Tried and True Methods to Grow Churches | By Carey Nieuwhof
Digital tools extend beyond video, and wise pastors and church leaders know how to use them for lasting, impactful church growth. Learn how.
As a church leader, you probably struggle with social media, streaming services, and online ministry.
There are a million suggestions on what to do online, and at times it can feel overwhelming.
Add to that the feeling of perpetual discouragement because of low YouTube views, posts that get 18 likes, the yawning indifference that seems to happen every time you publish, and the fear that digital competes with in-person attendance (it doesn’t), and you might be ready to either give up on digital ministry or simply go through the motions when it comes to online ministry.
While the world seems to be focused on the move to online video content (especially short-form video content), there are three simple, often-missed ways to deeply increase digital engagement with your audience and the people you’re trying to reach.
What’s motivating about embracing these avenues is that you’re probably already good at them (or, in the case of #3, others are already great at them), you’ve already got the infrastructure set up, and you can implement them quickly and easily.
Before we jump there, though, a quick reminder on why digital matters so much, despite the fatigue of so many church leaders with it.
What’s Really at Stake
Church leader after church leader I talk to expresses their frustration with the digital world. They feel like giving up.
To a certain extent, I get it.
But to completely ignore the internet is a mistake for several reasons.
⦁ First, everyone you want to reach is online.
⦁ Second, almost everyone who attends your church (including all your infrequent attendees) is online.
⦁ Third, it’s not just that the future is a mix of digital and in-person encounters. The last ten years have been a mix of digital and in-person.
As a result, when you ignore the digital world, you don’t just ignore the future; you ignore the present and the past.
Three Simple, High Potential Ways to Improve Your Digital Strategy
While there is no shortage of tips on improving your digital strategy online, here are three aspects of an effective digital strategy almost no church leaders are talking about right now, let alone implementing.
1. Use More Audio (Seriously)
If you follow the hype and the headlines, you’d believe everything is about video. And to some extent, that’s true.
TikTok has revolutionized social media. Instagram is desperately trying to play catch up, even though it holds current dominance in influencer dollars spent. And TikTok and YouTube are battling it out to be the prime destination for watching content.
What’s forgotten in all the headlines, though, is the growth in audio listening.
According to Publisher’s Weekly, the audiobook industry continues to grow rapidly, with 41% of Americans subscribing to at least one audiobook service. My most recent book has seen 30% of its sales come from audiobooks.
Similarly, podcasting continues to emerge as a major force, attracting young, diverse, and affluent listeners.
In the rush to focus on video and social, many churches probably haven’t thought much about sharing their content via audio in a while, other than making sure the Sunday message gets uploaded via podcast during the week.
I recently polled a few leaders inside The Art of Leadership Academy about how they like to consume content and was surprised by the results below.
The majority preferred audio, followed by written (we’ll get to written content in point 2).
Only 18% selected video as their top format for accessing content.
While that isn’t a scientific poll, to some extent, the results make sense, especially for busy leaders.
Video requires focus. But audio gives you the option of multitasking — listening at 1.2x speed while you’re working out, in the car, cooking dinner, or mowing the lawn.
So, what do you do with that?
How to Leverage Audio
First, maybe it’s time to start mentioning your podcast again if you have one or start one if you don’t.
Second, you can explore different audio formats. Uploading the sermon is one thing, but there are many other options regarding audio.
Finally, you can experiment with short-form audio. Like most church leaders, you probably have hundreds of hours of archived audio (old sermons, etc.).
I have the same thing with my leadership podcast — over 500 interviews with world-class leaders — so my team launched a second podcast, The Art of Leadership Daily, where we feature a short clip from the archive and a brief commentary. It’s short, to the point, and under 10 minutes. The show launches fresh episodes five days a week. It garnered over 100K downloads in the first two months, and instead of cannibalizing the full-length Leadership Podcast, it boosted it; the Leadership Podcast keeps growing as well.
