months that still show 2018 information. It is better to take your website down until it is managed properly than to have one that is not current. It makes a statement about your church. When managed properly, the website can be a great place to put in-house announcements and almost all of your members will be able to access it. Just be sure the information is current and relevant.
I have spent five to ten minutes trying to find specific church live streams because their website is not user friendly. If I were not determined to find what I was looking for, I would give up. That is what many people would do.
Make everything extremely easy for people who do not know you to find you and find out about you. If your website has a “Contact Us” page, manage it. In the last ten years, only one church responded to a message I left through the “Contact Us” page. People have choices. They do not have to tolerate being ignored. And when you ignore a seeker, you are damaging your ability to advance God’s mission.
When you make a promise, follow through.
It is still very important to make appeals for people to accept Jesus as Savior and to join the church on EVERY occasion. Simply providing Christian entertainment is not the point of live-streaming services. The whole point of gospel work is to seek and save the lost to make them disciples of Jesus Christ. Do not let the complexities of technology distract from the central purpose of the existence of your church. Make the call and follow through.
Many churches that are live-streaming promise to respond to people who leave a chat message for bible studies or baptism. Follow through. It is better not to make a promise than to break it. Make sure someone is always monitoring the chat or any other method of communication you have set up to respond to the requests that are made. “The harvest is plentiful” (Matthew 9:37). Every church exists to help reap the harvest.
I am a pastor. So, I know members will pressure the leadership of the church to give them what they want. Nurture has always eclipsed outreach in those churches that are primarily maintenance ministries rather than evangelistic ministries. And most churches these days are firmly grounded in maintenance mode. This is proven by the lack of baptisms and membership growth. There is no competition between nurture and outreach if making disciples is the goal. If simply enjoying church is the de facto goal, the pressure to “give the people what they want” will be unrelenting. But if joining God in His work of reconciling the world to Himself through Jesus (2 Corinthians 5:20) is the goal, the people will eventually want what God wants if you, the leader, do not give in to the pressure.
The church has entered a new season. It is a season of digital ministry that will only become more prominent even when COVID-19 is under control. Those churches that continue to wait for things to get back to what used to be normal will become moribund if they have not already. Those churches that embrace this season have a much larger field to harvest. It is a global field. And it is time for the church to learn to reap the harvest with powerful digital tools.