7 Problems with Your Church’s Digital Strategy

Like so many, I remember thinking there would be a few weeks of disruption to our church services before we could get back to normal. 

To deal with the rapid change, we looked for new ways to communicate with our congregation, beefed up our website or social media presence, and signed up for some new digital tools and streaming services.  

Many of us had to make quick decisions. 

That rapid response was a good thing. You didn’t have time to wait around and figure out the perfect solution. Sunday was coming and there were new restrictions in place that made gathering next to impossible.

Covid certainly accelerated digital adoption in many churches. Think how much you’ve come to rely on these things, many of which may be relatively new in your church.

  • Online Giving
  • Live Streaming
  • Virtual Small Groups
  • Measuring Engagement

There’s probably not a facet of your church that didn’t make some kind of digital pivot.  There’s not an age group in your church that didn’t need some kind of new technology.

Your new tech systems may be working fine, but did we make the right decision or did we make a fast decision? We’ve reached a point in the timeline where it’s smart to re-evaluate our decisions.  

It’s time to take a look, not just at the tactics and tools we’re using, but the strategy that holds it all together. The last thing you need is another tech tool to figure out or some software that overpromises engagement but underwhelms on usability.

This “strategy” word is really important. And in the world of digital ministry, it’s more important than you might realize.

Here are seven problems with the digital strategy of most churches.

#1 – You don't really have a digital strategy.

You have some goals…things you wish would happen, but that's not a plan to make it happen.

You may have a tagline or a slogan, but that's not a strategy either. 

You may have a communication calendar, helping you decide what to post and where, but that's not really a strategy.

Strategy answers the HOW question. It’s an intentional look at what a win looks like. It factors in audience and channel, then gets right to the heart of how to win.

It’s the playbook, game plan, and operating procedures that bridge the gap between passion and plans. It’s how to transform ideas into execution.

And very few churches have this document.

They have stuff, but nothing to hold the stuff together. So, the result is that they wear themselves out chasing tactics.

A strategy is more than a collection of tactics, a posting schedule, or a subscription that gives your church some engagement content to share. 

Those things can be a part of a strategy, but they are not a strategy.

#2 – You haven't defined a clear audience.

A documented digital strategy should focus on a goal and outline specific plans, but one of the most important parts of a strategy is clarifying the audience.

In other words…who is all of this for? 

When you ask pastors who they are trying to reach, most say “everyone.” This is an admirable but not-at-all-helpful answer.  

As you build your digital strategy, you have to get really clear about who you are trying to reach. This strategy should include constraints, reminding you what's off-limits or out of scope for now.

As you wrestle through this, let me suggest that you have two audiences.  

First, there is your congregation. Surely, what you share digitally and how you look to engage these members online is very important.  

But second, there is the larger community—the people in your community who are not yet connected with your church. You’re probably trying to connect with them as well.

Here’s the kicker: It’s really hard for one piece of content on one channel to reach two audiences. That’s why segmentation and intentionally matter so much.

Here’s one way you can visualize this…

Notice how the win, content, channels, tools, and metrics are similar but different based on the two audiences.

We’re going to dive a lot deeper into what all of this means in our new Digital Strategy Course. Sign up here to be notified when we launch.

#3 – Your digital strategy is not specific.

Imagine a professional football team saying their strategy is to “win.” Or a church saying their strategy is “reach people.”

These concepts are too vague to be helpful.

Let me peel back the curtain a little bit on how Church Fuel operates. Here’s a screenshot from our 2021 strategic plan deck, where we clarified exactly how we plan to accomplish our stated goals.

These are specific objectives, which we can assign to people, build projects and tasks, and measure results. 

They aren’t generic concepts…they are specific steps. 

“Gather, Grow, Go” isn't a church strategy…those are three words that start with the same letter. 

Too many organizations deploy gibberish masquerading as strategic concepts.

Today, everyone loves to use the word “engagement.” Much like the word “relevance” from a decade ago, this word is now virtually useless.

For a strategy to be effective, it must be specific. You must talk through what winning and engagement look like and have specific, concrete plans.

