A famous concept in the startup world is about the unbundling of platforms. Craigslist is a classic example. Some extremely valuable companies have been formed by focusing on specific verticals that were once core to Craigslist.
The reason Craigslist is a valuable source for startup inspiration is that, since its founding 25 years ago, the vast horizontal breadth of verticals has been met with an almost stagnant and extremely shallow feature set. In other words, Craigslist hasn’t changed in a long time, and it has proved fairly easy for startups to carve off specific niches to iterate on. This led to the iconic Craisglist market map that shows all of the offshoots of this once-centralized experience.
What is the church market map?
As churches continue to wrestle with translating a traditionally physical experience into one that at least includes a digital experience, I think it’s a worthwhile exercise to “unbundle” the physical experience, and look at different “verticals” that you can experiment with as you attempt to define your online strategy and reporting.
Traditionally, the physical church service has been the centralized craigslist-style experience for Christians. It is in these physical places where members of a community can go to get connected, worship, tithe, fellowship, and more.
Our lives are increasingly becoming melded between the physical and digital world, so the need was already there for churches to analyze the different “verticals” within their traditionally physical experience, but COVID accelerated and amplified this need in a profound way. Much of the impetus for meeting this new reality was put on the backs of a church’s communications teams, and the output of these digital strategies often left much of the verticals off of the table.
For example, a physical church experience involves:
- Listening to a Sermon
- Singing along with a worship team
And it seems like the core digital offering for most churches has been these two experiences. But that’s just scratching the surface of what “church” truly is.
In talking with church comms teams, it’s very apparent why the sermon and the worship have become the sole digital experience for many churches. It has to do with the head pastor not examining the vast array of reasons that people might be interested in his church. Sure, the sermon is an integral part of a church’s weekly offerings to a community, but it is not the ONLY offering, and it is definitely not what a church “is”.
At best, a church is a community of people with a wide variety of needs, desires, giftings, and connections. When translating “church” to the physical world, it is ripe for being unbundled.
To start, a traditional church experience involves a sermon and music, but it can also involve:
- Being welcomed by someone
- Making small talk before and after the service
- Driving to the church (a larger time commitment)
- Taking an offering
- Making lunch plans for after the service
- Sunday School before the service
- Having an alter call
- Being prayed over by someone
- Bumping into someone that encourages you to sign up for a particular event
- Being baptized
- Seeing someone be baptized
- Baby dedications
- Feeling a “part of something”
And that’s just on Sunday.
Creating Digital Offshoots
The online versions of these different “verticals” don’t need to identically mirror the physical versions, and I don’t think an Online strategy needs to try and 100% replicate what happens during a physical experience, but at the very least, I think churches can try to go beyond just broadcasting the sermon and the music. And the great thing about digital is that you can iterate and try stuff out way quicker and for less money than you can with physical stuff.
Also, the depth of engagement and community that is possible online is not necessarily less than what is possible physically. Sure, Zoom meetings are tedious after a certain point, but there are ways to leverage technology for deep engagement that wouldn’t be possible in real life. For instance, problems of scale are much easier addressed digitally than physically. So, you could have 100 digital small groups digitally when it might only be reasonable to have 10 physically. Asynchronous communication allows people to be a part of something in an ongoing way, and being “live” doesn’t only have to be reserved for church staff.
With all of this in mind, it seems like whatever metric you are using to quantify the effectiveness of your online strategy should be more robust than a video view. The church is more than a weekly video.
To be clear though, you don’t need more analytics or more metrics. You have plenty. In fact, we are drowning in metrics.
I have two suggestions for analyzing digital performance:
- Choose a small number of metrics that are as closely connected to your church’s ultimate mission as possible. These may be smaller numbers than the number of FB Video Views you had, or whatever proxy metrics your team has grown accustomed to. That’s okay.
- Zoom out. It’s had to see the narratives in your analytics when you are looking at a granular level. You want to understand trends and the impacts that certain decisions have overall. To do that, it’s best to get a wider view. Look at a rolling 28-day window, and compare it to the previous rolling 28-day window.
But analyzing the effects that a digital strategy has on a church is not by any means simple. And this is where I rope in lead pastors and elders…
Leveraging technology, social media, and digital strategies are not just something to have Communications teams wade through. Please stop putting all of this on their backs.
These are profound tools. And the impact they can have on your church is profound.
As John Dyer mentions in his book From the Garden to the City: The Redeeming and Corrupting Power of Technology, “tools of technology never function as neutral, inert instruments.”
Tools change us, and if we don’t meditate and prayerfully consider the power they have over us, they can change the way our churches operate in the world.