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Church Apps: The Why?
By: John Holtkamp

As mobile apps have become more and more popular over the years, the idea of having an app for churches has become intriguing. With statistics now showing that at least 64% of Americans have smart phones, it's hard to deny the appeal of integrating them into your church's culture. But along with these statistics come plenty of questions about why a church would ever utilize an app. This article is going to cover some of the topics related to church apps that I hear brought up the most: mobile-friendly websites, church visitors, and regular church attendees.

Why Make an App If My Church Has a Responsive/Mobile Friendly Website?

Do you ever know the right answer to a question, but you just can't put it into words? Well, I used to dread being asked about Apps vs. Responsive Websites because I struggled to put my thoughts into words. While this question has been relevant for years, on April 21 of this year, the relevancy increased dramatically, as Google rolled out an update that boosted the ranking of websites that are mobile-friendly. So, chances are that if your church doesn't already have a mobile-friendly website, then it will in the next few years if it is going to stay up-to-date!

Fortunately, I've now had years to work on apps and websites, and I can easily explain why it is very beneficial to have both a responsive website and an app. The basic response is to ask a question in return: "What content do you want on your church website?" And along those lines, "Who is your website reaching out to?" If you have any experience with web design for churches, then you know what a headache it can be to figure out the hierarchy of pages on the website. You have the main navigation bar at the top of the screen (or wherever it is that your website places it), and that goes into a drop-down menu, and each of the items in that menu go into a menu, etc.

The reason that churches struggle with this menu is that there is A LOT of content on websites. This is because your website's purpose is to get ALL of the information about your church to newcomers or potential visitors. You want to cover info about the staff, history of the church, your beliefs, all your small groups, children's ministry, youth ministry, etc. That list could go on and on, and it normally does for churches (which is not a bad thing!).

But an app takes an entirely different approach! When a client asks me about content they are considering for an app, I often tell them to use something I deem "The 20% Rule" (which is something I made up, but it is very helpful). The question to ask is: "Will 20% of our church body use this function every single week?" If not, then I would advise to not include it in your app. It will just clutter the app, and clutter can lead to a lot of people ceasing to use the app because they have a hard time finding the content that they should be using.

If you apply this 20% Rule to your church website, then it will most likely fail miserably. Chances are good that more than 95% of your website content will not be used by 20% of the church body every week, and that's not a problem because your website is meant to accomplish a completely different purpose! However, if you treat your website like an app then it will be a terrible website (potential visitors won't be able to find the information they are looking for), and if you treat your app like a website, it will be a terrible app (it will be a cluttered mess that no one will use). So it is very important to keep the two separate or you will have some strange hybrid that people will have a very hard time using.

Why Would Visitors Care About Our App?

Over the last few years, I had the opportunity to talk with staff from my church, as well as a number of other churches, about the importance of relevance for the church. Being relevant does not mean that you conform to the world in any way! It means that the church needs to strive to convey the good news in a way that is relevant to the world! Jesus portrayed this so well in the way that he taught. Instead of just telling people the exact point he was getting at, he spoke in parables, which was something very relevant to people at the time.

Being able to offer an app to visitors and encouraging them to use their smart phone during church is a way to be extremely relevant to them, especially if you implement it well. It's no secret that people love their smart phones, and if you allow them to pull it out during service, then it immediately introduces a degree of comfort whether the person realizes it or not.

Churches do everything that they can to help visitors feel comfortable. Multiple greeters at the door? Check! Free coffee? Check! Pastor introduces himself? Check! But even after all of that, the visitor still feels like the "new guy."

I'm not going to tell you that an app will take this feeling away, because it won't! However, in many ways it can give the visitor a sense of comfort that they don't even realize that they are feeling. If that visitor has been "shopping around" for churches, I bet that they will have a conscious or subconscious feeling that they relate to your church much better due to the extra layer of comfort they feel by being asked to pull out their smart phone to use it during service.

And, on top of all of these advantages, once the visitor leaves, the app gives you multiple ways to reach out to them! As they use their phone throughout the week, they will see your app, and if you integrate push notifications, then you can reach out to them, as well as the rest of your church, with news about things going on throughout the week

Why Would A Regular Attendee Care About Our App?

While an app can really help with overcoming obstacles with visitors, the true payoff of your app comes from integrating it into your church culture with people who regularly attend. These are the people who are already committed but could use a better communication pipeline.

At my church, we have a newsletter, website calendar, Sunday morning announcements, and relatively active social media feeds, yet we often heard people complain that information was not being relayed about events and news around the church! It got to the point where we weren't really sure how we could improve the situation since we were basically doing everything we could!

Fully integrating our app into our church culture really helped us to overcome the communication barrier that we were experiencing. With an app, we had the ability to offer a calendar of our events, our most recent newsletter, our social media, and push notifications, which could all be accessed from the same app without requiring accounts or subscriptions! It took months to integrate it into our culture, but once it took hold, it completely changed the way our information channel worked.

An app can offer so much more than that for a church body (i.e., sermon notes, dynamic small group info, podcasts, etc.), but the change in culture is where I believe the true, and perhaps unanticipated, reward is seen. If a church culture can integrate an app correctly, then the body can connect with a service (through sermon notes and digital bulletins) and with each other (through events and media) in ways that your church staff may have thought were impossible.

John Holtkamp is the founder and chief executive officer of FaithLink, www.faithlinkapps.com.

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