This week a colleague of mine shared a fantastic post by Carey Niewhof entitled, “5 Disruptive Trends That Will Rule 2016.” It is a great piece, if you get nothing else out of my post, go read his.

I was really struck by the first trend he shared, “Church online will become an advance, not just a supplement to or replacement for church.” This is one of those times when someone writes something that seems so clear, simple and obvious that I can’t figure out why I never wrote it before. Niewhof goes on to share another gem:

More than ever in 2016, online church will begin to open a door into the lives of people who will never walk through yours.

Maslow said that, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Let me turn that around. If all you see are nails, you will just keep trying to build a better hammer.

Sometimes all the church sees is nails and in this case, nails are the “a word.” Attendance.

WLarge Crowdhen I first start talking to churches about live streaming, the first reaction is often, “Won’t this lower attendance? Won’t people just stay at home and watch church instead of coming?” It takes some convincing to show them that people are staying home anyway and live streaming can keep them connected when they are away. So, honestly, live streaming can, long-term, raise attendance or, at least, keep it from plummeting.

But the next part I share with them is the part that I have only been getting half right. I let churches know that some people may have their first experience of their church online. People might watch and engage in a service from home while making the decision Church Live Stream - Westlake United Methodist Churchwhether to attend your physical plant. Churches like this because it is another type of hammer in the toolkit. Honestly, this concept is half right. In our current world, people are becoming used to the idea of getting a sample of something before committing. I can watch a movie trailer before going to a movie. I like to see photos, a menu, and reviews from a restaurant before I drive there. For people who don’t currently attend a church, physically going for the first time is a big risk and a big commitment. But that is only half the story of what live streaming can do.

Let’s go back to the hammer and the nails. There is a reason attendance is so important to us. If something is worth doing, it is worth measuring. I was going to write, “It is not about getting people to church, it is about introducing people to Jesus.” I wrote it anyway. However, that is becoming cliche. I am pretty sure everybody knows that. But still, we stumble on how to measure changed lives. So we measure what we know how to measure. And that gets reinforced by most denominations who still want an account of attendance because they can’t figure out another way to measure either. So, it is not really anybody’s fault that we keep seeing nails and building better hammers. But this is exactly what we need to be thinking about.

a chairThe world has radically changed around us and we are still trying to fill our seats. Of course, full seats are great. The physical church meeting is still an essential part of the work and identity of the church. We need to meet together, pray together, worship together and share the sacraments. But if that is our only focus, we are missing the opportunity to share the gospel in new ways.

There are more and more churches marching into the digital mission field. Unfortunately, most of us are still talking to ourselves. The web is seriously lacking in great content that is reaching out to people who don’t attend church and may never attend church. Jesus and the first apostles didn’t have an established church to invite people to. So, Jesus told people about the Kingdom of God and the apostles told people about Jesus. Jesus used the media he had access to, stories. The apostles taught and healed and reflected Jesus to whoever they met, wherever they met them. What does that look like in an age where people are beginning to connect more online than in the town square?

Please, let’s continue having powerful worship experiences. Let’s continue talking to people face to face about a life transforming relationship with Jesus Christ. But let’s not forget about the souls wandering around in cyberspace searching for meaning.

What could that look like practically?

First of all, get your church online.

First United Methodist Church of Austin - fumcaustin.org

Establish an excellent website that talks about Jesus, shares the good news, shows how the church can speak into peoples’ lives. Share stories of transformation and information of how to get started. Make sure your website offers a strong invitation to your church and also a strong invitation to relationship with God.

Second, share meaningful content.

University United Methodist Church in San Antonio shares 2 minute excerpts​ from Sunday sermons
University United Methodist Church in San Antonio shares 2-minute excerpts from Sunday sermons

If your church is not ready for live streaming or other video content, what if the pastor’s sermons could be edited into more bite-sized portions and shared online? If you can live stream, do it well. Then, take that content and start editing. Create sermon excerpts that reach people where they live. There are likely 1-3 minutes of a Sunday sermon that will impact the life of someone online.

Third, tell people!

Bob's UMC Billboard

And don’t just tell your church members about it. I would love to see more churches advertising their live stream to people who don’t go to church. I would love to one day pass a billboard advertising a church’s worship live stream. There are many ways now to buy targeting digital ads to reach people where they live and offer them an invitation that they can accept without leaving their screen.

How is your church reaching the digital mission field? I would love to hear about it in the comments below.

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