"How exactly will this grow our church?"
When church councils evaluate spending and investments, this is among the most frequently asked questions. Trained in a culture where growth is synonymous with effectiveness, today's council members often want to see the straight line from budget items to more members. This mindset aligns with the widespread equation for church growth that Andy Root critiques in The Congregation in a Secular Age:
Members + Programs = More Members.
According to this pervasive logic, the programs within a church exist to prime, or to increase the number of members. Digital ministry is, by extension, one such program, the objective of which is to continuously accelerate church growth.
As our buildings continue to reopen, council members will evaluate digital or hybrid ministry with this same framework. How will spending on apps like Zoom, Slack, and Vimeo bring more people to our congregation? How will investment in technologies like video conference rooms, PTZ cameras, and shotgun microphones increase our membership rolls?
Today's church leader could follow this line of questioning to build a case for digital ministry investment. There is data, after all, indicating that 50% of churches saw an increase in attendance during Spring 2020, a season when most congregations were testing online worship for the first time. And while online worship attendance has dipped since its pandemic peak, many congregations continue to see video views that outnumber pre-pandemic worship attendance.
But maybe focusing on church growth isn't the best way to convince your council to invest in digital ministry.
What if digital ministry is not about growth, but is instead about faithfulness?
What if hybrid ministry, which integrates the online with the offline, is less about increasing our numbers and more about sharing our faith stories?
Digital ministry connects with those who are physically, mentally, or spiritually unable to attend in-person worship or face-to-face faith formation, and countless congregations have stories of how they have reignited relationships with former members who moved away. Church leaders have stories of how they have provided pastoral care and spiritual counseling to congregants who continue to feel anxious and isolated. They have experiences of how a conversation, or a blog post, or a podcast has resonated with an unchurched Milllennial, one who still doesn't plan to attend worship, but appreciated the grace inherent in the message. They can tell you about how they became reacquainted with someone who was an active youth group member before leaving the church for several decades, or how they started conversations with nursing home residents who for years had felt isolated from their church community.
These are the stories that reveal the importance of digital ministry, and these are the stories that today's church leader needs to bring to the council. These are the perspectives that the treasurer needs to hear before finalizing the budget and signing the checks.
According to Pew Research, 28% of Americans (and 21% of mainline Protestants) have felt their faith strengthened as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. While it's difficult to isolate a causal factor in this data, the combination of global crisis plus the ease of accessing church content and community undoubtedly contribute to these trends.
Nobody knows how the pandemic will end. Nobody knows when the pews will fill up to their pre-pandemic levels, or whether online worship participation will remain a fixture in the congregation's life.
All we have for certain are the stories: the lived experiences of those who encountered the grace of God while navigating a time of global crisis.
How do you convince your church council to pay $30,000 to boost your WiFi speeds or $5,000 to set up a video-equipped classroom? You share how these investments have connected the community to a God who tends to show up, not just in our building, but wherever we are gathered. You tell a story of a God who is faithful in both sacred space and cyberspace.
When we stop seeking the connection between programs and members, between technology and growth, the digital church becomes more than an investment. It becomes a community.