July 24, 2018
In my previous post I wrote what I believe is the next horizon of ministry for the church. If you missed it you can read it here.
In it I stated that in today's culture, there are two ways people attend church, either physically or virtually, and that the virtual church will make significant inroads as a standard mode of church attendance for more and more people in the future.
As a point of clarity, the physical church will always exist, but in a culture that is hyper-connected, hyper-entertained, and hyper-serviced, a church will need to face some harsh realities if it wants to reach people for the Kingdom.
In fact, even if your church is not ready to make the jump to the virtual world, you need to be thinking about what you need to change in order to continue reaching people. I think this is an ongoing conversation amongst any leadership if they truly care about being a Great Commission church. Let's stick to the physical church for a minute. Do any of these words describe your church?
If any of those hit close to home, then you have work to do. Can I be honest for a moment? If the church has the greatest message in the world, then why do we dare deliver it in a lacklustre way and why would we think that anyone would be attracted to it?
Now, I'm not advocating for circus acts or entertainment-driven focus, but I do think the church needs to be excellent in what it delivers. Its a must in today's world. So as far as the physical church goes, there are two things that will make them thrive into the future. They will be able to deliver...
For those who continue to attend church the expectations for excellence will only increase over time. Its an inevitable consequence of our culture. I'm not talking about excellence or "seeker" oriented ministry as a method for reaching people, but as a normal expectation by those who continue to attend. Now, let me add another point of clarification.
For a church to deliver a great experience and a great community the key to it all comes down to authenticity. I know its a tired word but manufactured ministry is easily revealed as a fraud and excellence for many, is defined more by the engagement of hearts that are giving their best. So, if that is the basis for the physical church, what about the virtual church?
Here's the rub in all of this. You will need a dynamic physical church in order to create a dynamic virtual church. Surprised, you shouldn't be. If you cannot create the real thing with real people in real time, you will not be able to create the kind of virtual church that I am advocating here.
Why? Because the physical church will be the proving ground for the virtual church. Again, if you cannot deliver quality physically, you will have trouble delivering quality virtually. Church is people-oriented, not product-oriented. In time, I believe that will change, but for now I think the physical and virtual will need to develop in parallel in order to deliver excellence in both horizons.
Even though, in all likelihood, the virtual church has the potential to reach and impact far more people than the physical church. For reasons that are too long to extricate here, the virtual church, if done well, could reach demographic groups that would have been impossible otherwise. Here is what I'm not talking about when I talk about the virtual church. I'm not talking about:
The virtual church I'm advocating for will certainly have these elements, but it should be so much more. It should be a way of building an online community that feels deep connection to others in the online community if not to the physical church itself.
Before I get into some of the elements of the virtual church there is a key question you can ask as a measurement of the kind of virtual church you need to create. I think this question will shape the entire process of your team as they develop a virtual strategy.
The virtual church would be so inspiring and engaging, that if the person could, they would rather experience the 'real' church by attending a physical service.
Here is one of the more powerful truths about investing in a virtual church. The majority of people check out a church's website long before they make a decision to attend. Imagine if you had such an engaging online church that they became connected to your church long before they ever attended physically?
Ever met a Hillsongs groupie? The ultimate experience for them is to actually travel to Sydney, Australia and be a part of the congregation that spawned this worldwide phenomenon that has spanned decades and now is a church planting movement.
Other churches like LifeChurch.TV has this dialled in really well, with 100's of networked communities that are part of their mission to reach people wherever they are. The virtual church is a new horizon of incredible potential, and it can also become one of the most effective tools for generating a new community of Jesus Followers in another geographical location, if not another tool for attracting people to your home church. Because ultimately, we would all love the physical church to grow and thrive. So, with those arguments presented, here is what you will need in order to thrive as a virtual community.
1. You will need dynamic teaching
If there is anything that will make or break your virtual hopes, its having boring content delivered poorly. In fact, this is just as true for the physical church as it is for the virtual. People are longing for inspiring content that will add value and transformation to their lives, so let's not disappoint in this critical need!
2. You will need inspiring worship
Preaching and worship are the one-two punch in a typical church service. The advantage of the virtual church is that you can devise alternate worship genre streams that could appeal to different groups. Not only that, but spoken prayers, related videos, timely quotes, art, and other media could be introduced to accentuate the teaching. These creative elements enhance the experience and help to involve people in inspiring ways.
3. You will need engaging social media
Social media is just that, social! We cannot deny how much it has infiltrated our lives. For the virtual church, it is one of the best community builders you could ask for. Having a live social component on the site is frankly a no-brainer here. Also, there are a myriad of social tools that you could utilize to extend the community in ways unimaginable before.
4. You will need responsive and dedicated staff and volunteers
This one relates to the previous point about social media. A vital virtual church will need to feel as engaging as being there in person. I know we would need to be careful here, but staff and volunteers would have to be trained as well as being clear about the boundaries of engagement. But, with those cautions aside, imagine a vibrant prayer ministry that is generated by requests coming through the virtual portal? Also, a virtual ministry is a long term reality.
I think there needs to be a significant shift in the way we understand staffing and volunteering as it relates to technology. I was recently on a site of a new church plant and looked up the staffing page. Even I was shocked to see no one listed as responsible for kids or youth or even an associate role. Beyond the pastor and administrator were staff who were tasked with video production and technology coordination. Hardly the typical church roster.
5. You will need to think mobile
Google recently altered its ranking algorithm to favour mobile devices because more and more people are accessing sites through their phones and tablets. The need for responsive sites is becoming more important than ever. If you were thinking of just creating a website without taking into account the place for mobile devices, you are already two steps behind.
6. You will need a strategy for building community
This is likely the most difficult part of the virtual church but is likely the most compelling. There are many who are simply not interested in coming to church. The reasons are too many to list here. If you could find a way of introducing virtual attenders with like interests you could easily build an online community that is still connected to your church.
Here is another example. I am a big believer in sermon-based small groups. In fact, I think it should serve as the core small group strategy in every church. If you want to read my reasons you can get them here.
Imagine if you could develop sermon-based small groups in other geographical locales that are listening and engaging with your messages through those small groups.
Even though they never attend your church, they are otherwise growing in a group together with the material from your church. Especially if this is a group of people who never think of attending a physical community.
I know that much of this smacks against what we honour as biblically-based community, but the reality is all around us. Frankly, we can put our proverbial head in the sand, or find ways of engaging new demographics in ways that bring the Good News of Christ into the forefront of their lives.
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