The recent need to rapidly adapt to digital tools
Many churches have been slow to adapt to digital audiences, and now is certainly a really good time to adapt. It’s been amazing seeing just how many Christian leaders over the last few weeks have worked so hard to establish YouTube channels, utilise Zoom, get familiar with delivering their sermon to a camera and not a live audience etc. This all comes as a needed change as we all adapt to what it looks like to live out our faith in lockdown.
The faith as ever remains the same, but life under lockdown is certainly shining a lamp to challenge some of the routines that we have so busy staying glued to for possibly a little too long. It’s an incredibly scary time for many, and an unnerving one, as businesses, charities, communities and families all struggle both to keep to the new lockdown routine, and also work out just how they’re going to survive be that in their houses or on the front line. But surely this is just the time when the church needs to rise and show its relevance, compassion and authenticity? What could the church look like after lockdown?
Can this lead to lasting and meaningful change?
Unless we use this to drive meaningful change in the future of the church, the rapid adoption that we’ve seen in recent weeks is at danger of fading as quickly as it’s started, and yet it would be such a shame if this is the case. Activities such as elders meetings, homegroups, small groups etc, may benefit from utilising digital tools at least occasionally. Digital platforms certainly don’t replace the physical ones, but they certainly help to keep us together as a community, and also help people to maintain a better church-life balance.
Some of the most significant shake-ups to the church over the last 1000 years have come out of need and necessity, and also have been led by the voices who could see the need for significant change and a re-evaluation of what relevance looks like to audiences that had often moved on, often far from where the church at the time had stayed.
For too long there have been voices on the edges trying to encourage the church to look at some of the digital tools and adapt how they communicate with their audiences, and yet these voices were not listened to unless they were adapted to be in such a piecemeal and palatable way, that actually the message was completely watered down, and the impact often lost.
An authentic message, not only preached but modelled out
The church needs to stay relevant to the audience around it, and this means the most important thing to hold dear is an authentic message, preached and modelled out with vulnerability and authenticity at a time when the world is seeking answers.
The age-old declaration of the church that ‘we offer hope’ can come across to many as meaningless, particularly in these current times, unless we can, from wherever we are, model out what hope looks and feels like. Hope indeed is a brilliant idea, and something that everyone certainly needs at this time, but by just saying ‘we offer hope’ the word can sound so very empty. Many Christian brands lead with this message, without really explaining to their audience the why of what they’re doing. Just how do they offer hope? What does that look like? When we can convey the Christian message in a way that is relevant and real to the audience, only then will they see that we know an amazing source of hope.
It can’t be just a few words spoken in Christinese, that mean incredibly little to a vast majority of our audience now, it needs to be exactly what Jesus modelled out – authentic faith displayed through action and vulnerability. A great example of this is the lady at the well – he didn’t try to force his culture on her, he sat beside her and spoke in a way that showed he understood her situation.
What does this mean for this season of isolation?
I would argue that it’s also a mistake to think that the answer for the future of the church lies in the digital tools themselves, but rather that the answer lies in understanding the digital tools well enough to ensure that our use of them shows relevance to the world around us, and also to ensure that we are empathetic enough to the world around us to share a true message of hope, and not just nice placatory comments and say we’re praying it will all get better.
Sadly, I have been witness to far too many churches thinking that the answers of embracing the digital revolution were to buy expensive kit (at the cost of their congregation’s pockets), without really having any strategy for what it was they’re trying to do, nor understanding how they can best use this to reach their audience. Anyone who’s worked in the digital arena with any experience will know that getting a piece of content noticed online is much more strategic than just chucking the content up and hoping that it sticks. Now yes, there is a certain element of faith and God’s hand involved, but, I do believe that for us to hold the most relevance to the world, we must also understand the skill of good digital communication.
The shame of it is that for so many of the churches that have done this, they have had some reward, but they put the value in the wrong area – they valued the kit rather than trying to learn the skill of what it was that they wanted to do. This has meant for a while, that I have stepped away from the standard model of church, as I’m struggling to find a church that just is relevant. The focus shouldn’t be on the tools that we use, the focus should be on our impact, and heart, and learning to first do well with what we have, and also, spend some time understanding the arena that we’re trying to communicate in.
Many have been isolated from the church for years
I hope that this season does help to adapt our model of what church looks like, so that, in the future, the church can become more inclusive, for all people. There are many people with disabilities who struggle to make it to a physical church, for whom online services are a huge benefit. There is also the significant issue that so many churches are geared up for an extrovert type of personality, it would be lovely if after this isolation period we could be a little more understanding of the introverts as well as the extroverts.
Should we have been doing this a long time ago?
Honestly? In my opinion, yes. There have been some churches that have adapted to the evolving landscape as it happened, and this has meant that they’ve moved with how the audience around them were moving. I can totally understand that some church leaders will argue that they need to move at a pace that is going to bring all of their congregation along, but this can happen, whilst also embracing change, it needs leadership who are happy to help their community along with the change, and not stay resistant to it.
what could the future of the church look like?
This is not meant to criticise, but merely provide a look at the overall arena and the opportunities for the future of the church that surround us. Particularly in the west, we do not live in a society where the church is the ‘norm’ and we need to acknowledge that. We also live in a society where many people feel isolated and disengaged from the church’s message. We need to better understand the culture and people’s around us – reaching out to them where they are, and understanding where we can best have impact, and not expect people to come in through the church doors on a Sunday, nor even expect them to watch our new shiny video channel.
Yes, we absolutely need to be on the platforms where people are, but we also need to understand how the platforms work, and how we can make them best work for us. There are simple techniques that leaders can use to ensure that when they do use the online tools to best help them – this requires a need to learn the tools, and also how the audiences work in these virtual communities, and not just the functionality of putting something online.
For example, there are 7 practical tips for recording a video sermon, that can help the content to look better. There are also some great tools out there such as Zoom, Skype and MS Teams that can help churches stay connected with their communities, virtually and so that everyone has a voice. There are also strategic ways to approach social media, to help messages get noticed better, and also to work this as part of the cohesive whole of an organisation’s ministry, and not just a bolted-on disparate part.
There will be more blogs to follow that help to train and equip people with these tools, particularly in a Christian setting. I hope in some part this has served to set out the vision I see – something that I have worked with a number of Christian organisations over the last 10 years through training and consultancy, but we live in urgent times, and now is the time to try and share these thoughts wider. There is also a series of blogs written specifically for the COVID-19 season – lessons from the desert, which includes: ‘leading through change‘, ‘dealing with change‘, ‘what does daily bread look like?‘ and ‘dealing with anxiety‘.