As the widespread use of the internet reaches its 30th anniversary, churches must admit. We dropped the ball.
All over the world, the smallest of enterprises discovered a new, life-changing communication tool. As for us—well, things seemed just fine.
The 2020 pandemic forced churches to tackle online meetings and streaming worship. We scrambled, but within a few weeks, we mastered what had long been dismissed as unnecessary, a passing fad.
We learned a lot. The biggest Aha Moment—an online presence that attracts people who don’t usually attend worship.
Now, months into the pandemic, are we already longing to return to a pre-pandemic “normal”?
How will we minister in the post-pandemic world?
- Can online education nurture faith?
- Can our members learn skills online to enrich our ministry?
- Can online communities support different needs?
- Can we reach more neighbors with the Good News?
There is no better time to continue our momentum. Yet, so late to the game, we can easily become overwhelmed.
We feel like we must learn a foreign language for a country we’d rather not visit.
Social Media. Facebook, Facebook groups, Facebook pages, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest, TikTok. Reading the list is exhausting.
Even with our recent progress, we feel hopelessly behind.
If we don’t have members with tech skills, where do we start?
Small Churches Can Lead the Way
Here’s the good news. Small churches can develop strategies that all churches can emulate by using a tool we already know.
Email IS social media. It has advantages over the constantly changing commercial platforms.
- It is stable. (No never-ending learning curve.)
- It is universal. (Everybody uses it.)
- It is interactive. (That’s what makes it social.)
- It supports media (photos, videos, audio).
- It provides important data to help you plan ministry.
- It belongs to you. You can control it without changing third party algorithms and community rules.
- It is inexpensive.
- It is effective—40 times more effective than Facebook.
The Hidden Power of Email
Email is letter-writing on steroids.
Imagine what Peter and Paul could have done with email!
But will it work for ministry? Where’s the proof?
Statistics from the church world are difficult to find.
Here’s an example from a similar “business”—a family-run, neighborhood funeral home. Like us, they guide families through difficult times.
This funeral home serves a suburban town of fewer than 20,000 people (16,000 in 2018).
They launched their site in 2012, reacting to the growing online presence of larger and chain funeral homes.
Funeral homes adopt non-intrusive marketing—like cardboard fans in church pews. They just want people to know they will be there when needed and are content to stay out of sight until then.
Growing a list is of no interest. They would never use it.
So this funeral home set up a simple WordPress site. They started listing obituaries. No extra charge. Theirs was a value-added service that would cost a thousand dollars in a newspaper.
Unlike printed death notices, their online obituaries can be as long as desired with photos and videos. The end of each obituary invites readers to leave messages for family and tributes to the deceased, quietly fostering community.
With each posting the funeral director sends one email providing a short URL link to the family. Families share the link on social media.
Here’s how one email with sharable content per death notice grew this funeral home’s traffic in eight years.
At the end of the first nine months in 2012, they had an average of 3+ visitors to their website per day.
Churches might be tempted to give up on any email strategy at this point.
But look what starts to happen a few months later in July 2013. They now have 35 daily visits to their website. That’s larger than many churches’ Sunday worship attendance.
The average daily visit January-October is 555. On the strongest month, July 2020, 863 people visited their site.
Within eight years, their monthly reach into their community exceeds the town’s population!
Imagine if one of the 20 small churches in this small town had spent the last eight years sending nurturing emails.
At this point, small church leaders may be tempted to resurrect the litany of the last three decades. We’ve all heard it. “Our people are old. They don’t use the internet.”
Probably true in 1990. It will never be true again.
Today’s seniors were in their 30s at the dawn of the technology revolution. They are tech pioneers. Visit the dining hall of a retirement home. You’ll see a cellphone resting beside most every fork.
Besides—it was never a valid argument. The people we need to reach ARE online.
Why Email Works
We’ll be sending emails only to a list we build, starting with our members. We’ll encourage members to share with their family and friends on the Social Media platforms they use. People will choose to join our list. They can opt out at any time.
