The Truly Digital Church

Earlier this year, LifeWay made the announcement that it had decided to close all 170 of its physical stores. The Christian bookstore will instead move all of its efforts online.

They are not alone in their decision.

Retail banking is experiencing a steep decline in branch visits. In 2017 alone, 1,700 branches closed.

The older model for books and banks was bricks. Banks, for example, put their stock in physical branches, which is why there are (were) so many of them. The idea was that the means for expanding customer base was branch location and convenience. Putting a branch every 3-5 miles was the key to customer attraction and retention.

No longer.

Think… when you want to buy a book, where do you turn?

Amazon. 

When you have banking needs, do you think branch?

No, you think phone.

Banks aren’t stupid. They are realizing that when they eliminate a branch, they eliminate high costs (brick and mortar buildings are expensive, not to mention staffing them). Further, they can then re-invest those resources into cheaper and more efficient online services. They are even able to make the digital experience more convenient and personalized.

Win-win for both the bank and the customer.

So what does the future hold?

Let’s stick with banks.

Analysts are pointing to five powerful paths to connect with customers:

1.   Online and mobile for secure electronic transfers on all tech platforms and for nearly all transaction types, including payments and trading.

2.   Telephonic services for information, problem solving and help. Artificial intelligence offers a great way to support this channel.

3.   Enhanced ATMs with private, secure enclosures for large cash deposits, cashier’s checks, money orders, bonds and/or video chats. This personalizes service in more locations for customers while lowering overhead.

4.   House calls and business calls for investments, loans, notary services and new customer contacts. Think “Geek Squad” for banks, where bankers visit consumers. Customers consider it a tremendous positive when met on their terms and turf.

5.   A redefined in-branch experience that accounts for the other four connections.

So what should banks do?

Again, analysts have their suggestions:

  • Leave the branch alone if your customers resist change and prefer traditional experiences.
  • Keep the branch location but downsize and/or redesign it to better serve needs. This might work well with diversified customers in high-density, high-touch or high-service locations. Redefine the experience as you go; forge partnerships with food and beverage or other service businesses to split costs and reimagine customer care.
  • Close the location—sublease or sell it. Know the main types of branch transactions and fill voids to retain current customers. You could replace branches with enhanced ATMs or position house-call bankers for regular area coverage.
  • Create connections customers value most. The days when customers met banks on their terms have turned around. Bankers must connect whenever and wherever customers have questions, post transactions or need financial services.

It doesn’t take a bank analyst to choose the option that holds the most potential: it’s creating connections that customers value most. And this realization is not just for books and banks. As a recent Fox News report chronicled:

Church, as we’ve known it for the past few generations, is over. Every church you’ve ever attended, or that you drive by on your way to a Sunday sporting event, was built on a physical attendance model that is location-centric.

As a result, church leaders and pastors have spent time every week encouraging, inviting and pleading with people to come to a specific place at a specific time on Sundays. This approach has created church staffing models, systems and ministry strategies focused on improving attendance. It’s also why there is an annual Top 100 list of America’s most-attended churches.

But that way of doing church is dead.

That may be an overstatement, but the sentiment is correct. Our culture has shifted from the physical to the digital, and church growth based on the physical must be rethought in light of the digital. There is a clear place for the physical – there is no escaping the biblical and theological mandate to gather and worship and practice the “one-anothers” – but the future of the growth of the church will not be realized through physical means as much as digital means. Meaning, it will be the digital that fuels the physical.

I won’t even attempt to lay-out the implications of this for various tactics.

Suffice it to say, the implications are staggering.

The bottom line is that we can no longer do “physical” church in a “digital” world.

> Read more from James Emery White.


 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

James Emery White

James Emery White

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. He is the founder of Serious Times and this blog was originally posted at his website www.churchandculture.org.

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A point of clarity is in order. In this article I am referring to “the digital church” in a very specific way. I am not referring to the many uses of the Internet available to churches: church web sites; social media; and a plethora of training tools. Instead I use the phrase to refer to those churches that view a significant part of their constituencies to be online rather than in person.

The “digital church attendees” likely view the worship services online. They may be in some type of online small group. They have the ability to minister to others via the Internet. And they can support the church financially online as well.

