Could proven marketplace techniques help churches drive more engagement within the service and action outside of it?
It's 9:01 AM
We flip on the large monitor in the conference room and quickly greet our remote attendees. In the next thirty minutes, seven of us must come up with a plan to get thousands of engineers to adopt a complex new process. We need a tagline. Someone shares an idea, which triggers another idea, and then another. "Get Connected!" A woman shouts from the video screen, and instantly we know. That's it. The perfect tagline. The relief is palpable. If we could hug each other through the screen, we probably would. We divvy up the remaining responsibilities and rush to the next meeting, buzzing with excitement.
We call these “ideation sessions." They are 30-minute meetings that start with a business challenge, move to discussion, and end with next steps. We attend several of them per day. They are intense, collaborative, and wildly fun. It’s part of an agile methodology that has us checking in constantly, asking questions, and fixing problems. It is nothing short of electric, though we're not doing it for the fun of it. Hospitals, banks, emergency services, and non-profits all around the world rely on our products to run their businesses. It's critical we keep this system running.
The Christian mission
So, when I became a Christian a couple years ago, I was expecting more of the same—discussion, ideation, feedback. The gospel was the most shocking story I’d ever read. Jesus, the most influential man I'd ever learned about. And my new mission, the most radical challenge I’d ever received.
"Therefore go," says Jesus, "and make disciples of all nations..." (Matthew 28:19).
This is the abundantly clear, exceedingly difficult mission of every follower of Jesus, laid out in eight powerful words. I was on fire with anticipation.
And then I went to church
Oh no, is this a church-bashing blog? No, I promise. Read on.
I loved my churches. I tried several of them those first couple of years, eager to find a place where I could direct this passion. In my desperation, I even helped with a startup church that I hoped might resemble my work environment, but it never took root. These churches all welcomed me, loved me, and prayed with me. I met pastors and advisors who’ve become good friends and confidantes. I'm grateful to them all. But something was missing.
Confessions of a convert
Before I explain, I'd like to confess something: I am no expert on church structure, theology, ministry, or any of it. I'm a technology director, a former skeptic of faith who became a Christian a couple years ago. And I apologize if these words read as criticism. I write them from a place of struggle, not authority, and certainly not condemnation. I'm a rookie trying desperately to reconcile my radically different realities of work and church. I welcome your help as I stumble through it all. Here goes...
Making sense of church
So there I was: searching. In most churches I visited, the service consisted mostly of people entering a building, listening, and then going home. I wondered: Where was the collaboration and grappling, the questioning and brainstorming? In contrast to my ideation sessions at work, church was a predominately passive experience. My role was as observer—like watching a show. But no matter how great that show was (many were fantastic), what I really craved was grappling and application. I plugged in as best as I could outside of Sunday, meeting with mentors, joining a small group, running prayer meetings. But with three teenagers at home and a full-time job, I also needed to protect my family time. I longed for Sunday to be more relevant, more interactive, more actionable.
What was the Sunday service, anyway?
Imagine that your company makes a medication that cures a serious illness. The company mission is to heal all nations of this terrible disease. The medication is difficult to develop, and you’ll need to hire like crazy to meet the demand. Critics will be on constant attack as you experiment, adjust, and find your way. None of this will be easy. You gather everyone weekly for a quick check-in. It's a valuable opportunity to teach new skills, check on past actions, plan next steps, and hear feedback. It's a bustling, meaningful hour that helps everyone stay on track. For most, it is the most important meeting of their week. They leave feeling committed, seen, and crystal clear on the mission.
A church checkin
In addition to Biblical teaching and worshiping, what if the Sunday service included a check-in on the mission? What if leaders asked: Remember our mission to make disciples of all nations? How are we progressing, collectively and individually? What isn't working? What should we change? What's expected of each of us next? Do we have what we need to get there?
Searching for answers
I know. Many churches do parts of this or are at least trying their best. Pastors have devoted their lives, for crying out loud, to helping others. Why target these efforts? Why criticize these kind gatherings of worshippers and families and seekers and explorers? I don't mean to criticize this. I simply, desperately, urgently want to understand. Why was I feeling so disconnected? Was it me? Would I simply never “fit in" at church? I began digging for answers.
The problem with lecture
While I sensed that lecture was less effective than other forms of teaching, I was shocked at what I learned. Research by the National Training Laboratories found that lecture, by most measurements, is the least effective teaching tool around.
Pure lecture, they found, leads to a retention rate of only 5%. Even visuals, while engaging, aren't much better at driving retention. For maximum learning to happen, for hearts and behaviors to change, learners should be practicing, building, doing, and teaching. They should be, in a word, interacting.
