Joanna la Fleur is a communications expert who hosts the
Word Made Digital podcast. She coaches churches and organizations how to have a better digital presence. She spoke with us about what Christians learned as the pandemic accelerated our shift to virtual platforms and what we can carry forward.
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Faith Today editor Karen Stiller: What have we learned, Joanna, from all this shifting online?
Joanna la Fleur: What we learned quickly is that what works in person doesn’t actually work as well online and vice versa. The kind of thing you might create for an online community is a very different format than what you would do in person.
I think one of the biggest mistakes we’ve made is trying to match those two things together. One of the audiences will lose. So, if you’re having a live in-person service and you’re just trying to put a camera up and bring that onto the internet, it won’t be a very good experience for those people watching online.
Think of when people moved from radio to television and these voices on radio started being seen on TV. Johnny Carson created essentially a radio set with a film camera. Even to this day a lot of these guys still have mics that don’t work, but there’s a metaphorical mic on their desk and they have a guest who sits beside them. It’s all coming out of radio that was trying to translate, adjust and adapt into a TV format.
Most shows don’t look like radio anymore. At first, with YouTube-style shows, the format was just taking what worked on TV and translating it to YouTube, but then quickly people are realizing that doesn’t work either.
We have to think of the format in which people are experiencing the content. People have hopefully figured out by now how to plug in a camera and get the internet to work and how to get the audio going.
We want to then think more strategically or holistically about what we’re creating. Is the content for the audience that we’re trying to reach in the place that they’re watching it?
If you’re in a church with a charismatic kind of a preacher, for example, who is almost larger than life, it’s very off putting if that guy is using that same energy and level, and almost yelling at you, if you’re sitting in your living room. Or you might even still be in bed on a Sunday morning watching it on your phone. It feels like a juxtaposition between where you are experiencing it and what the person is doing through the camera.
FT: Speaking of people still being in bed, do you think churches are going to have to do some work to woo people back from online-only? It’s easy to stay home on a Sunday morning now.
JL: I think this is a huge question and something I’m deeply concerned about. I think a lot of people have found they liked it at home. It works better for them.
The kind of thing you might create for an online community is a very different format than what you would do in person.
If we’re talking about the Gen Z/Millennial generation of adults, or even older Gen X and Boomer adults, I think a lot of them have found some critique of the Church and the problems of Church, and they’re not sure if they want to come back.
If the Church was not compelling in its mission and gospel message of engaging people with their real issues and addressing the pain of people ... you can get help and input a lot of other places without going to church on a Sunday. So I think a lot of people won’t ever return.
I do think there will be a massive dropoff and we need to address what to do, then, with these people who have said ‘Church in its current format doesn’t do it for me anymore, but I still love the Lord.’ We need to figure out a new way to engage with this huge conversation. I’m watching it very closely in terms of what we’re doing in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. about that.
FT: It will be fascinating to unpack it in a year or two from now and see where we are.
JL: There will be people who always want Sunday morning, but I think it is expected now that you can get the content where you want it, when you want it, so that, of course, translates also to church. Having one time of the week, and only one time … it was already not working because of broken families, single-parent households, shift workers commuting, and travelling both for work and for fun was increasing. In the last generation everything opened on Sundays, so there were lots of other things to do on your Sunday morning. So if only Sunday at 10 a.m. was the time you could get this content … it was increasingly a challenge before the pandemic.
There are some real challenges. I think churches, at the very least, need to be more creative in when they offer services and opportunities. Maybe the same thing is offered again on a Wednesday evening or a Tuesday morning, or other times of the week.
In the past, if you had a favourite preacher or a teacher in Christian thinking who wasn’t your local minister, you had to send away for tapes or CDs or something. It was harder to get their content. But now it’s all in your phone every single week. You have more to listen to than ever before. So now the role of the local leadership, in my opinion, includes curating and making sense of all this content that’s out in the world.
