Years ago at Trinity Fellowship Church in Amarillo, Texas, where I serve as senior pastor, there was a young guy on our softball team. He was in his early 20s, and at a game one night he was hit in the head with a softball. After he got up and shook it off everything seemed fine, but he decided to go to the hospital to make sure there wasn’t a concussion or any internal bleeding. When the doctors conducted the CT scan, they found a small tumor. It was so small, it hadn’t started to bother him yet, and surgeons were able to remove it easily. If that softball hadn’t hit him, he might have died.
When I look back at that story, I see a metaphor I can’t deny. COVID-19 is like the softball, and the Church is like that young man.
You see, there’s been a growing challenge in the local Church, and if you look closely you can see the signs of it. Church attendance has declined steeply in the last two decades. Sure, there are still people in the pews, but statistically even the churchgoing faithful have lowered their average yearly attendance. Secondly, the local church is graying with the median age slowly climbing year after year. And the relatively few churches that are growing—less than 3 percent—tend to do so not through evangelism, but instead they rely on “sheep swapping.”
We can unpack and hypothesize the causes of these trends all day long, but there is one thing I am certain of. The Church will never be the same. One of the reasons for this is the change in technology that has taken place in the last two decades.
The last time a change in technology impacted the church in a major way happened more than 500 years ago with the invention of the printing press. Martin Luther’s “95 Theses” was spread thanks to the printing press and thus the Protestant Reformation was born. Luther is quoted as saying, “Printing is the ultimate gift of God.” I’d like to submit another quote to you: “The smart phone is an incredible gift from God.”
Much like in Luther’s day, technology has changed all around us and as a result, culture has changed as well. Successful companies have found ways to use modern technology to market themselves to a changing culture, but unfortunately the Church has not. The Church is stuck in an invitation-oriented model. We invite people to come to our weekend services and experience our great worship teams and life-changing sermons. However, the problem is in the numbers. The declining numbers show that people are not going to church. Today, the Church needs to come to them, and we have an amazing opportunity to do so with modern technology.
I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I know something must be done if the Church wants to keep this generation and reach the next one. Trinity Fellowship is getting ready to push all our chips to the middle of the table on a new approach to church. Here’s how it will work for us:
Disciple People Where They Are
We must change from an invitation-oriented model to an infiltration model. Rather than discipling people when they arrive at the church building, we are creating a model of discipleship that takes place in several arenas, the biggest of which is social media.
Monday through Thursday I invite people to be a part of my personal quiet time with a 10-minute Facebook-live video I call “Biblecast.” This is more raw, but we have also reallocated some of our resources to create high quality 5-minute discipleship videos that tackle some of the fundamental areas of our culture and theology, such as tithing and forgiveness. We call these videos “In 5 minutes” and publish them to a YouTube channel of the same name.
Another way we are discipling people where they are is by identifying and recruiting teams of influencers who are already leaders in the community. We can equip these leaders to disciple people in their areas influence. In fact, we have hired someone in our church to be a point person and pastor for these leaders to help support their ministry as they go out into the field.
The biggest change of all will come in the form of weekend services. If the numbers are dwindling for our traditional church services, maybe it’s time to rethink them. While Trinity will still have a traditional service that will be also be broadcast online, we are planning to turn our main weekend service into an interactive experience. There will be an extended worship portion of the service with more time for prophetic ministry, and the sermon will be much shorter—10 minutes. We are also offering an interactive, message only service live to all campuses which includes audience participation through a text message line attendees use to send in their questions for the preacher to answer in real time.
Maybe you’re reading this and thinking, my church can’t make changes this drastically right now. Let me submit to you that there are some changes that every church can make. Some may require difficult decisions, but every church can start somewhere.
1. Reallocate funds toward media.
As I mentioned above, the smart phone is the modern-day printing press. The average person spends 5.4 hours per day on their smartphone—34 percent of their waking hours! Let’s find ways to meet people there.
2. Learn a new set of skills.
Over the last year, I’ve made myself learn how to conduct and edit podcasts and video. From plugging in microphones and engineering audio to learning tricks of the trade from professional podcasters, filmmakers, and radio hosts, I’ve been determined to learn a new skill set that will help me better reach our culture.
3. Be more authentic
This generation wants a rawness that we aren’t used to. We must get out of the paradigm of a polished Sunday message and look for ways to become more authentic. Every morning, Monday through Thursday, I broadcast my quiet time. I’m often on camera before I brush my teeth, take a shower, or even speak a word. It’s pretty rough, but people are responding to it in a way I could have never predicted. They love it!
I’m not suggesting that you do everything just the way Trinity has done it. In fact, I think there will be a trial-and-error period and we’ll have to fine-tune and make changes as we go. However, I believe these changes are a long time coming for the Church. I want to encourage any church leaders reading this to look at the way you do church and ask the Holy Spirit if there are any areas in which you should make a change. It’s time for the Church to reach our culture in new, more effective ways. In fact, our new technology might be giving the Church the biggest opportunity we’ve had in hundreds of years to impact our culture, and now is a great time to make some changes. If anyone asks, just blame it on COVID.