The Gap with Online Church
It’s easier than ever to start a new business. Why? No friction. The no friction concept was first introduced to me by Ben Thompson years ago, but you can hear more about the idea in a recent episode on the Exponent Podcast. In a few hours, you can get a logo designed, launch an online store, and submit all your paperwork using LegalZoom to get the new venture squared away with the IRS. Friction use to slow down the process of starting something new. Cost and time would derail an idea. The internet has brought most of the resistance to zero. I haven’t even brought up the ability to talk about your company on multiple platforms with billions of other people, and no credit card is needed. Yes, you still need a great product and killer marketing strategy, but if your idea is good, the opportunity today versus the pre-internet days has drastically increased. I've already launched a business in my early thirties with some friends and failed. My only loss in the startup was time but gained tons of knowledge. I’m already game for attempt two.
Another way to frame this concept of no friction is thinking about the porn industry. Stay with me on this thought. Pre-internet porn consumption consisted of awkwardly buying a magazine down the street in a liquor store. Social friction kept this industry small, but the internet removed all barriers. People can now view porn with nobody knowing and no financial cost. Unfortunately, porn has grown to almost a trillion dollar industry [Sidenote: Read “Your Brain on Porn” to learn what scientists are learning about what porn does to your brain].
I mentioned these two examples because friction can enable and disable the expansion of an idea. The internet has amplified many great things, but this new frontier has introduced further questions. For churches, the lack of friction encouraged ministries to start streaming their services regularly with very little critical thinking about the broader strategy of online. The shift happened in 2016 because Facebook Live became a free feature to anyone with a Facebook page and most churches jumped on the opportunity. In my recent ebook “The State of Online Church” we found out 77% of churches are using Facebook for their online ministry, but a gap exists for deeper church experiences. Only 58% offer pastoral care, 54% serving opportunities, 52% online groups, 28% baptism offerings, 25% membership classes, 25% home small groups, 10% benevolence access, and 4% long-term counseling. Do you notice the gap in the percentages?
Online church for the majority of churches is very much a weekend focused endeavor at the moment. A biblical church according to Acts is about people not only worshipping together corporately but doing life together throughout the week in homes, serving each other like Jesus, growing closer to our God, and learning how to tell others about the faith. Every time a church pops up in the New Testament the local city takes notice. In Acts 19 we read about a riot breaking out in the town of Ephesus when too many people become followers of Jesus, and the local pagan temple's budget gets dinged. Honestly, the church is more about what happens Monday through Saturday than anything on Sunday. See following Jesus is a hostile takeover and not just a rental on the weekend. Your online strategy needs to be beyond streaming on Facebook and posting things on Instagram.
Think about what it means to be part of your church locally. What part of the local experience can be offered online? What is possible? What can’t you do at the moment? Ask these questions with your leadership and discuss the implications openly. It’s okay to say yes and no to things, but you need to be honest about the lines or at least where the lines are at currently. The frictionless internet has made building audiences easy, but a crowd never has and never will be the church. I would turn the metrics upside down and focus on more in-depth parts of your discipleship paradigm. Don't just measure the size of the audience online weekly. Start to report salvations, baptisms, and people getting into an in-person community like your church or a local church.
The most practical advice I can give you on this idea of focusing on deeper parts of your online strategy is by talking about a ministry I spoke with recently in the Middle East. The ministry was reaching millions of people each month and started to ask how to better disciple people online, which is a genuine dilemma in the MENA area. I asked a simple question around how many people they were plugging into churches or home small groups monthly, and they responded with fifteen.
Do you notice the gap in their numbers? A million people became fifteen people. I can give you hundreds of reasons why cultural barriers cause real problems for online outreach when dealing with Muslims becoming Christians. Regardless, fifteen people getting into an in-person community is incredible in the Middle East. It’s only a negative if you focus on a million dwindling to a little more than a baker's dozen. The problem with making your weekend attendance the primary metric is how it influences all other numbers. Once the large number is out there with no context, you cannot report anything else. The smaller number will feel small, but it's not really. I asked a few more questions around these fifteen people. What were their stories? Were there any similarities in their journeys? I challenged them to understand as much as possible on why these people were going from seeing an ad on Facebook to talking with a real person on WhatsApp and getting into a local house church in their country.
I was trying to make the point to focus on the stories of the fifteen and not the millions. The smaller metric was their actual target. My suspicion was millions of people were being encouraged in their faith while hundreds were being led to Christ. The large number was an accurate metric, but it didn’t align with the larger organization's goals. They wanted to be an outreach and not about building up an audience of existing believers, which meant they needed to shift their strategy. Let me reframe this point for your church directly. Do you want to build up an audience of existing followers of Jesus, think Christian tv network, or do you want to reach the unchurched? A biblical church is focused on connecting people into a community and not building up a broadcast of whomever. My church, your church, or any of the churches in Acts wasn’t about bouncing members around geographically. The example to follow is to find one community and go deep.
I wasn’t saying to the ministry in the Middle East to stop reporting or tracking the millions. I wanted them to start measuring the entire discipleship pathway from start to end with the proper context of what was occurring. What the internet has proven is the size of your audience isn’t the point. It’s the depth of your audiences' commitment. You’ll be surprised how little it takes to trend on Twitter with a small loyal tribe. No friction means with little effort and some dollars you can get a crowd. The internet makes size indeed a small barrier. Give me five hundred dollars, and I’ll get your ten thousand followers on Instagram. Facebook Live reach insights are tempting, but you need to be asking about deeper engagement. How many people are getting into a small group through your ministry online? How many are joining your local church or a partner church? How many people are getting baptized? How many people are signing up to serve with your ministry? I promise these metrics will be smaller because they're smaller for me too, but it does represent real life change.
It’s not a natural shift to change up what you measure, but it’s needed. The frictionless internet bends to large numbers but you need to develop your entire pathway. If you only want big crowds then take notes from FoxNews, CNN, and MSNBC. They’re pretty good at creating controversies which leads to large viewerships. I like the Acts model better and Jesus was pretty good at creating organic crowds.
Let’s start talking about the gap! I have and I hope you join me.