In a world where everything’s changing, how should the church change to reach more (not fewer) people?
The struggle you have is the likely the struggle most church leaders have: Reaching new people seems to be getting harder and harder every year.
What if it didn’t have to be that way? What if it became easier and easier?
Here’s a big idea.
Right now we’re in the greatest communication revolution since 1440 and the invention of movable type with the Gutenberg press.
As more than a few observers have said, with the explosion of audiobooks and podcasting we’re currently in the middle of a shift in which listening is emerging as the new reading.
While Gutenberg opened up reading to people who never had the means or opportunity to read before, audio listening (audiobooks and especially podcasting) is breaking down an even more massive barrier.
Listening likely has the potential to be as big or bigger than reading because while people who are literate don’t always take the time to read, many people (especially non-reading men) are discovering that listening to books and podcasts is very doable.
The Edition Institute did a survey of 1200 Americans about podcasting and determined:
• Podcasting is for the young. Eighty-five percent of listeners are under 55.
• Fifty-six percent of listeners are men (who generally are harder for church leaders to reach than women) .
• The fastest growing demographic is among people aged 29–54, with 29 percent year-over-year growth in listenership.
• Educated. Eighty-five percent of podcast listeners have at least a college education.
• Affluent. Podcast listeners had an average income of $75,000.
Think about it. Many people with routine jobs, long commutes and set exercise routines have time to kill—and they’re doing it binge listening to podcasts at the rate of a dozen hours of listening per week (or more).
All of which has so much potential for the church. A potential which frankly, almost everyone is missing.
What follows isn’t a well-laid out roadmap, but I do want to outline some very real possibilities you can leverage to better accomplish your mission.
So many leaders I know want to reach 25-year-olds who are not in church. Guess what?
Their earbuds are in, and they’re listening.
They’re just not listening to Christians. Here’s why, and here are some things you might be able to do about it.
THE PROBLEM: HOW DO YOU LIKE MY CASSETTE MINISTRY?
So … where are preachers with respect to this revolution happening before our eyes?
Pretty much where we were in 1998 … or 1978. (I’ll include myself in this category.) In the age of smartphones, most church leaders are still rocking a cassette ministry approach to sharing the message.
The only things that’s changed in the last decade is that our cassette or CD ministry approach is now available via podcast. 100 percent of the online strategy of most churches is tied to repackaging the Sunday morning experience. And today, that’s a mistake.
In a rapidly changing culture, our strategy is basically the strategy employed a generation ago by TV networks.
While you probably haven’t talked about it (and maybe haven’t thought about it—that’s how deeply embedded these assumptions are) most churches base their approach to services and sharing the sermon on:
1. Scarcity. A message is largely available during set times in set places. (I wrote more about why that’s an outdated strategy here.)
2. Brevity. The sermon must happen in a 15–60 minute format (from homily to long messages in some churches).
3. Limited format. A sermon is a monologue and rarely more.
4. Self-censorship. While this might deserve a blog post of its own, consider this. Without intentionally doing this, most of us who preach self-censor what we say and do on Sundays. There is a silent but prevalent belief that certain things are “acceptable” for a Sunday morning format and some things are not.
If you’ve ever had the thought What I really wanted to say was … then you’ve likely engaged in self-censorship. You left whatever that was out because you thought you couldn’t/shouldn’t say X. Truthfully, most preachers leave far more out of the Sunday conversation than they leave in.
5. Formal. Most sermons are premised on formal communication, not dialogue, debate or even behind-the-scenes off-the-record thinking.
There’s no reason the sermon or message-related content of a church has to be this limited. It’s what we’ve inherited. What we’ve adopted and what we’ve refined to suit our own purposes.
But in an age where anything is possible, is it still the best way or the only way?
I don’t think so.
First, the biblical proclamation itself within Scripture is much more varied; from street level discourse and debates to along-the-way teaching (parables) to long discourse.
For centuries, we’ve put the message in a 20–60 minute box on a Sunday morning and made it live there.
I still believe Sunday morning experiences, while changing, will be around forever. The gathered church is here to stay.
But we also have to think beyond that.
So what are some possibilities as we move forward?
Here are five thoughts.
1. MAYBE EVERYTHING YOU BELIEVE ABOUT ATTENTION SPAN IS WRONG
So you know that line about humans having the attention span of a goldfish, or that the shorter a message is, the better?
So apparently it’s not true. Or at least not universally true.
Over the last few years raw, unedited, long-form podcasting has risen to become a dominant form of content consumption among younger (especially younger male) adults living in the West.
I agree with Jordan Peterson that our assumptions about communication formed during the broadcast era of the last half-century (cable TV, mainstream radio) are wrong.
It seems people really do have an openness toward:
A. Long Attention Spans
People have much longer attention spans than mainstream media believe.
The Joe Rogan Experience and Tim Ferris show and countless other podcasts, for example, have episodes downloaded in the millions and tens of millions per month that range from 2-4 hours long each.
B. Deeper, More Complex Argument
People are capable of significantly deeper thought than we have given them credit for: Witness the rise of Jordan Peterson, Neil Degrasse Tyson, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and many others who engage in long form, complex dialogue in the public sphere and have won large, young, largely male audiences.
Randomly sample any 25-year-old male you know to see if they know the names of the aforementioned people. Most will be regular listeners/readers.
And yes, I realize that none of the people or podcasts listed are Christian. That’s actually my point.
C. Honest Dialogue
While you can certainly find podcasts that hammer home a particular viewpoint, it seems many of the top downloaded long-form shows are characterized more by open dialogue, curiosity and an exposure to new ideas.
