Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you are certainly aware of the fact that the way we engage in spiritual community has changed radically over the last several months. This has left many churches scrambling to adapt, embrace digital forms of community, and keep their ministry and mission moving forward as we work toward embracing our new normal.

Today however, I want to push you to consider other changes that have been taking place over time, through the last 20+ years, how it is changing our ministry landscape, and what your church can do to be more effective at reaching people in your own community and around the world.

Even before this “new reality” churches have been struggling to navigate changes in communication, community, and an increasing societal disconnection from Christianity for decades with varying levels of success. Some churches have seemingly continued to function without much awareness of what changes are taking place, or what effect it has on our ministry landscape. Below, I will review some changes that have been happening in our ministry landscape over the last 20+ years. In my next article, I’ll talk about some ways that the churches’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic can act as a catalyst for churches to more effectively reach groups of people that they have been struggling to reach in the past.

As Barna has documented in past studies, in Gen X we started to see an increase in Atheism and Agnosticism, even while many in this generation had some education and cultural context to draw upon to help understand what Christians believe. In the following generations, this context has continued to become further diminished. Today we have many Gen Z-ers brought up by Gen X parents who themselves had little connection with Christianity and belief in the Bible, leaving many without a natural starting point for understanding what Christians believe. A recent study (https://www.barna.com/research/atheism-doubles-among-generation-z/) by Barna in partnership with Impact 360 Institute lays out some of their most recent data on this.

Starting with Millennials, and continuing on with Gen Z-ers and to some degree older generations, we have two generations that are increasingly socially connected digitally, and decreasingly socially connected physically, or in person. This has led to a few different things. One is, as outlined in a study of Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram use by the University of Pennsylvania (https://penntoday.upenn.edu/news/social-media-use-increases-depression-and-loneliness) an increase of community engagement via those mediums can be correlated with an increase in depression and loneliness. In addition to this however, since people are less socially engaged physically, this means that we are less likely to reach people through traditional means of ministry.

If traditional physical ministry is less likely to reach people, how can we reach them? In 2017, Adweek in partnership with Defy Media released their Defy Media Acumen for March 2017 which focused on the digital lives of 1,452 Gen Z-ers. From this survey, we learned things like 95% of Gen Z-ers use YouTube and half “can’t live without it.” 69% use Instagram, 67% Facebook and Snapchat, and 52% Twitter. We also learned that 66% of Gen Z-ers use YouTube, the world’s second largest search engine (the largest being Google), to find answers.

As I researched this information, even before the pandemic, it started to become clear to me how many churches are failing to reach this generation that is increasingly spiritually disconnected, and can be hard to reach using traditional means of ministry. However, some ideas started to form in my own mind in regard to how we can improve in these areas. I know much of this information isn’t new to some of you, these datasets have been used by some churches to aid in forming targeted ministry efforts in our current ministry landscape. However, this is something that other churches struggle with, and I believe as more and more churches start to use digital forms of communication as a means to accomplish ministry, now is the time for us to act, and investigate how we can also see digital platforms as a mission field. To do this well, we need to do more than simply put our services online.

Does your church have a strategy for digital outreach that you would like to share? Let me know in the comments. Next time I’ll share some thoughts of my own on how we can engage with Millennials, Gen Z, and even older generations by approaching social media platforms as part of our mission field.

“Reaching the Digitally Unreached Part 2” is available here

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