by John D. Sprecher
It was my 46th birthday, July 5, 1994—into middle age, but feeling young and energetic and looking forward to many more years of ministry.
Just a month or two before, I had had a sobering conversation with a friend soon to retire from a company with a “30-year-and-out” pension. He told me he was going to take it. It was one of the first times I had thought seriously about retirement.
A Tsunami of Change
But while I was focused on my birthday and family, a marketing tsunami unknown to me was being unleashed on the west coast. That very day Jeff Bezos incorporated a company—a company named for a mighty river. It would soon become a household name and eventually change how we shop, read, and get our entertainment: Amazon was born!1
About the same time, the Internet was picking up steam. In less than a generation, it would become a powerful tool, leading the way to redefine our interactions and expectations. Today, cities across America are outdoing themselves trying to land the second headquarters for Bezos’s behemoth Internet company.
In 1994, words that have since become part of our daily language did not exist. You couldn’t “Google” something in 1994, because Google did not exist. Neither did Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Netflix, or Wikipedia.
Now familiar items were still unknown back then: DVDs, smartphones, blogging, texting, streaming, e-books, broadband, the “Cloud” (not for rain!) and many others have come and gone. New ways to communicate and connect continue to proliferate. Anybody still on Juno, AOL or MySpace? Or have you switched to Gmail, Instagram, LinkedIn, WhatsApp, or some other of a host of platforms?
Now a generation later, the power of the Internet is unquestioned. Nearly 90 percent of the U.S. population and about one half of the entire world are on the internet. In the U.S. three out of every four have a tablet or smartphone. Two-thirds have three or more connected devices.2 Over three billion people have a social media account, and most have more than one.3 U.S. adults spend over 200 minutes per day on mobile devices, 90 percent of that time on apps, and almost two-thirds of “searches” are done on smartphones.4
So what does all of this mean to pastors and churches?
First, the rush of information has, according to some, shortened the human attention span from 12 seconds in 2000 to just 8 seconds by 2013. By comparison, a goldfish has a 9-second attention span. At times you may wish you were preaching to an aquarium of attentive fish rather than a congregation reflecting the soft glow of their cell phones. You are never quite sure if they are using a Bible app to follow the text—or merely texting!
In a highly and easily distracted culture, do we seek ways for the most important message anyone will ever hear to penetrate the digital fog that surrounds our people? In reality, people are still hungry for genuine truth and authentic relationships—even if they are fact-checking the message you are preaching.
Second, consider this: “Are the people we want to reach able to find us digitally?” In 1994, if someone was looking for a church, the first place to go was the phone book and the yellow pages. A nice ad placed once a year—along with perhaps a newspaper ad or something on the local radio station (Christian or not)—and you were known in the community.
Very few look at yellow pages these days. Instead, they Google or Facebook “churches,” and when they see one they might want to check out, they probably watch a service online or at least listen to a sermon before they even make a first visit.
The challenge for smaller churches in this kind of world is a feeling of being overwhelmed by technology. Those of us born before 1994 just don’t experience technology as a second nature, as do those who were born since then.
So what can we do? Here are a couple of simple suggestions.
Keep it current!
Ask yourself if someone were to spend only eight seconds on your web page, would they see something happening this week? Or would they see your Easter schedule—weeks after the fact? Better a simple, up-to-date Facebook or web page than an out-of-date site with events from last week (or last month)!
If people see something current, those who are interested will dig deeper. Hopefully, they will then find what you want them to know about you. If you can’t handle the technology or find the time, find a millennial whom you can task with keeping your digital presence current.
Don’t be intimidated!
Rapidly changing technology and its challenges can be overwhelming, no doubt. But don’t let that get to you.
Remember that ultimately, the deepest needs of human beings are the emotional, physical, and spiritual connections available only when we are in community—and by that I mean being physically present, in the same room with people we love.
A thousand Facebook friends will never replace a warm hug! Avatars cannot substitute for a face-to-face conversation or the physical presence of a fellow believer in a time of need! There is no better community to be engaged in than the local church, so celebrate what you have to offer the world—not only eternal hope, but authentic in-person relationships.
That has not changed since 1994.
John D. Sprecher, lead elder for the U.S. FCA, pastored churches for 45 years, most of them at Rock Church in Rockford, Illinois.
1 Stone, Brad (2013). The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon. New York: Little Brown and Co. ISBN9780316219266. OCLC 856249407.
4 https://www.smartinsights.com/mobile-marketing/mobile-marketing-analytics/mobile-marketing-statistics/ and https://www.brandwatch.com/blog/96-amazing-social-media-statistics-and-facts-for-2016/