Easter and the Rise of the Online Machine
For the past two years, I have served as a staff pastor at a fairly large church in Atlanta, but previously I worked in a corporate role in Best Buy for a little more than a decade. Although I had an up-close look at the organizational highs and lows of a Fortune 500 company, the call to go into full-time ministry was not made with that in mind. Honestly, I often struggled to see how the two starkly different career paths tied together in any way. That perspective alone speaks volumes to the intentionally ironic nature of God - he makes tax collectors and floundering fishermen into disciples and effective carriers of the Gospel. By God’s great grace he has shown me a few parallels between a critical time in the history of the electronic retail giant, Best Buy, and this current moment in history for the Church.
For an uncommonly long time prior to the actual weekend, Easter 2020 had been a trending topic across all search engines. People from varying backgrounds suddenly shared a piqued interest in what this season of social distancing would hold for the “Super Bowl” of Sunday services. Many think-pieces and blog posts argued that perhaps this year Easter would suffer a stoppage caused by the shutdown of mass gatherings. It was clear that Easter as we know it would not be celebrated this year; because how could any day of celebration primarily dependent on mass gatherings survive shelter in place edicts? As we now have the privilege of hindsight it has become clear that one of those previous statements was undoubtedly accurate: Easter as we know it would not be celebrated this year. In fact, life as we knew it will likely never return. Fortunately, as we are reminded in Isaiah 46:8-10, the plans of God even supersede the effects of a global pandemic.
Years ago, while I was working in a very junior-level executive role at Best Buy, I was able to observe how the C-Level Executive team there handled a pivotal and challenging season for the company that threatened to eventually end it. In 2012, Best Buy was struggling with declining revenue and profit and a plummeting stock price. Among the primary culprits was the company’s inability to compete with the ever-growing reach of the internet behemoth, Amazon, which was taking substantial market share in almost every related product category. The outlook was grim and forecasts were shaky. So, how did we find a way to survive and thrive in the fiscal years to come? Simple, our leadership ultimately decided to accept and embrace change. A change in perspective led to amazing results and growth. An evolution of strategy transformed our expectations and allowed us to define a new more effective “normal”. The Church finds itself at the same significant place. We must first recognize that regardless of how long this period of restrictions on gatherings continues, God’s Church will endure and flourish. I would just love to offer a perspective on “how”.
As I mentioned previously, the turning point for Best Buy included a few key mindset shifts that preceded growth. Among them was initially identifying “who” our competition was. For Best Buy, it was Amazon and other similar online retailers; in this case for the traditional Church, we will define it as “online church” and the rise of virtual connection in this age of physical distancing. Now that we identified the “antagonist”, here are few additional perspective and strategy shifts for us to consider :
Accepting and Embracing Its Identity
First, at Best Buy, we had to accept and embrace the identity that we initially saw as a liability. While everyone was trending towards shopping online, we were the showroom that online-only retailers would send their customers to. They would visit us and then buy elsewhere. Since this was a reality, we decided to settle into it and accept that we were a showroom. If we were going to be a showroom, we were going to be the best available one. We adjusted store layout and functionality to fit this identity and our churches must do the same. Once we regain the capability to meet on-site, we must recognize that more people than ever will be watching and engaging online and be fine with that. If anything, it allows us to more completely engage with the ones that attend at our physical campuses. This is an opportunity we have to make that experience even more intimate than it ever has been. In the west, people may view the preparation of their children and the 25-minute drive from their home to be a sacrifice. Although sacrifice can be relative, let us not despise others’ standards and find ways to build up and encourage one another (1 Thessalonians 5:11).
Learning from the Strengths of Its Competition
Next, we accepted the exceptional strength of our competitor (namely Amazon and other such online-only retailers). They offered an ease of access we did not. Did you know that prior to this COVID-19 season, only 15% of churches were reporting growth in attendance; in the months since the start of the pandemic, however, 49% of churches have been reporting attendance growth. People are connecting at a markedly higher rate. Churches that normally reach 100 people with the gospel on Easter, shared the gospel to 150. Churches that would reach 10,000 would ultimately reach 15,000. Is it possible that even in this season of distancing that the Gospel reach might have even been broadened? We can choose to despise the method or marvel at its effectiveness. What our enemy might have intended to silence the gospel message in this season, God used for the advancement of the gospel and for the saving of many souls (Genesis 50:20).
Offering what your Competition Cannot
Then, at Best Buy, we set our focus to offer what our online-only competitors could not. Amazon offered 2-day delivery, but as they had no physical retail locations, that was as fast as they could get a product to you. We did have physical stores, and recognizing that “speed to possession” was a prime benefit, same-day in-store pickup was developed. Shop online, and pick up with no hassle in the store one hour later. What does the church offer in this season that our culture so desperately desires? Community. Biblical Community. According to their 2015 study entitled “The State of Discipleship”, Barna Research uncovered that 62% of respondents found it necessary to pursue ongoing spiritual growth over time with another person or preferably in a group. In a culture that demonstratively demands independence yet experiences loneliness more than ever before, there is a desire to connect interpersonally specifically as it relates to spiritual matters. Even with many varying church contexts, we must ask ourselves, “how can we connect to this suddenly growing audience that we now have access to?” They desire the connection, and we have the methods to offer it in a most substantial way. In my context, it looks like small group communities that meet regularly for the encouragement and edification of one another. One no longer has to view alone; this spiritual journey of discipleship can be taken together. We must remember that church is not something you watch, it is something that you do as it becomes who you are. (1 Corinthians 12:27-28)
Building the Right Partnerships (perhaps even your competition)
Lastly, during and after that season of challenge for Best Buy, we built the right partnerships and eventually made our primary rival our growth partner. In addition to partnering with popular manufacturers across several categories, eventually, Best Buy would form an exclusive partnership with Amazon where products of theirs were only provided through Best Buy and it’s more than 1400 locations. Ultimately, online services and connection is a gift that God has given us to steward well. I believe that the Church, as she always does, will come out of this era stronger than she has ever been. As we can see in the book of Acts and many other epistles, the church has a habit of growing in times of hardship and adversity. Imagine, as we come out of this COVID-19 restricted season, a church that invests in and honors both its on-site capabilities as well as it’s newfound online reach.
Additionally, I believe that part of building the right partnerships will be found in how our churches bond themselves to their communities and serve the “least of these”. One statement of error commonly heard in these times is that the church has been and continues to be inactive regarding the need of the community and the world around them. In times of epidemics and social unrest in the past, the church has founded hospitals and other service organizations such as the Salvation Army and Samaritan’s Purse. What incredible service opportunity or organization will be birthed during this time by inspiration from the Holy Spirit? I cannot wait to see, and neither can the millions of socially-aware Millennials and Generation-Z’ers that are waiting to be captivated by the beauty of the gospel and true religion. As we are reminded, our faith is most attractive and pure when it is caring for the weak and vulnerable (Luke 10:29-37 & James 1:27).
Unlike Best Buy, the Church is not dependent on the strategies of man but held in the secure hand of God with its leaders being gifted inspiration from the Holy Spirit. We have no need to worry as Easter and the Church, much like our Savior, lives on.