Carey Nieuwhof, one of my favorite church leadership gurus, wrote a blog post a few weeks ago where he laid out his predictions for the Church in 2019. In that post, he said this:
“Church online will become a front door for the curious, the skeptic and the interested. It will be the first stop for almost everyone, and a temporary resting place for people who are a little too afraid to jump in until they muster the courage to jump in through physical attendance.”
He was specifically talking about worship services online, but I think his point holds true for all of our digital communications as churches — and I think it has been true for several years now. Most guests will get their very first impression of our church through our presence online.
Although there are tons of digital channels through which people may experience our church, I tend to break down our online communications into two primary channels: social media and our church website. To understand how these two channels work together, it’s helpful for us to consider the way a guest to our church is likely to have first encountered them. Let’s name our hypothetical guest Mary.
Mary’s Experience with First Church
Mary had never heard of First Church until her friend, Richard, posted a photo on Facebook. The photo was a quote from the pastor’s most recent sermon — the photo itself wasn’t anything fancy, but the quote itself really resonated with Mary.
Since Mary knew Richard was a smart, kind person, she thought First Church must be a nice place. She clicked on the church’s name and scrolled through their feed, where she saw posts about the way First Church’s people were serving in the community, enjoyed meals together, and supported one another in times of tragedy. She noticed in these posts that people seemed happy and welcoming. She also noticed that the people in the photos weren’t models — they were real people, just like her.
It seemed like a nice place. And, after all, Richard liked it, and she trusted Richard’s judgment.
But Mary still felt a tug of apprehension. She hadn’t been involved in a church since she was a little girl, and there was a reason she hadn’t been back. She’d never really belonged in a place like that. Something about that church had made her feel like an outcast. In the back of her mind, Mary wondered if First Church would be the same way.
She clicked on the church’s website address, almost hoping she would find something on there that would tell her she didn’t belong — anything that would make it really easy for her to just go back to Facebook and forget she ever saw anything about the church.
To her surprise, though, the first thing she saw was a message telling her she was welcome here. There were more images of the church’s people here, and Mary was amazed at how easily she could imagine herself there. She also saw the church’s address — it was only fifteen minutes from her house — and service times.
Maybe she should ask Richard if he was planning to go to church this weekend. If he was, maybe she’d ask if she could join him.
Prioritizing the Guest Experience
A guest’s first exposure to our church is likely going to come on social media, and that is a beautiful thing for us — since it is understood as a personal recommendation, it comes with a lot of built-in trust.
But when that guest wants to confirm what they think they’re seeing on social media, they are going to visit our website. Our website is where they expect to find a more official representation of our church — what we believe in, who our pastor is, and so on.
When they come visit our site, they are often looking for any excuse not to attend. That’s why it is critically important for us to be intentional about removing barriers for guests and creating an experience that makes them feel like a part of our community.
These two communications channels (social media and our church website) are considered to be outward-facing because they are the places where prospective guests will decide whether our church is worth the time and effort required to attend worship in person. For that reason, those two channels need to be focused first (and focused intentionally) on guests.
If you’ve served in church communications for more than fifteen minutes, you may be shaking your head at me right now because you know that a church website needs to be more than just a portal for first-time guests — after all, there are the ministries and programs to think about! And you’re absolutely right.
The deeper ministries and programs of the church are important. They are the means of helping guests grow into disciples. In a future post, we’ll discuss in more detail how we can strike balance between meeting the needs of congregants and relating to guests, but for now we have to remember that our mission as the Church is to reach the lost. To do that, we can’t turn them away before they even speak to us.
So from a guest’s very first encounter with us (which is likely to come via social media and our website), we must open up that conversation and invite them in.
I hear a lot of criticisms of this approach, and they usually boil down to the idea that neglecting to use language about Jesus or the cross is a watering-down of the Christian message. “Seeker sensitive” churches got a bad reputation in the late 1990s and early 2000s as churches that never talked about the gospel. But let’s be clear.
It is never a dilution of the gospel to meet people where they are. Jesus used words the people already knew and ideas they already understood as he taught them about the kingdom of God, and it’s not a failure of our Christian witness when we do the same.
Of course, our aim as a church can never be to leave people in the place they came from, and we cannot be content for people to return to life inspired but unchallenged. The call to discipleship — the continual work of better embodying the kingdom of God as demonstrated by Christ — is central to our identity as Christians.
But we have to recognize that this work is a journey. We cannot ask people who have never seen the work of the Spirit to make a decision to follow Christ. That would be like asking a toddler to jump in the deep end of the pool — it will only result in tragedy. We start by inviting them to dip their toes in the shallows.
As we continue in this series, we will examine five simple ways we can use our digital communications to connect in meaningful ways with our guests.
- Think About What a Guest Needs
- Feature People, not Facilities
- Avoid Language Guests Don’t Understand
- Create a Transition Path into Your Community
- Cultivate the Relationship After a Visit