At That Church Conference a few years ago, I heard a keynote speaker say, “There’s no such thing as church online.” I was immediately shocked. I mean, I was an online pastor. How dare he?!

Now I agree. Church online as we’ve known it for the past decade is gone.

And just like Joshua needed to hear God say the words “Moses my servant is dead” (Joshua 1:2) so he could move into the next level of leadership, I think the Church needs to accept the fate of online church as we know it, so we can move into the next phase of digital church.

See, almost every church is built on a physical attendance model that is location-centric. We need/want/encourage people to come to a specific location at a specific time. This approach impacts church staffing models, systems and ministry strategy. This is also why publications like Outreach Magazine still produce an annual Top 100 list of America’s most-attended churches.

But about a decade ago, forward-thinking churches realized that people no longer engaged with organizations just physically. In response, these churches developed church online platforms that ran parallel to the physical church. Now, this caused plenty of controversy at the time because people now had the option to attend church OR watch online. This rocked the old location-centric model, but we kept the physical and digital services separate enough to make it work.

When social media and YouTube entered the scene, plenty of forward-thinking churches adjusted again, creating multi-channel strategies that allowed people to access some content physically, some online, and some on the church social media platforms.

But the times have changed again.

The secular marketplace has known for several years that customers connect with brands online AND offline seamlessly. Companies like Home Depot, Starbucks, Wal-Mart and Crate & Barrel have adopted “omni-channel” strategies to drive sales both online and at brick and mortar stores. Omni-channel is an approach that provides a seamless experience for people whether they are online, using an app, or in a physical building.

Omni-channel and multi-channel may seem similar, but there’s a difference. Multi-channel is like the swim lanes at a local pool—each lane has its own boundaries and direction. In the same way, physical church has its systems, strategies and measurements of success, while church online has its own separate (but similar) systems, strategies and measurements of success. Omni-channel however, is like a pool with no lanes during free swim—everyone is able to explore any part of the pool in their own time.

An omni-channel approach to church would mean that people could fully connect and fully engage with a church without the need to step inside a physical environment every week—or possibly even at all. They could attend one Sunday, listen to the message on podcast the following week, watch a live online stream the week after, and catch the message on-demand in an church app the week after that. Rather than a location-centric approach to church, this would be an audience-centric approach that allows people to connect and engage with churches both digitally AND physically, for 1 hour on Sunday AND throughout the other 167 hours of the week.

In a world where people have an increasing number of online channels and apps to watch or listen to content, and ways to build community around that content, the church needs to recognize that this is not just the future—it’s the current reality.

And just like when God told Joshua that Moses was dead, his next words were “now then …” (Joshua 1:2). It’s time for the church to focus on the “now then.”

Here’s what I mean: Whether you planed it or not, more people than ever are accessing your church content digitally via live web streaming, video on-demand, podcasts, apps and YouTube. In this way, church attendance is not decreasing, it’s decentralizing. Digital channels do not compete with physical attendance, they partner with it. The marketplace has known this for some time.

After studying 46,000 shoppers, Harvard Business Review discovered in January of 2017 that people who used several different channels to seamlessly connect with a store were:

  • more loyal to the brand.
  • 23% more likely to make repeat trips to the retailer’s physical store.
  • more likely to recommend the brand to family and friends than those who used a single channel such as physical attendance only.

Now then … if the Church is going to make an impact in the modern world, we need to move into a new reality by creating strong experiences that connect and engage people on every channel they use to access our content—including physical attendance—so we can encourage full engagement with our church. We need to take the swim lanes out and let people explore our church and our content in their own time and in their own way. If the marketplace is an indicator, doing digital engagement well will lead to increased physical attendance.

As Andy Stanley says: “If we want to reach the people that no one else is reaching, we’ve got to do things no one else is doing” because leadership requires focus on where you want to be, not where you were or where you are.

So, this is the new cultural mountain I believe the church is facing … our job is to figure out ways to scale it. I’m excited because while climb may be tough, but the view from the top will be worth it.

I wanna know what you think. Where do you see new opportunities?