While an atheistic viewpoint is heavily overrepresented in these shows, there isn’t just one viewpoint that is shared over and over again.
D. Niche Content
Topics on long-form podcasting shows are as obscure and varied as the human race, from astrophysics, to metaphysics, to philosophy, to working out, to passive income, to almost any issue you can think of.
So guess what? We humans have an appetite for long-form, nuanced discussion.
I dove into this four years ago when I launched my Leadership Podcast. Almost all the advice I received then was to do a show that’s 17–20 minutes long, because that was the average time of a commute.
I struggled with that because almost all the meaningful conversations I have last far longer than that. So I took a risk and dove into long-form podcasting, with some episodes now pushing 90 minutes.
Almost 7 million downloads later, people seem to be just fine with long-form.
I’ve always believed that when it comes to preaching and communication, five minutes of boring is five minutes too long, and 60 minutes of fascinating isn’t nearly enough. (Just think of a movie or your favorite Netflix series).
But—don’t miss this—Christians are vastly underrepresented in this long-form space. Both in quantity and quality, Christians are virtually absent in this genre (There are a few exceptions, but not many).
So the big question is: Are preachers engaging any of the cultural trends, audiences or dialogue outlined above?
To my mind, the answer is no, not at all.
Enter the possibilities.
2. TAKE A DEEPER DIVE INTO IDEAS
If the church version of podcasting is largely restricted to re-broadcasting or distributing messages as created and delivered on Sunday morning, and if all of this essentially functions as distribution of a message to the already convinced and to new people who are interested in visiting a church in its current format, what else can you do?
But if you’re going to go beyond rebroadcasting content, it depends on a communicator’s willingness and ability to think more deeply, to explain and engage more comprehensively, and to linger longer in the nuances and details of a discussion.
All trends point to a growing audience that would possibly love to engage that kind of content, perhaps even from a Christian perspective.
Not every preacher would be able to do this. Sadly, the quality of thinking we have in many churches is often not up to that in the philosophic, academic or scientific communities. But we do have some preachers very capable of engaging that level of thinking.
What if creating content that engages the issues on a deeper level could end up being the main outreach of your church?
This possibility really isn’t complicated. Simply take the format of a Joe Rogan or Tim Ferriss podcast and launch conversations on theology—not just current hot buttons, but deep dives into things like atonement, sanctification, grace, eternity, science and faith, exegetical methods, apologetics, and so much more. The list is endless.
Again, the tone would not be to defend (which would attract mostly Christians) but to explore and explain (which has a shot at the 25-year-old male binge listener).
Leaders who want to defend tend not to attract the curious and unconvinced; leaders who explore and explain do.
From my perspective, the angle would best be from an orthodox understanding of Christianity, which is so vastly under-represented in current podcasting.
As to format, this could be a monologue, but long-form podcasting seems to work best either in a dialogue or an interview format.
3. TALK ABOUT WHAT DIDN’T MAKE IT TO SUNDAY
If all of this sounds like too much to launch (I admit, it’s heady and ambitious), another possibility is to release a separate episode or feed to the official sermon podcast that talks about the series you’re doing in a way that covers what you didn’t cover on Sunday.
Every preacher knows there’s almost as much content that doesn’t make it to your Sunday message as what makes it.
In an age where people are spun every day, most people are tired of the front-page story. They want the backstory. So, give them the backstory.
You have so much background and context that didn’t make it; so many ideas that you haven’t shared. Really, you do.
So maybe start with a 5–20 minute backgrounder to the message. Or take questions after the message and turn that into a podcast. Or share some helpful reflections about the message.
Imagine a backroom conversation or all your series notes that never made it to the final edit. Or having someone interview you with all the pushback someone might give you about the subject and your approach to it.
Or flip it and lead into the message with background and context, setting up a series you’re about to do.
Ideally, I think this would be a separate podcast feed that has a link back to the main church feed, so the chances of attracting skeptics and the unengaged is higher.
4. HOST A CONVERSATION BASED ON OFFSITE LISTENING
Another possibility as deep messaging listening moves off-Sunday is for a church to host gatherings that form discussion and conversation parties where participants discuss, process and apply what they’ve listened to.
If themed and hosted well, these gatherings might include food, a great atmosphere, some great background music and a mix of formal and informal segments.
The engaged and curious alike could attend these gatherings. You capture the dialogue and broadcast that.
The idea that a sermon should be a dialogue has been around for decades. There’s one problem I’ve always seen with it: It doesn’t scale. If you’re really going to reach a city or region, basing your model on dialogue that works best in a small room is challenging unless you’re ready to launch dozens of sites/gatherings or are prepared to cap your reach at 100–200 in attendance.
But podcasting can change that.
Suddenly, the dialogue or Q and A or moderated discussion that happens when a few are gathered can reach hundreds or thousands more when broadcast.
And that can become a feeder into your main services which have the capacity to grow and scale.
Again … just ideas, friends. Just ideas.
5. OTHER FORMS THAT SIMPLY GO DEEPER
There are literally no restrictions on podcasting. The internet is the Wild West. It is what you make it. So dream a little.
Unlike theology, there are no right answers here friends. Only possibilities.
Seize a few. If it fails, you lost nothing.
If it connects, you have no idea what you might discover and what you might gain.
To borrow a decade-old Craig Groeschel quote that’s still fresh, just remember, to reach people no one else is reaching you’ll have to do things no one else is doing.
So do them.
This article originally appeared on CareyNieuwhof.com.