For further evidence of the popularity of audio, a few years ago, we started uploading the video versions of my one-hour+ interviews to YouTube. As big as video is according to the experts, people who listen to an interview typically outnumber people who watch the interview by 25:1.
Let me say that again more slowly to make sure everyone heard it. For every viewer, there are 25 listeners. And that’s in 2022. Ask any podcaster, and they’ll tell you a similar story.
Audio content gives your people options video content doesn’t.
2. Written Content (Seriously)
Despite all the pronouncements that blogging is dead, the reports of its demise are greatly exaggerated.
While as a company, we’re moving into video, our website will still get over 6 million visits this year, with time on the site going up, not down. For your church, the opportunity is significant if you publish content on your website (think helpful articles) or share regularly via email.
Speaking of email, email and SMS lists (text messaging lists) are probably the most overlooked resource every church has.
Here’s a little surprise: email use is actually growing. By 2024, over 4.5 billion people worldwide are expected to use email. That’s up from 3.7 billion in 2017.
The average person spends over 5 hours a day on email. Most emails are read within an hour of sending.
Text messaging open rates are 98%, and texts are read on average within 15 minutes of sending. While text message marketing is still in the early stages, it’s something to start building as you build your email list. You can’t text people at the rate you email them, but still, it’s an important list to build.
One of the reasons email and texting your audience are so effective is that the people on your list want to be on your list.
Years ago, Seth Godin introduced the idea of permission marketing — the idea that someone gives you direct permission to talk to them.
Email lists are exactly that. When someone gives you their email address or their mobile phone number, they are giving you permission to have a conversation with them.
And guess what? Men access email and text messages more than they do social.
Subscribing to your YouTube channel or following you on Instagram are great starts, but they’re not nearly as effective as having someone subscribe to your email list or give you their cell number.
One hundred email addresses will give you far more traction with the people you lead than 1000 social media followers.
Do you know that email list you keep ignoring? It’s time to stop ignoring it.
3. User-Generated Content (UGC)
The third aspect of digital strategy I’ve seen pretty much no church employ is user-generated content or UGC. The puzzling thing is that this is the most scalable, affordable, and potentially sharable content you can utilize.
Chipotle has done a great job at leveraging UGC. One look at their TikTok will show you how and why.
Sure, they create their own content (nice work, Chipotle).
But they also leverage the gifts of their customers. In one TikTok, for example, two teens launch a burrito into space. Clever. And sharable.
User-generated content is a great idea for church leaders for various reasons.
By employing UGC, you
⦁ engage people in the mission. Yup, people buy into things they help create.
⦁ leverage the creativity of dozens or hundreds of people, not just the same 5 staff people staring at a whiteboard every Tuesday afternoon at 1.
⦁ have the best potential to move the mission forward online and in people’s hearts.
Most churches never think of using user-generated content for social. As a result, here’s what they miss: people buy into things they help create.
UGC will also pair well with any church or organization using the #FOR initiative pioneered by Jeff Henderson, which is now used by thousands of churches and organizations across North America and around the world.
Churches sit on the potential of hundreds or thousands of loyal members weekly. To simply ask them to attend is a complete waste of time and gifting.
As much as you keep inviting people to serve in traditional roles in the church (greeting, Next-Gen ministry etc.), there are a lot of people (particularly those under 30) who are active on social media every single day. Some of them have big followings of their own and are exceptionally creative. They just have no idea their passion and skill set could be deployed by the church.
When you open up new opportunities for people to become engaged, you advance the mission. When you do it with user-generated content on social media, you engage a whole new generation.
What if it’s Easier Than You Think?
So, let’s bring this into focus.
You already have a weekly message you record on audio. There’s the foundation for a new audio strategy.
Almost every church has a great writer in-house, and most Lead Pastors are decent writers. Why not start emailing and texting encouraging notes, writing a few articles for your website, and sharing them via email, text, and social?
Finally, you’re sitting on a potential gold mine of user-generated content.
Maybe it’s easier to reach people online than you think.