Church, as we’ve known it for the past few generations, is over.
Every church you’ve ever attended, or that you drive by on your way to a Sunday sporting event, was built on a physical attendance model that is location-centric.
As a result, church leaders and pastors have spent time every week encouraging, inviting and pleading with people to come to a specific place at a specific time on Sundays. This approach has created church staffing models, systems and ministry strategies focused on improving attendance. It’s also why there is an annual Top 100 list of America’s most-attended churches.
But that way of doing church is dead.
And just like Joshua needed to hear God say, “Moses my servant is dead” (Joshua 1:2), so he could move into the next level of leadership, I think the Church needs to accept the fate of physical church as we know it, so we can move into the next phase of digital church.
Now, about a decade ago, forward-thinking churches realized that people no longer engaged with organizations just physically, so they developed online platforms that streamed services parallel to the physical church.
This caused plenty of controversy at the time because people suddenly had the option to attend church OR stay home and watch online, rocking the old location-centric model. So, church leaders opted to keep the physical and digital services separate enough to make it work.
Then, when social media and YouTube entered the scene, those forward-thinking churches adjusted again, creating multi-channel strategies that allowed people to access some content physically, some online, and some on the church's social media platforms.
But the times have changed yet again.
The secular marketplace has known for years that customers connect with brands online AND offline seamlessly. Companies like Home Depot, Starbucks, Wal-Mart and Crate & Barrel have adopted “omni-channel” strategies that allow people to shop either online, through an app, or in-store.
The result has been increased sales both online and at brick and mortar stores.
After studying 46,000 shoppers, Harvard Business Review discovered in January of 2017 that people who used several different channels to seamlessly connect with a store were:
-- More loyal to the brand;
-- 23 percent more likely to make repeat trips to the retailer’s physical store;
-- More likely to recommend the brand to family and friends than those who used a single channel such as physical attendance only.
While omni-channel and multi-channel may seem similar, there’s a difference. Multi-channel is like the swim lanes at a local pool—each lane has its own boundaries and direction.
In the same way, physical church has its strategies and measurements of success, while church online has its own separate (but similar) systems and measurements of success. Omni-channel however, is like a pool with no lane buoys—everyone is able to explore any part of the pool in their own time.
An omni-channel approach to church would allow people to fully connect and engage with a church without the need to step inside a physical environment every week. They could attend one Sunday, listen to the message on podcast the following week, watch a live online stream the Sunday after, and catch the message on-demand in an church app the week after that.
This shifts the Church from a location-centric approach, to an audience-centric approach that allows people to connect and engage with churches both digitally AND physically.
This approach allows the church to connect with people physically for 1 hour on Sunday, and stay connected for the other 167 hours of the week, digitally.
In a world where people have an increasing number of online channels and apps to watch or listen to content—and build community around that content—the church needs to realize that this is current reality.
Whether pastors planned it or not, more people than ever are accessing their content digitally via live web streaming, video on-demand, podcasts, apps and YouTube. In this way, church attendance is not decreasing, it’s decentralizing.
If the Church is going to make an impact in the modern world, we need to take the swim lanes out and let people explore our church and our content in their own time and in their own way. We need to understand that digital channels do not compete with physical attendance, they partner with it. And if the marketplace is an indicator, doing digital engagement well will lead to increased physical attendance.
Leadership requires focus on where you want to be, not where you were or where you are. As pastor Craig Groeschel of Life Church says: “If we want to reach people that no one else is reaching, we’ve got to do things no one else is doing.”