There is no doubt 2020 was a defining year for the church globally, shaping and shaking our very understanding of what the church is and how we continue to plant, grow and multiply in the midst of a global pandemic. Over the past couple of decades technology has been a huge part of innovative and emerging church models and strategies, but to be fair, the church historically has been quite a slow adopter when it comes to embracing new practices and methods.
For better or worse, 2020 has fast-tracked the adoption process and forced churches (some kicking and screaming) into the digital era. But with this quick pivot, has come some structural and strategic whiplash that is now in need of a framework to help us move into the future with clarity and strength.
It’s important for us to acknowledge that the world is still in a highly volatile social climate with constantly changing government restrictions, health alerts, travel bans, lockdowns, hot spots, and more – because of this, churches are all in different phases of change, some are still operating solely online, some are gathering with restrictions, some have hybrid models, the list goes on. On top of this, even within our own movement, exists a broad spectrum of churches: mono and multi-site, attractional and missional, urban and rural.
The truth is churches all around the world have implemented brilliant and creative ways to cultivate and sustain healthy community in the digital space. What I don’t want to do here is be too specific or prescriptive in the way it should outwork in your context.
What I’d rather attempt to do is provide some guiding principles and a digital framework that will allow you to interpret and navigate the best strategic direction for you.
Before I dive into the principles, I’ll say this: when thinking through our digital strategy, I think it’s important we make decisions with a post-Covid view in mind. Although there will of course be decisions we need to make for the immediate season, as much as possible we should be trying to form a strategic direction that is looking beyond the current circumstances and without a crisis lens.
Here we go….
Principle #1: The world was already digital.
87% of the developed world’s population is online, over half the world’s population are now under 30 and considered “digital natives” and 50% of the world’s internet usage is now via mobile devices and rising rapidly.
What we must realise is we don’t have online people and offline people, we just have people, and the vast majority of them live in the physical and digital worlds simultaneously. Therefore our digital approach needs to be designed with all of our people in mind.
Principle #2: Digital needs to be a culture more than a team, department or location.
If you follow the evolution of new and emerging digital products that tech companies are producing, they have a clear goal – create products that integrate, not compete, with real life. In the same way, our digital strategy should complement our physical strategy, in fact, they shouldn’t be two different strategies at all. We need one strategy for our people that leverages the strengths of both digital and physical.
It’s not about creating a digital version of church; it’s about asking the question ‘how do we integrate the strengths of both digital and physical to help people engage even more with Christ and community?’ I would suggest avoiding the trap of delegating digital to become a silo within your structure, and instead integrate it as a core culture of your whole church and team.
Principle #3: The digital world plays by different rules.
One of the common trends that emerged as churches ventured into the digital space, is a trend that similarly occurred when broadcasters first transitioned from radio to television… instead of creating TV shows, they just filmed their existing radio show. What we end up doing is using new technology to keep doing an old thing – or in our language, we fill new wineskins with old wine.
What we need to do is start creating things that are made for the medium, not just copy and pasting from another context. We need to ruthlessly challenge old ways of thinking and old modes of operation, because suddenly the barriers of time and space, buildings and time slots, don’t exist.
Principle #4: Digital is public, very public.
A couple of years ago I travelled to Iceland, on every tourist’s to-do list is to swim in the thermal pools, but there’s something they don’t tell you on the brochure: before you’re allowed to swim, you have to strip down and shower naked in a room full of strangers to wash off any nasty oils on your skin, so you don’t contaminate the thousand-year-old natural spring. Needless to say, if you don’t want everyone watching, be very careful what pool you decide to swim in.
We need to take great care in knowing the purpose of our content, and where it should be placed. I like to categorise the purpose of digital content into two main pools: reaching and resourcing – defining our content’s purpose helps give us a better idea of what platform we position it on.
Principle #5: Digital is a crowded house.
Due to the borderless nature of the digital landscape, we need to guard against the temptation to try and reach everyone. The problem with trying to reach everyone is that we spread ourselves so thin that we end up reaching no one. The fact is hundreds of thousands of churches all around the world are trying to carve out their space in the digital world. Imagine every church in your city all meeting in the same venue, at the same time… it could get ugly.
As leaders, we must stay true to who God has called us to reach and build our digital strategy with them in mind.
I’m praying you’ll be filled again with the spirit of wisdom and revelation as you lead God’s church faithfully into the future.