Some churches now view these persons as integral participants in the life of the church. A small but growing number are willing to grant them membership. And many churches see the digital church attendees as an extension of the ministry of the church, even if they do not have full membership status.

This phenomenon is not transitory. It will be with us for the foreseeable future. As I speak with pastors and other church leaders across America and beyond, here are the key issues being discussed.

  1. There is a lively debate regarding the status of the digital church attendees. What are the ecclesiological implications of the digital church attendees? Are they really a part of the church? Is physical presence necessary to be connected with a church? Should they be granted membership? Should they participate in communion/Lord’s supper?
  2. Many churches are using a “both/and” approach to the digital church. They have worship services and small groups where people gather and meet in person. But they also have an extension of their ministry that includes the digital church attendees. Some church leaders have shared with me the particular effectiveness for homebound persons and military persons deployed around the world. Only a small number of churches today are digital churches only.
  3. The digital church movement is growing. My information at this point is anecdotal, but I hope to have some good data from LifeWay Research in the future. Still, I have little doubt that the movement is growing and will continue to grow.
  4. Church leaders are struggling to find meaningful metrics for the digital church. Do such metrics as pageviews or unique visitors have any meaning for the effectiveness of the ministry? Do donations from digital attendees have any implications for the health of the ministry? What metrics are possible and also meaningful?
  5. Many digital church attendees are faithful financial givers to the church. I’ve been somewhat surprised to hear from church leaders about the financial support the church receives from the digital attendees. From my conversations, I’ve learned that the financial support is proportionate to the effort the church expends in connecting to digital attendees.
  6. The digital church is rapidly evolving. In a few months, much less a few years, we will know more about the digital church. For now, we know it is both growing and changing. This movement, for better or worse, may be one of the most significant in churches across the world for years to come.

I know that many church leaders will be looking to this particular article to get insights from others. Please take a few minutes to share with the readership any insights, experiences, or opinions you have about the digital church. You readers are incredibly bright. I look forward to hearing from you.

Read more from Thom here.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Thom Rainer

Thom Rainer

Thom Rainer is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources.  Prior to LifeWay, he served at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for twelve years where he was the founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions and Evangelism.  He is a 1977 graduate of the University of Alabama and earned his Master of Divinity and Ph.D. degrees from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In addition to speaking in hundreds of venues over the past 20 years, Rainer led Rainer Group, a church and denominational consulting firm, from 1990 to 2005. The firm provided church health insights to over 500 churches and other organizations over that period. Rainer and his wife, Nellie Jo, have three grown sons: Sam, Art and Jess, who are married to Erin, Sarah and Rachel respectively.  The Rainers have six grandchildren: Canon, Maggie, Nathaniel, Will (with the Lord), Harper, and Bren. He is the author of twenty-four books, including Breakout Churches, Simple Life, Simple Church, Raising Dad, The Millennials, and Essential Church.  His latest book, Autopsy of a Deceased Church, was released in 2014 by B&H Publishing Group.

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Robby — 04/13/14 6:49 pm

This discussion will continue, for sure. I am tasked with the online worship ministry do our church at FBC Trussville and it is proving to be an important piece of the overall ministry. As in most things In life and technology, balance is in order. Many of our older adults prefer the "live" service online rather than a week or even day-later DVD or downloaded service. They tell me it is important for them to be a part while the service occurs. This is key because if a person simply wanted the message or music or to see the pastor because they "like" him, then it would not need to be live. There is a sense with our people that they need to experience the worship with their church family in real time. Theologically, folks will have issues. This is a disruptive technology for church. But I would hope that before we toss it all away we would approach it with wisdom and humility. Personally, I would like to see the Church grow through small, cost-effective ways like this and not just brick-and-mortar.

Gordon Marcy (@GordonMarcy) — 04/01/14 10:26 am

"I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some." 1 Cor 9:22 I have not a shred of doubt that in the Digital Age this means some will become Internet pastors, worship leaders, spiritual coaches and volunteers to reach the lost, the helpless, the hurting, and the seeking online. All the major religions of the world are creating Internet platforms, many exhibiting a pioneering spirit and evangelistic fervor to establish influence with digital natives. It would be wrong to leave people [young people especially] in a doctrinal vacuum because of a debate about where "Church" can take place. I'm not suggesting that the church online should replace the physical church, rather it should be a fully resourced extension of it.

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