The Rise of the Digital Church

There is little argument that the Internet and digital technologies have transformed our way of life. Countless industries and business models have already begun fully transforming to the digital landscape while others choose a slower path of participation or ignore their digital opportunity altogether.

The rise of the digital church is not so much a matter of how, but a question of when. Through the decades of digital transformation, there have been many industries and markets that have downplayed the significance the Internet would have on their business models. In almost every case, an online solution emerges that competes, disrupts and many times eliminates the older model. Taxis to Uber, travel agents to Expedia, Realtors to Zillow are just a few examples of this phenomenon.

Today, churches are facing a myriad of digital disruptions. The challenge for churches is understanding how to effectively roadmap their digital future while still successfully maintaining their core operations. This is a common dynamic that most organizations face when dealing with the digital landscape.

The majority of churches are positioning themselves online today much like the banking industry did before the advent of online consumer banking. The online presence is there but lacks any adoption of best practices. Additionally, many churches do not have a long-term digital strategy so they are in a difficult position to adapt to the changing needs and wants of their audience.

One thing is true in the digital space; if you are not satisfying your market audience online, someone else will at some time in some fashion.

For context, let’s examine four digital church models which are important to understand when determining how the digital church will evolve in near future:

1. Digital Denial – A general lack of effort to capture or engage anyone online. The fate of these churches will ultimately be put into question.

2. Traditionalists – A very basic online presence with mostly static information and little interactivity. This strategy will ultimately fail to capture new markets and will have some impact on the long-term health of the church.

3. Experimentalists – This is a church that is reaching out to incorporate dynamic content such as audio, video, social media communications and other online interactions that visitors can experience. These churches open themselves up for distributive brand growth while also attracting online audiences that ultimately may tithe online without geographic barriers.

4. Digital Market Leaders – These churches recognize and harness the true power of online media. They understand the importance of congregational digital connectivity. They see digital as a new and promising channel that will increase the long-term health and wealth of their church. These churches are proactive and prepared to take the necessary digital steps to keep pace with changing market needs and opportunities.

Before focusing on the solutions, it is important to notate the primary value propositions a church should consider when examining their digital opportunities and investments online.

1. Risk/Reward – If properly executed, there is a low investment cost of pushing the digital envelope for churches to experience the potential upside benefits.

2. Good Digital Proves Value – A strong digital experience represents a strong organization.

3. Geographic Brand Expansion – Aside from attracting more local and regional audiences, digitally strong churches are able to reach audiences that may not be able to attend the physical church. This can lead to higher reach, engagement as well as donations from online tithing.

4. 24×7 Access – The physical church experience is event-oriented with fixed times and places. The digital church is able to meet people where they are with more on demand-oriented content.

5. Future Preparation – Being poised and positioned properly online provides the platform to take the next digital leap when the time is right. The digital church is not an event. It is a process and those that adapt and respond to shifting needs and technologies will not only survive but thrive.

What can and should a church do to participate in the rise of their digital opportunity and success?

For every church, circumstances and situations are unique; however, there are some common and fundamental best practices that every church should consider.

Here are five 5 steps to creating a healthy digital church:

1. Take Digital Seriously – There is little question that digital will have a major impact on the church as an organization. If digital is not a part of the priority operating agenda, it needs to be sooner rather than later.

2. Balancing Status and Strategy – The best churches online frequently take stock of their digital status and adapt their strategy as needed to continuously reach their primary goals and objectives.

3. Build a Beautiful Place Online – The digital experience should be aligned with the value and strength of the physical church experience. Create a site that speaks to people directly and interpersonally. Be sure the site guides them to all the things you have to offer. Be sure to tell them what you want them to do as much as possible. People respond to online direction.

4. Build a Digital Team – Create an informal or formal group that can bring or add value to all of your digital processes and assets. It takes more than one person for a church to win in the digital space so make it an enjoyable experience that attracts people who can and will contribute their time and talents.

5. Online Member Experience – Likely to be the biggest growth area for churches in the digital space, an online member experience offers a personal experience beyond the public-facing version. Having an online membership experience (OME) can permanently connect your audience to your physical and/or digital church in countless ways. For more information on the OME model, read The Digital Church and the Online Member Experience.

Predicting the future of the Internet and its impact on specific markets is not easy. There are many twists and turns to consider all the time as new applications and solutions are driving behavioral changes in every demographic. We now have decades of strong examples where traditional organizations and industries paid heavy prices for being in digital denial or getting to the race too late.

The rise of the digital church is not some far-fetched, speculative prediction. Smart churches are making giant leaps forward just by starting to ask the right questions and making strategic moves with digital execution. Those organizations that step-up and take their digital opportunity seriously will reduce their market risks while positioning themselves to capture and engage the audiences they wish to serve. Ultimately, they will be poised to deliver the best possible experience both on and offline.