#5 – Your strategy is too complicated.

If you search for “church strategic plan” you’ll find two things.  

There are a lot of basic articles on why strategy matters and how you should have a purpose and some measurables. Blah, blah, blah. You know all of this.

Dig a little deeper and you’ll find a lot of church strategic plans.

You can tell these things are well thought through and were probably created with the help of an expensive consultant over multiple meetings and using a lot of words. I read one that was more than 65 pages. I bet most of the leaders in that church hadn't even read all of it.

In our upcoming course on digital strategy, we’re going to give you a one-page framework you can use to clarify and document your church’s overall digital strategy. 

You can share one page with others.

You can talk through it with other leaders.

You can understand and implement ideas important enough to be reduced to one page.

Nobody is going to follow a complicated strategy, so don’t bother creating one. Instead, align around a simple strategy.

#6 – You imported your strategy from another church.

The Kingdom already has NorthPoint, Redeemer, Village, Saddleback, Elevation, LifeChurch, and Church of the Highlands.

We don’t need you to be a smaller version of those churches.

It’s great to be inspired and contextualize some ideas for your church, but please stop trying to import everything into your church expecting it to work. Doing so completely discounts the unique work God wants to do through you and in your local community.

There’s a French concept that shows up in winemaking called terroir.  

This word describes the environmental factors of a region, including the environment, soil composition, farming practices, and even generational traditions that go into the taste of a particular wine. The word is all about the specificity of a place.

You don’t have to be a wine snob to see the beauty here.

The label on the bottle isn’t really what makes it unique. It’s what is on the inside, influenced by a host of local factors that cannot be replicated elsewhere.

Wine is local.

So is coffee.

And so are churches.

Every local church is a mix of calling, context, leadership, resources, struggles, people, and a host of other factors.  

The strategy you clarify and the tactics you choose should be more influenced by what God has called you to do in your unique context than by what some other church 1,000 miles away in a completely different setting is doing. 

Your local community needs your local church.

So instead of asking “How does Elevation do this thing?” ask WHY and then talk about how the principle is in play in your local context.  

Let’s learn without copying.

#7 – You haven’t defined the win for your digital strategy.

One of my favorite strategic frameworks comes from the book Playing to Win by A.J. Lafley and Roger Martin. They call it the Strategy Choice Cascade and it starts by defining the “winning aspiration.”

For churches, we think this is the intersection of purpose and mission, the long-term reason you exist, and the short-term, “most important now” big step forward. 

The purpose is your deep sense of WHY, the big picture reason you exist. You’re always pushing toward it, but in a way, you're never going to check it off. It's never going to be accomplished. It's never finished.

NASA's purpose is to explore space. They are always going to be about that, but they are never going to be finished.

The mission is your current objective. It's what you're rallying everyone to accomplish in the near term. It should push you toward your purpose, but unlike purpose, it has a due date. You can accomplish it. You can check it off and then ask “what's next?” You can say MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.

So, for NASA, it's to go to Mars. They can hire toward this, fund this, and talk about it on social media. Because it's specific, people can understand it.

Too many churches have an ethereal purpose but never get everyone on board and rallied around the current mission. They go in a hundred different directions and end up nowhere.

Read more about the difference between purpose and mission here.

When you work on your digital strategy (or church-wide strategy for that matter), you must ground everything in your purpose and mission.

Because the purpose is so broad, making stuff fit in there isn’t all that challenging. The mission is more specific and time-sensitive, so alignment there is key.

With your digital strategy, you need to define the win. The game needs a scoreboard and a clock. The race needs a finish line.  

Take the Next Step

In the digital world, it’s easy to simply react…to be lured in by new technologies and tech stacks, adopting everything in the name of “engagement.”  

Your next digital step is NOT to sign up for a new streaming service or communications platform. What you need most right now is not a better database platform or social media account.

Instead, you need to step back and make sure the decisions you’ve made were the right decisions and align everything you’re doing with a documented strategy.

Our new course will give you the training and template you need to make this happen.

Learn more about the course here.