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You are still there as the local minister/shepherd/pastor/priest to care for the unique needs of that person in a community. But also, you know not to be so proud as to assume that you’re the best teacher on this topic or idea. There are probably five brilliant teachings on the Book of Ephesians that you could curate. You have done the work as the expert to say, "This is good teaching I would recommend to my people." And then don’t reinvent it all the time.
Serve your people in the way that you uniquely can and then curate content about other topics that you don’t have the capacity for. Or if there’s someone else who’s done it better, offer that to your people so that they can help navigate a world with thousands of pieces of content being offered to them every week. Curate some of that content and then the local church becomes a place of meeting the specific felt needs of that community. It becomes a place where the human connectionis made, the community side of things, the Bible studies and small groups, whatever it looks like in your local church.
The human side of things becomes of utmost importance because the teaching is from anywhere in the world, right into the palm of your hand.
FT: There is humility and creativity in that. What would the sharing of that curated content look like?
JL: I guess it could depend on the community. Maybe it’s "The five best things on the internet this week" and it’s sent out in an email. Or "Here’s a place on the website with recommended listening and thinking on key issues." That’s a challenge if you’re the kind of leader whose strength is primarily as a teacher.
But what we really need is someone who loves and cares for people, and can bring them through the journey of their struggles in life. It’s just a huge challenge in this turnover time where people are saying, "I can get charismatic, thoughtful and intelligent teaching on YouTube. What I actually need is someone to care for me and for someone to notice if I don’t show up for a few weeks, and someone who, when I’m struggling, I could call and ask them for advice on this issue. Someone to pray with me or teach me how to pray. That’s what I need."
So now the role of the local leadership, in my opinion, includes curating and making sense of all this content that’s out in the world.
FT: If you were a church that hadn’t previously been streaming services, and you learned how to do that during the pandemic, what are the opportunities now for churches like that?
JL: Well, I think, in all things in life, we have to say a big yes to one thing, and say no to a lot of other things, so I don’t expect that most churches have the finances and resources to do both really well, and at the same time, because it really is almost like two separate things that you’re creating.
Maybe if it’s simply continuing to post the services and offer that to people, but to admit that it’s not going to be as great as the thing that you experience in person.
Or making the decision to go the opposite way and say, based on your own community and whatever metrics you’re using to make these strategies for how to reach people in your community, we’re going to lean in and double down. To say that we’ve seen the power of this online thing and how it can serve, and we think we have a team that has some savvy to keep this going. And so we’re going to offer something in person, but the thing that we record and produce on a Thursday afternoon every week is going to be maybe the focus of our time and energies.
But I think that some churches will probably go all the way back to nothing online anymore and that’s okay. It’s a capacity issue, a finance and resource issue for many people. Just keep in mind, "What is your plan?" Make a plan and then stick to it. I think the exhaustion and the burnout come when we are trying to be all things to all people, at the same time.
And the good news is that in a place like Canada we’re so blessed that we have lots of different kinds of churches reaching lots of different kinds of people in lots of different kinds of formats.
Seek the Lord on what He would have you focus on, and recognize that there are going to be things that you just don’t do as well because you’ve decided to focus on the few things that you think you can do well. And if that’s back to a traditional church service on Sundays, my encouragement would be to just think if there might be another time, a nontraditional day and time of the week that you could offer a repeat of that. It might be a Wednesday night at 7:00.
Make a plan and then stick to it. I think the exhaustion and the burnout come when we are trying to be all things to all people, at the same time.
Survey your own community to find if there’s a time that makes sense for your people. Maybe it’s a lunchtime thing. Or a drive home podcast where you have all the things you couldn’t talk about in the service on the Sunday, and you can add some notes and insights.
You just can’t be in all places and do all things. We’re not a multimillion-dollar conglomerate and so we have to prayerfully and strategically consider where we think there will be fruit, and then trust the Lord that some other community and some other congregation in our community will serve those other needs.
FT: Thank you, Joanna.
Listen to Karen Stiller’s full interview with Joanna la Fleur at
www.FaithToday.ca/Podcasts. Find Joanna's podcasts at www.joannalafleur.com/podcast. Photo of Joanna by Jessica Cluett.