— Does Digital Ministry Guarantee Growth In Members & Participants?

May 24, 2013 at 11:40 am | Posted in Online Ministry | Leave a comment

Anybody spot what’s wrong with the question in the title of this post?

There’s an underlying assumption that a digital ministry inherently leads to growth, meaning more members and participants for a brick and mortar congregation.

It doesn’t.

It inherently fuels “retention,” which by the way, is more important, IMHO, than growth right now.

Should we put more effort into attracting 20-50 new people a year as a goal, than in holding on to 75-100 individuals? Think of it this way: If 400 regularly returning people on Sundays feel genuinely connected to one another when they hold hands at the end of a service, are you going to drop the practice if a couple of new people say they’re uncomfortable with the gesture? We don’t know if handholding is THE reason someone doesn’t come back. But we do know how upset the 400 regular attendees will be.

Any digital effort – a website, tweets, facebook, blogs, etc – is a target for accusations of failure from congregants who conjure the notion that these efforts fail because they do not see a correlating increase in newbies in the pews.

Digital life sits on a foundation of incredible usage data that will help you figure out what’s going on – what weaknesses there are and where the digital ministry is strong or holds promise. The data will help identify claims based on personal biases and not on collective activity.

For example, just because the stats kept by greeters on worship attendance may not be increasing, who is recording enrollees in New UU workshops and what they say about your digital presence? Is anyone tracking newcomer attendance in covenant groups or weekday meditation sessions? Who is analyzing over time all stats and anecdotal evidence being collected? (See an example of digital ministry statistics in the report, UUCAVA.0rg Online Church Two Year Status)

We’ve all heard survey results that prove that individuals look at our Internet presence before they decide to visit. That’s not surprising. Nearly everyone who has access to the Web, and that is more than 90% of the US population, looks online for info and ideas before they buy or go anywhere.

But’s that’s not all they look for. In fact, it’s increasingly not the most important variable in their decision making. Social interaction and collaboration are.

Citizens, aka consumers, today, don’t just want product info or data. They want to literally see other people experiencing something they are interested in. What they witness online in other people’s present experience must feel authentic. This means the experience and usage by present users will determine the outcome – and not just what present users literally say.

It’s why I believe that UUs, as individuals, are our best engagement asset and that when we show ourselves in action online — both in real and asynchronous time, interested parties will be shown, and not told, who we are and what we stand for.

We are authentic in real-time elapsing presence. When we tell people about us in old-style traditional marketing websites, we are either incomprehensible, or we fail at emphasizing the content of our character – one of our greatest assets, which is discernible, primarily, in deed, and deed is fundamentally action. (See: “We Are Called To Be Digitally Present,” chapter 5, REACH: A UU Digital Ministry Program) Digital Ministry is faith in action.

A blended engagement program for online and offline ministry is what will work to drive people to the church and then once there significantly increase the chance people return. I will return to the idea of blended ministry in a second.

Let’s take a minute to consider congregations that are growing, regardless of whether they have a digital presence. Why is growth occurring AND is it sustainable? Sustainable not only for advancing growth but also for keeping what’s gained?

There may not be systemic reasons for the growth, and if that’s the case, they might lose all of the gained ground when the one or two variables responsible for growth are no longer present.

Maybe a new minister has finally attracted people back to the church, and membership is approaching levels it was at eight years ago. But what happens when your minister leaves? Over time your congregation might still be in dramatic decline.

Do you now have an infrastructure that will retain all that growth that a long-time minister has achieved? Or are you in a zero sum church development game? How does that effect the legacy we leave behind in our congregations as current stewards?

What if you are in a growth period, and you’re executing a capital campaign that future generations will have to pay off? Will your infrastructure and strategic plans actually bring in enough new revenue to pay off the loans? Do your plans include strategies that are sustainable for attracting bequests that will help pay off future debt? Do you know the vacancy rate of your rentable space and have a plan on how to maximize it? Do you have any developmental plans for revenue?

The point to all of this is that growth, whether we actively solicit it or not, requires plans that consider future consequences to the institution of your church and of its future members ability to function as a community.

Or does it? There is a school of thought that says, “if we grow great, but that’s not our mission and all this talk of growth smacks of the for-profit-world.” Excuse me, but if our actions are prompting growth, seems to me we have to take responsibility for them. After all, we are greening our sanctuaries because previous generations were unaware of how their decisions effected the environments around our physical churches.

A notion that future generations will just have to deal with whatever we’ve left behind is the opposite of stewardship – especially since we live in an age of declining adherence to organized religion. Take a look at the history of your congregation. When were the various aspects of your facilities built? Were they built during a time when growth was taken for granted?

Whether we build online or offline, we are still building and stewardship for now and future users should be analyzed and planned for from the moment we start to build and/or grow.

So back to digital ministry and digital capital assets. Folks: Just cuz you build it, or tweet it, or post it, doesn’t mean you’ll see a return visit or membership result from a newbie inspired by an online church presence. Your digital ministry can bring people in droves – only for you to lose over and over again. At least digital ministry costs next to nothing, literally, by comparison to $5M for buildings that require huge budgets for maintenance.

Unless you take a blended approach to church – that it is both online and offline and then intentionally work the two in tandem at nearly every level of operations: worship, programs, governance, stewardship, activities, events, social justice etc., your digital ministry will serve only retention. And that’s fine, if that’s what you want it for. You can remind fellow congregants of that when discussing any correlation between growth in membership and the church’s site.

We don’t have to look very far for inspiration and guidance on how to create a blended experience whose purpose is to drive people into our offline church communities. The non-profit world has already morphed the successes of the consumer product world to do this.

And product marketers have been perfecting this for years. To wit: Starbucks – perhaps the largest emergent “church” that’s developed in the last five years.

The scope of the REACH grant didn’t include work for blended church engagement program. The need for one is enormous. However, the infrastructure in our congregations can’t support a sustainable blended approach right now. And we aren’t ready for it because the necessary learning curve to apply lessons forward hasn’t happened. REACH is meant as a first major step in the curve.

Seminarians of the millennial generation – this is a great opportunity for you to innovate in!

The key immediate benefit of digital ministry is retention of your existing community members. The consequences of losing someone who has engaged with UUism but is at risk for dropping out are far more “costly” than trying to attract people.

In REACH, I talk about the difference between “marketing” in the consumer world, an “engagement” strategies and tactics in a world where relationships between people are the priority.

“Marketing is about relating to others, not with them,” I say in the REACH chapter five, The Reality: Digital Ministry Calling. “Marketing promotes products, services, and charitable causes that are paid for in some way. It expects something back: a purchase; a registered
membership; a donation; rights to your personal information; or to your physical presence, to get a stated benefit such as a discount in an offline store.

Digital ministry is about relating with others – about mutual caring, giving, and witnessing. It serves a higher good not a profit and loss statement. It ministers and doesn’t do traditional “church marketing.” Our digital presence must be an authentic connection with individuals with whom we want to grow; with whom we want to learn; and with whom we can give much to the world.”

Our authenticity is real online in digital ministry but it will ring hollow once people visit us if radical hospitality, isn’t one of the key premises on which our ministries stand and operate.

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