Why a Digital Platform Shouldn't Scare You
by Nathan Artt, on August 2020
It was stated by a thought leader recently that physical, corporate worship will become a secondary option to the digital platform. If that becomes true, it will be because the Church failed to make a major pivot in the way it engages people. For those who are pushing back against the digital platform for that reason, I want to reassure you that the data from retail would suggest that this is not necessarily an inevitable conclusion.
In our eBook, Gutenberg, Amazon, and the Evolution of the Modern Church, we talk in short about how a strong digital presence can actually drive physical attendance. However, this doesn’t happen accidentally. We use data from Home Depot, Target, Macy’s, and Walmart to show when a digital platform is used well, it actually increases revenue from in-store purchases by more than 400%. What we didn’t spend enough time on is why!
The digital experience and watching online service are not the same thing
I want to be sure I am clear on this: a digital experience is not the same thing as watching service online. Imagine if, while Home Depot was building out its digital platform, that one of Frank Blake’s executives walked into his office and said, “Mr. Blake, we had one million people come to the website this month!” Putting myself in his shoes, I can hear him asking “and…?”. How many people bought something? How many people bought for the first time? How many people purchased multiple items during the month? Are we tracking what they bought so we know how to communicate with them? How many people became better DIY’ers a result of being introduced to us???
Too many churches right now are bragging about website visitors as though they are customers. My language, not yours. We have confused introduction with engagement, and too many churches have allowed themselves to be content with introduction.
As information comes in about the enormous number of people logging into church online for the first time, we shouldn’t just be asking how many people attended. We need to ask deeper, more meaningful questions. How many salvations? How many people took a next step (i.e. giving, community groups, grief ministry, etc.)? At what point do people take the next step? Where are they? Why are we attracting people from those areas? How are we communicating with them? What’s their best next step in finding their role in the God-inspired story of redemption through our local church?
Assimilation looks different digitally
When I bought tools from Home Depot, I received an email a few days later with a DIY video. That really sat with me. They didn’t send me offers on more tools or on sales for that weekend. Why a DIY video??? Easy: who doesn’t want to be a DIY’er? Everyone does! Home Depot sent me a video on an easy project I could complete with the tools I purchased because they knew if they equipped me to be a DIY’er, I would need more tools and materials. The focus wasn’t on selling tools, it was on equipping me to be a better handyman. And where would I buy those tools and materials when I needed them? I hope I don’t have to answer that. Lesson: the more Home Depot can equip people to be better DIY’ers, the more opportunities they have to engage them, and the more tools and materials those people will buy...from Home Depot.
If most people have a desire to be a DIY’er, how many more people desire love and significance? What if we were to segment the people who engage with us digitally differently than those who engage with us in person? Instead of trying to get them to be a part of what we’re doing, we equip them to be a significant part of their community. We identify a local need and offer them an opportunity to contribute toward it. As an example, homeless people don’t have healthcare nor the same access to protective wear during this global pandemic, so we give our newly engaged people the opportunity to contribute $20 toward buying facemasks and socks for the homeless in their area. This can be a first means of engagement in lieu of selling them on a program we offer.
So much of our content we distribute, both to our veteran members as well as our guests, has to do with getting them to engage with our programs (shopping in the store at Home Depot), but what would happen if we changed our focus to equipping them for significance (buying online)? The result? I bet you it would bridge the gap of mistrust towards the church and those people would inevitably end up in one of our campuses within the first few months. Why do I believe this? Because we have 15 years of data with retailers who support the idea that consumers try before they buy and that brand loyalty is built through small steps and not large events, such as asking them to come to the “store”.
Change the Win
The attendance metrics posted in large magazines, or rather the competition over them, has been wonderful in terms of showing the success of the local church in reaching people, but also has been a dismal reality in effecting a competitive church culture. Some churches get on the list for the right reasons. Others define their entire “win” over whether or not they get on the list and/or the subsequent ranking. Some churches care so much that they don’t post real numbers. I go back to the idea of Home Depot gauging their “win” based on website traffic. What if businesses did that?! Imagine people going to the Netflix website but never subscribing, and then the Netflix CEO bragging about it to his investors. Would we not laugh him out of the room? Ask him if he is crazy? Would we not see him in the news the next day being fired?
So why are we ok with it? Why are we ok measuring the win by how many people consume free content with us without actually buying into our vision? Isn’t it the same?
I believe with all my heart that a change in our Church is coming. Our win will change. Our wonderful Heavenly Father does nothing by accident and everything with purpose. We were chosen to be His agents of change in this beautiful story of redemption, and I believe that He is interested in disruption, not interruption. This global pandemic wasn’t allowed to happen just to put a pause on the way we do church, it was to wake us up to how we can do church better. That is what I believe. I believe He is looking for His Church to be the most prominent agent of change in society, and He is looking for the leaders who are willing to step up and make those changes.
In a candid discussion with Jim Sheppard last week, I walked through many of these topics, challenges brought forth by today's changing climate and how these things relate back to my new ebook, Gutenberg, Amazon, and the Evolution of the Modern Church.
We don’t have to give up who we are or why we exist to make necessary, adaptive changes in the effort of becoming more effective (1 Corinthians 9:22). When we figure that out, I believe that the Lord has something very special in store for all of us.