COVID–19 has created new struggles as churches struggle to go digital. Here’s how they can succeed at it.
“I just don’t even know where to start with all this.”
The tone of his voice conveyed a frustration I have grown used to hearing. The new coronavirus – and the measures put in place to contain it – have created a world many of our church leaders were unprepared for, and are struggling to navigate. My friend is a pastor of a thriving church, but he never saw this coming, and adapting has proven far more challenging than he anticipated.
Churches that were healthy a short time ago are ailing; many are on life support. Barna’s weekly polling shows that while in the early days of the COVID–19 pandemic, 59% of churches reported surging numbers of new online attendees, that number has dropped to around 25% in the weeks since Easter.
At the same time, our own polling suggests that as many as 25% of our church members are unlikely to return to regular church attendance until a vaccine is found for COVID–19. Many more will not return until at least some progress against the spread of the disease is demonstrated.
These numbers show that digital transformation is not just an option among many for our communities. It is a matter of survival.
Here are 9 thesis statements that have governed our success at going digital at Mission Chattanooga.
In Their (Platform) Shoes: What Do Social Media Companies Want?
Church leaders struggle to navigate the universe of digital media. There are so many platforms and they are always changing. Instagram rolled out a new algorithm, giving users massive headaches. Facebook went pay-to-play, and the world seemed to spin off its axis. Twitter seems to work on an incoherent political calculus. What sense does it all make?
I’ve found that it helps to begin with their interest in mind. What do the platforms want? In all three cases I’ve already mentioned, the business model is advertising.
The value they offer to advertisers is a built-in, deeply engaged audience (more about that in my e-book). Their value to advertisers is based on the amount and quality of time spent on their platform by their users.
Give them what you want, and they’ll give you what you want. It can feel like a deal with the devil, but no more than were the words, civis romanum sum (“I am a Roman citizen,” see Acts 22:22–29).
C1 + C2 + C3 = E: A Formula for Winning in the Digital Space
What makes content work in the social media space? What makes some stuff sing while some content, er, falls flat?
I’ve spent the better part of the last decade on this question. And the answers are as many as the people asking the question. But churches, it turns out, have an advantage.
It’s all about engagement (E), and content (C1) gets you only part of the way there. What makes content work is that it meets a community (C2) in a particular context (C3), such that the content resonates and motivates interaction that gets the platforms what they want (again, E).
Having a sense of what your community cares about gives you guidance on what sorts of things you should be posting, besides just broadcasting your services live.
Getting in Gear: Production Matters, but Not Much
One of the questions leaders have asked me over and over again since the quarantines started is “what do I have to buy?” The truth is, it depends.
Good production makes what you have to say easy to consume.
But it is easy to get so caught up in this that it feels like you can’t get moving until you have Hollywood-level production equipment.
Good production will reward anything you invest in it. But there’s enough power in your iPhone to meet your people where they are and begin a conversation that brings them back to you again and again.
Content 101: Learning to Sing a New Song
Getting a feel for community and context is difficult, but churches have the benefit of having habits built around both of these already.
Once you develop the skillset around doing things you already do but in a digital space, you’ll create content that’s on time and on target (for examples of some of ours, click here).
When that happens, you’ll say things your community wants to share and engage with. When they do, they send signals to the platforms’ algorithms that your content is worth showing to more people.
Many times, the content Facebook recommends is your live service. So don’t be surprised when a new face wanders in.
Essentials of Composition: Say it the Same but Different
Every photo has at least two elements: the subject and the background. If your church is working on social media, there is likely to be a finite cast of characters who are featured there.
Influencers on Instagram post photos of themselves over and over again. What makes their accounts interesting to those who follow them, alongside the basic interest in the personality, is the way they use settings creatively.
Video Killed the Internet Star: Let Us Read, PLEASE!
In an era where video has had to take the place of in-person interaction, people are forced into video interactions more than ever before. The fatigue created by that fact has already been well-documented.
Give people entertaining stuff to read—memes, jokes, quotes, pull quotes from sermons, etc., and they’ll give you love for the kindness.
Making Mixtapes: Don’t Be Afraid of Different Genres
COVID–19 has forced so many of us to figure out a way to let people experience our worship services online. But services are a single genre. They meet your community in one particular context. But if that is our only contribution, we can only share with our communities what works naturally in that environment.
To make this transition well, churches need to develop an instinct for a number of different genres. You can get a list of genres we’ve used with success here.
Go Into All the World (-wide web)
So many of the conversations I’ve had with leaders have been focused on how to get people to check out their church, their services, etc. But as the quarantines have extended into their third month, leaders have started to feel uncertain about what to do next—not just how to bind their churches together but how to accomplish their mission. How do we go into all the world when the world is digital?
A way to think about it is this: educate or delight your community. Entertain them or call them to action. But whichever of these you do, surprise them.
What are their questions and problems? What are they thinking about? Most churches have a community already built-in, which means they will have an easier time finding out the answers to these questions. Talk to your people. Find out what they’re asking questions about. Get it to them.
It Takes a Village: Put the Network Back in Social Networking
Careful study of the letters of the apostle Paul and the descriptions of his movements in the book of Acts shows the extent to which Paul made careful, strategic use of his social networks.
Aquila and Priscila were part of his strategy in several new places. They were part of the founding of churches in Ephesus and Corinth.
In the era of COVID, leaders need to get strategic and creative about using networks.
Who else is solving the problems your church is trying to solve? How can your church partner with them? The social media platforms are also called, and for good reason, social networks.
Reach out, and do it.
Bonus: It Starts at the Top
Who’s going to take charge of what, for most churches, is the organizational equivalent of an organ transplant?
For many of us, this is an unwanted hassle, something we would never have begun to do if not for being forced into it by COVID–19. But, just like the exile into Babylon, this can be a crisis God uses to bring the church into a whole new era of fruitfulness and faithfulness.
God was not surprised by the Coronavirus. I don’t believe he sends such things, but I do believe that he relentlessly brings forth good out of evil.
Still, the goods that are available to churches who embrace digital transformation are not going to come by accident. And pastors whose strategy is just to hope that the digital natives in their congregation will take care of securing them will regret the choice.
This post is excerpted from an e-book produced in a partnership between Anglican Compass and William Glass, former Exec Pastor of Mission Chattanooga. The ebook is full of analyses of Mission Chattanooga’s most successful social media campaigns (and some flops!) as well as tips your church can put into practice right away. You can get it for FREE here.
To learn even more, check out this interview from William on the value of digital transformation for churches, as well as this video course on how churches can thrive in digital exile.
Finally, you can also reach out to William with questions, or for help formulating a strategy for your particular church, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
William Glass was, for the last two and a half years, the executive pastor at Mission Chattanooga in southeast Tennessee. Before that, he founded and ran Heelflip Media, a digital marketing agency he exited in 2018. In the era of COVID, he is focusing on helping churches fulfill their mission by growing their digital profile.