As leaders have adopted new models of online and hybrid church over the past year, digital strategy has taken on an increasingly central role in a church’s success. From church attendance to evangelism strategies and even beyond into group prayer gatherings, traditional church practices are being reimagined on digital formats.
In this week’s ChurchPulse Weekly episode, host Carey Nieuwhof talks with Dave Adamson, Director of Orange for Australia, about the future Church, optimizing sermon titles for online platforms and the importance of continual innovation after a year of adaptation.
Small Groups Are the New Megachurch
Late last year (September 2020), Barna asked churchgoers—U.S. adults who have attended church within the past six months—if they planned to come back to church. Data collected that month showed that just over half of churched adults (56%) noted they were waiting for church services to return back to normal before returning. In response to this finding, Adamson encourages leaders to be open to the new forms of church that this year has revealed rather than get stuck waiting for the old “normal.”
Looking to the future, Adamson believes that the era of megachurches is over and that the coming years will see smaller church communities gathered around shared content. Adamson notes, “The pandemic has shifted our thinking so that the space where we get together doesn’t have to be between 9 AM to 11 AM on a Sunday morning; we can gather together in small groups in people’s homes—anytime during the week—and access content digitally.”
This perspective offers a hopeful twist on what leaders have seen in shifting attendance numbers. In a world where more content than ever is on demand, Adamson suggests, “Church attendance isn’t decreasing; it’s decentralizing.” This perspective gives leaders the opportunity to help support people as they search to connect with a smaller group in their own cities and communities.
Answering Questions in the Zero Moment of Truth
Adamson offers practical advice for posting and titling video sermon content online to optimize engagement. In his time at NorthPoint, he discovered that church leaders should “title messages as the answers to questions that people are actually asking in your community.”
Adamson adds, “People go to YouTube to find the answers for everything, from fixing a car to fixing their marriage. We as the Church need to be in that ‘zero moment of truth’ when they’re typing into Google, ‘How do I save my marriage? How do I be a better dad? How do I find hope in the midst of all of this?’”
In a digital age, this is why leaders must move past cliches and alliterations if they want to be strategic in meeting the felt needs of their community online. Adamson notes, “If [people] are typing these questions in, and we’ve titled our message ‘How To Get Out of the Boat,’ it’s not connecting at all. We’re not there in that zero moment of truth.”
This strategy can also allow church leaders to be proactive in planning their sermons around the most pressing questions being asked in their time. Adamson proposes, “Google Suggest is the easiest and cheapest way to [know what questions people are asking]. If you start typing in the topic of your message for that week into Google, look at the suggestions that pop up in order, and that’s probably some good ideas for how to title your message.”
Don’t Give Up on Innovation
Near the beginning of the pandemic, leaders were trying new methods every week to adjust to the changing climate. Even a year later, it’s important for leaders to keep this innovative mindset when thinking about digital strategy so as not to slip into a stagnant rhythm. Barna research from 2020 suggests that churches that adopted healthy prayer culture digitally are seeing healthier congregants right now, have more peace and have a deeper level of connection with their church leaders.
Adamson encourages leaders to start simple and tap into people’s values and felt needs in that moment. He reflects, “You have a smartphone and a window, so the lighting, audio and video are all taken care of. If that’s all you use, people will lean into your authenticity more than they’ll lean into how awesome your gear is.”
One way that leaders can continue to innovate their strategy is by adjusting their content to fit video lengths on various platforms. It’s important to find ways to “lower the bottom rung” for engagement through digital platforms, such as providing pathways from shorter video engagements to longer content. Adamson points out, “If we can take that 35-minute piece of content and trim it down and apply it to specific platforms designed for the length of the video, that’s when it starts to have a win.”
About the Research
COVID-19 Data: Barna Group conducted these online surveys among Protestant Senior Pastors from March 20–September 28, 2020. Participants are all members of Barna Group’s Church Panel. Minimal weighting has been used to ensure the sample is representative based on denomination, region and church size.
Data Collection Dates
Week 1, n=222, March 20-23, 2020
Week 2, n=212, March 24-30, 2020
Week 3, n=195, March 31-April 6, 2020
Week 4, n=246, April 7-13, 2020
Week 5, n=204, April 14-20, 2020
Week 6, n=164, April 21-27, 2020
Week 7, n=167, April 28-May 4, 2020
Week 8, n=165, May 5-11, 2020
Week 9, n=184, May 12-18, 2020
Weeks 10 and 11, n=191, May 19-June 1, 2020
Week 12, n=203, June 26-29, 2020
Week 13, n=256, July 9-14, 2020
Week 14, n=285, July 24-26, 2020
Week 15, n=336, August 13-17, 2020
Week 16, n=315, August 27-31, 2020
Week 17, n=422, September 10-18, 2020
Week 18, n=475, September 24-28, 2020
Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.
© Barna Group, 2021