According to the statistic data from the General Society survey released in March 2017, about 10% of the US population say they go to churches affiliated with mainline denominations. It was a sharp plunge from 28% over the last decades. Only 2.7% of them attends a mainline Protestant church regularly. It is no surprise that our pews are being emptied fast.
On the other hand, about 35% of the US population, as the largest segment bigger than Protestants or Catholic, want to be identified as not affiliated with any religions (“Nones”), and about a half of them (“Dones”) used to be faithful churchgoers. Pew Research Center reveals that about 90% of Nones are not looking for religion at all.
The old paradigms of inviting the unchurched people to the Sunday worship services are just ineffective and not working anymore. I was blessed to be involved with several new ministries reaching out with Nones and Dones in New York for 10 years until 2017. Some failed but one new church-start had become a chartered congregation in a mainline denomination within 2 years and 7 months from its inception, and a few successfully became a part of an unintended multisite project.
The starting phase of those endeavors was similar to a “Fresh Expression,” which started in the UK and is a form of church for the fast-changing culture, established primarily for the benefit of those who are not yet part of any church. As the projects were iterated and evolved, the key principles of developing Minimum Viable Products (“MVP”) were interwoven into the project, and I call it Disruptive Ministry (“DM”) through Minimum Viable Ministry (“MVM”). I also developed and implemented not only the diffusion of the DM but also the fusion of the newly formed community with the existing faith community or the multiplication of the new community.
As per the slogan of the project, “A community for the sake of the community,” I designed a minimum viable ministry (“MVM”) providing a community service to meet the underserved needs of our neighboring community. The first MVM was a study-café for those in higher education in the city. We listened to the community and identified the underserved need for a safe studying place to the proximity of East Village and went after a micro-community who was searching for such a place through a search engine like Google. A few innovators joined a community development team and transformed our value proposition into a real study café called “Tutti” and started providing study lounge with free Wi-Fi and gourmet coffee. Even though the monthly volume of Google searches on “Study Café” in our proximity was less 100 per month, inquiries about the place through the landing page of the study cafe continued several days before the actual foot traffics at the door. We successfully enlisted, within months, the first couple of hundred early-adopters who showed up at the place and enjoyed the café, and they soon became a part of the Tutti community.
Even though the Tutti community didn’t look like a traditional church in the beginning stage, however, the communities, at my surprise, gave birth to 10 new worship communities located at four different places in the city. The birth was initiated by one of Dones, who asked me, “Would you have a new Sunday gathering for us?”
Those who were young professionals (under 29 years old) and younger in 1981 when a PC was introduced to our daily life, they are now up to 68 years old in 2019. They consist of about 85-90% of the whole US population according to the US census data. Nones and Dones are basically representing these new emerging groups and are all very much technology natives or early-adopters. A strong communication protocol has been established in the emerging groups when it comes to getting connected into relationship building. 95% of any online experiences nowadays begin with a search engine. We search for restaurants, stores, trends, how to do videos, about everything with search engines. 75-80% of users never click past the first page of the search engine result pages (“SERPs”). That’s why industries are obsessed with search engine optimization (SEO), and investments on SEO for their presences and services to be listed in the top of SERPs are the top priority of their marketing strategies toward the digital culture. The number-one driver of traffic to websites is searches and about 75% of the links that users click on search are organic. These clicks are, in fact, turned into the foot traffics to a point of local presences.
As far as generating foot traffic of Dones and None to the pews in the digital culture is concerned, it is, therefore, nothing to do with what kind of religious traditions a congregation follows, how robust vision statement is well written, or how strong the leadership was disciplined and developed in congregations. Instead, it is directly related to how closely our ministry follows the cultural protocol. Our presences and our core community services need to be searchable through search engines. Otherwise, all our efforts will be surely in vain. Unless your church website is optimized for keywords, which you would like to represent your core ministry with and searchable in the top pages of the SERPs, your website is no use either.
We should also remind ourselves that almost all Nones are not simply interested in any religious practices and need to take a different approach, beyond the SEO works, for becoming an inviting and welcoming church for them in the digital culture. The new approach is, first, to provide services to the community together with community connectors, who are not necessarily church members, as co-owners of the community development project. Simply speaking, any ministry projects toward reaching out with the community mandate co-working with these community connectors and should not intend to enlist people to worship services. We need to learn to rely on the Holy Spirit to work directly with people when a new community is being formed. Even though it was the essence of the early church in the book of Acts, it would be, now, our time to learn to unchurch ourselves for the kingdom of God.
Another point to remember is that there will be very high expectation toward the level of quality of any kinds of community services as today’s people are so accustomed to the services provided by the industry leading-companies. That’s where MVM plays a great role in help performing our action with excellence. Please read one of my posts on “Igniting your church through Minimum Viable Ministry.”
The final point that I would like to focus in this post is that it is almost impossible for one church to reach the critical mass relevant enough for its MVM to be transformed into a movement within the target community. Even when finding a resilient congregation, which can mobilize the church by breaking through all the barriers that the digital revolution brought to the faith community over the last decades, is harder than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, this point is surely devastating for all of us. One or two community programs, if exist, are not enough for instilling, from Nones and Dones, a feeling of belonging into the worship community. Some of them may become recipients of the MVM’s benefits, but they will constantly look for a better commercial provider who offering similar benefits and beyond in a very culturally competent way. The church programs are not culturally competent enough to enlist a good size of early-adopters and to set up a path for them to naturally become a part of the worship community. The tipping point in today’s ministry is no longer its size but the cultural competencies it used to enlist early adopters and to provide the space in which they set out a journey with the newly formed community. The journey produces stories as time goes by, and their experiences embedded in those stories help to instill their belongingness into the community. Many congregations, unfortunately, struggle to build a community of believers with Dones and Nones who want to experience belonging over believing.
It is a dilemma but also an opportunity at the same time for churches to challenge themselves to try a game-changer move called Exchange Hub. The hub is functioning as a team-based MVM platform and community service exchange center through which participating churches are mutually providing community services to a target region. Each church should develop and implement one or two community services as a µMVM provider. The collection of each church’s MVM will surely help reaching the moment of critical mass enlisting the early-adopters and instilling the belongingness of the new people into the new community is possible. The collected community services will be a delightful factor for those early-adopters to set out their journey with the community. The Exchange Hub is also a landing page professionally built for the local and organic SEO in which searches will land at for appropriate keywords. Instead of competing for the prime positions of the SERPs individually, the participating churches mutually promote and maintain this hub to be listed in the top pages of the SERPs. Any incoming inquiries at the hub are identified according to the keyword being searched and redirected to the corresponding µMVM providers. The initial financial investments, which are inevitably needed for implementing a culturally competent MVM platform, are being shared among participating congregations, and the larger foot-traffic is also distributed among them instead of competing with each other to win over smaller portion of incoming traffic. It is surely a win-win model creating a place allowing people to join a journey through which they get closely connected.