Leaving the sharing to others shortens our learning curve and multiplies our efforts.
We’ll create links to encourage interested people to provide their email address. We’ll build relationships slowly, providing information they’ve requested. Sooner or later, after the pandemic, perhaps, we can sponsor an onsite event for people we’ve met online, further nurturing relationships.
Why Daily Emails (or at least frequent emails)?
Internet statistics teach us that it takes 9-12 interactions or touchpoints before someone takes action online. We must create these opportunities for interaction. This is a steady, nurturing process.
Have you heard the commonly cited creed, “I’m spiritual, not religious?”
These words reflect a distrust of established religion. At the same time they reveal a longing for spirituality.
We need a mission strategy that can reach modern generations who not only have less experience with church but are willing to seek spirituality elsewhere.
Furthermore, the internet has created new social habits.
Modern generations are less likely to visit churches. They will research us online first—just as they do restaurants, gyms or hotels.
The ball is in our court. We must ace the serve over our walls to create a first encounter.
An active internet presence is critical to shaping our image. If we don’t, the people we want to reach will learn about us on Yelp! Yelp collects all their information from what they find online! We have to be there!
Start by Finding Content
Online content is as important as quality worship, accurately kept records, and well-maintained property—all work that churches readily fill with hired staff.
But online content doesn’t have to be hard if you curate instead of create.
The internet is filled with content that people post expecting others to share. Find it and share it.
What to Avoid
Churches instinctively talk about ourselves. We introduce our pastor. We share our history. We assure people we are a safe and friendly place.
This is not the kind of content we should share in the first stages of email ministry. We must slowly build a path to our door. They’ll be plenty of time to share our story later.
Create A Structure
Following a structure helps you decide what to look for online.
Here are some possibilities:
Follow the church year. One strategy is to follow the church year. This will assure content is timely. The church year can resonate with the unchurched. Many celebrate Christmas and Easter!
Follow the Common Lectionary
The Common Lectionary provides scriptural lessons for every Sunday in a repeating three-year cycle. (The content you find this year can be recycled in three years!) Its structure helps us know what kind of content to look for. This lectionary site actually provides sharable artwork and ideas for music and prayer at no cost. Use these as prompts to plug into a search engine to find other links. You might find a country or jazz rendition of a listed hymn or a work of art that speaks to your topic. (Just beware of copyright issues with modern works.) Wikipedia Commons is a safe source.
YouTube and Pinterest are rich sources. YouTube videos are posted with embed and sharing links. We can add a few words to add a personal touch.
We don’t want to avoid technology with our dying breath.
It’s time to tackle technology. Finally!
Inhale. Exhale. We can do this!
This is important to our future—important enough for us to find the skills we need. We can start by asking for volunteers, but it might be better to pay someone who we can be sure has the expertise. This can be a short-term investment—just long enough to get the technology in place—a month or two at most. Consider college students or hiring an affordable Personal Assistant with tech skills. Online search: Personal Assistant.
Choose an Email Marketing Service
This is not optional. An Email Marketing Service is necessary to work email evangelism magic. Their services do the work that would otherwise require a host of volunteers.
Robust free options include MailChimp and AWeber.
- They will maintain our lists.
- They will allow us to segment our list (for example, visitors, or the choir, or the governing board, or parents of young children).
- They allow us to schedule emails (we can schedule a month’s emails in one sitting).
- They provide templates for newsletters and landing pages, so people can join our list.
- They have step-by-step tutorials and help desks that operate 24/7. They gently walk us through any problems we encounter.
Welcome their expertise!
These are the first steps in launching an active online presence.
- Decide why and how you’re going to use email so you can communicate it broadly with your board and congregation.
- Collect/create content that supports your church and community.
- Create emails that include shareable content and teach your congregation why and how to share them.
- Schedule your emails.
- Persist, and do not grow weary in doing good, for at least two years.
- See how it changes your ministry and your community.
Small churches can do this!