The next name on the extinction list:
Down the street from your church you have an endangered species living in your midst.
It’s not the Black Rhino, the Western Lowland Gorilla, or the Green Turtle (unless you live near a zoo).
It’s the department store worker.
A recent article from The Washington Post says 46 percent of department store jobs have “vanished” since 2000. But the culprits aren’t poachers or environmental destruction. The culprit is your mobile phone (and other electronic devices you make purchases on). According to The Washington Post again, a third of adults buy something on a computer or a mobile phone once a week (that’s up from 21 percent in 2013).
In light of this trend, could your church be the next name on the extinction list?
The Declining Church
Much press has been given in the past decade to the decline of established churches. You’ve probably seen the articles describing mainline Protestantism’s 23 Easters remaining, how a third of those under the age of 30 have no church affiliation, and how as little as 20 percent of the US population attends church weekly.
The discussion concerning this decline has centered around unique factors that seem to only apply to churches, such as the lowering of social pressures related to church attendance, decline of moral absolutes, and the general spiritual apathy of the population.
But what if that’s only part of the answer? What if the same cultural factors that have impacted the retail world (Sears, JC Penney, etc.) are also taking aim at the church?
Many of these companies misread the disruptive role technology would play in their industries.
The same factors that have shaken the retail space over the past few decades have also hit the church. We just didn’t notice. We put up a website, created a mobile app, and got the best church management system we could afford.
But just like Sears, Kodak, and all the other bankrupt dinosaurs of previous eras, we haven’t rethought what ministry looks like today.
Don’t get me wrong. The fundamentals of ministry haven’t changed. The gospel hasn’t changed. We’re still, as Paul declares in 2 Corinthians 5:19, in the business of reconciling a lost world to a holy God.
But the churches that’ll do this most effectively in the coming decades, those that’ll impact their communities like no one else, will fundamentally think differently about technology.
1. They’ll see innovation in technology as an imperative, not a luxury
Churches have been notoriously slow to embrace new technology for good reasons. Most importantly, they’ve often chosen to use their limited resources in other ways (reaching the lost, feeding the hungry, comforting the afflicted, etc.). But thanks to cloud and mobile technology, money won’t be a limiting factor for innovation in the coming decades. In fact, it’ll cost you more money to lag behind technologically than to push forward daringly. Innovating technologically isn’t about attracting early adopters anymore. It’s about survival. The churches that choose to innovate will be the ones that survive.
2. They’ll see technology as an accelerator rather than a problem-solver
Too many churches believe technology will be an answer for attracting a younger audience or other ministry problems they’re facing. It won’t. At least, not on its own. Technology isn’t the strategy; it’s what moves the strategy forward. The most effective churches of the future won’t move forward with technology without a clear understanding of how it helps them achieve important ministry objectives.
3. They’ll see technology as the “native language” of Gen Z rather than an enabler of youthful vice
Yes, we have reason to be concerned about how the technology usage of our youngest generation may impact their future literacy and social development. To not pay attention to these trends would be a dereliction of the church’s responsibilities. But let’s be clear about this, you and I are immigrants on the digital soil of our children. They are digital natives. We are not. You wouldn’t dare take the gospel to a foreign land (at least in a long-term manner) without trying to learn the language of the inhabitants—not just a few words, but the structure behind it as well. Missionaries become fluent in the language of those they hope to reach.
The unifying language of Gen Z (those born roughly in the last decade of the 20th century) is technology. A 2015 Pew Report said 92 percent of Gen Z gets online daily. Unlike Millennials, they have no memory of the irritating screech of the dial-up modem. Broadband and wireless internet have been all they know. Churches that thrive in the future will be the ones who see technology as a key operating language of coming generations.
For more about how to engage Gen Z, including how they relate to technology, check out the free ebook Gen Z: How to Engage the Next Generation of Givers.
4. They’ll see technology not as a way to become less personal but as a way to get more personal
Technology can never—or should never—replace personal relationships in ministry. But they can open up our schedules to spend more time in highly personal ministry efforts.
Dennis Cummins, who pastors ExperienceChurch.tv in Puyallup, WA, has led the church over the past 12 years to embrace a number of technological innovations, including mobile giving and livestreaming worship services. Each of those innovations, he says, has been done to increase the church’s personal connection with congregants. He writes:
“Our goal is to maintain a high-touch environment. In order to do that we wanted to alleviate some of the processes and to depend upon technology to make sure human error didn’t get in the way. Wherever we can leverage technology to help us be more connected with our people, that’s what we’re going to do.”
For four decades the Bald Eagle, the iconic symbol of America, had been one of the highest-profile endangered animals on the planet. In 1963 there were only 417 documented mating pairs in existence (in the lower 48 American states). Today, there are around 14,000. Thanks to government action and the support of private landowners, the Bald Eagle was moved off of the Threatened and Endangered Species list.
It’ll require bold action to move many local churches off the endangered list as well. Jesus makes it clear in Matthew 16:18 that hell itself won’t prevail against the church. A thousand years from now, if Jesus hasn’t returned yet, the church will still be spreading the gospel and ministering to the needs of a broken world.
The real question is, “Will your church still be here?”