The problem with memory
And when should they be interacting? Immediately, not days later, after they've forgotten most of what they've heard. Prominent German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus found in 1855 that learners typically forget 70% of what they've been taught...within 24 hours. That means that within a single day, it could be almost as if the class—or sermon—never happened at all.
“Within a single day, it could be almost as if the class—or sermon—never happened at all.”
The need for action planning
And one of the most effective tools to drive retention? Immediate action planning. Like exercising, a specific plan and accountability are key. But I didn't see this happening at church. In most churches, the pastor speaks, attendees listen, and then they go home. If our mission is to collectively execute this wildly complex challenge of making disciples of all nations, when do we clarify how all of that happens, and who checks in on our progress?
You've been patient, Dear Reader. Now to address a few objections that may be brewing.
Objection 1: Church is so much more than a training class
Yes! I agree completely. I discovered this first-hand when I first became a Christian. I experienced something far more powerful than just great teaching. I was convicted, overwhelmed, and blessed by something truly supernatural. That was the presence of what Christians refer to as the "Holy Spirit." My experiences, in essence, were "anointed," or "blessed." Many Christians would agree that anointing, worship, and the Word of God (Isaiah 55:11) are the most important elements of church. They're more powerful than the cleverest writing, the most expensive special effects, or the latest learning strategies. I'm not suggesting replacing worship and time in the Word with fancy tools, and I'm not advocating for wrestling control from the Holy Spirit. My Leanership blog is all about the power of leaning on God instead of leading by our own merits. But could we partner in new ways with the Holy Spirit to make the most of this precious hour of church?
Objection 2: Interactive teaching is messy
Anyone who's stood before a large crowd knows that unleashing the masses to discussion is risky. I was a corporate trainer in my previous job, and I know the danger of losing control of a group. I‘ve also witnessed the power of interactive teaching at its finest, often at enormous scale. We once had a class so large that the only location big enough was a Hollywood studio. Our job as consultants was to instill new behaviors in the companies that hired us. They paid us to drive change for sometimes tens of thousands of employees, either by fixing a problem (like poor collaboration) or by helping teams execute a bold new strategy (like moving from on-premise to the cloud). We were accountable for significantly moving the needle on employee productivity, collaboration, innovation, morale, sales, and all sorts of company metrics. And we often had just one shot to do it. We used techniques like group work, simulation, interactive apps, role-playing, and other strategies that you'll find at the end of this blog. With a bit of planning, we got up to a thousand employees talking, practicing, and even teaching each other. No matter the size of our churches, can we do more to drive interaction?
Objection 3: Employees are easier to motivate than church attendees
Employees were selected for their skills, so they're already equipped to execute on expectations. Also, the draw of the paycheck and the fear of not having it keeps employees accountable. Conversely, church-goers attend voluntarily, aren't required to execute, and aren't monetarily rewarded when they do. Churches have to work harder to engage these attendees, who can easily go elsewhere, watch online, or unplug altogether. Yet isn't that all the more reason for churches to be leading the way in creative techniques that foster action and engagement?
Objection 4: Jesus lectured. How can lecture be bad?
Jesus did lecture. And lecture definitely isn't bad. It's an excellent tool in the right circumstances. Jesus used lecture to great effect, of course, in the Sermon on the Mount. But Jesus didn't rely on lecture as his strategy. He used it carefully and often paired it with experiential strategies. Jesus so valued interactive learning, in fact, that He sent His apostles into the field after only a few months as his disciples. And he held them accountable for what they learned. Luke 9 reads:
"And He called the twelve together...and He sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal....And they departed and went through the villages, preaching the gospel and healing everywhere...On their return the apostles told Him all that they had done."
Jesus used a vast array of teaching techniques. Should we be doing the same?
The time is now
In San Francisco, it's probably no surprise that the idea of church is foreign for most. But it's not just in San Francisco. Many have seen the shocking statistics. According to a 2019 Gallup survey, church attendance in the United States has dropped to an all-time low, especially among young people. According to Pew research, the average church-goer is now in their 50s. Is it possible that this decline in attendance relates in any way to teaching methods that are out-of-step with today's learners? Interactive, mission-focused teaching may not turn the tide of church decline, but could it stem the flow?
The rise of faith at work
Church, of course, is the family of Christ, not a building. Gatherings can be anywhere, from a coffee shop to a car to a cathedral. Increasingly, I find that my primary place of transformation is not the Sunday service, but rather my workplace fellowship groups. Christians at my company, and at many companies around the world, gather regularly at work. On nearly any day of the week, I can log on to one of these meetings, read scripture with co-workers, share struggles, and pray. We work through challenges specific to our environment and hold each other accountable. If you don't have this at your work, the first step is to find someone and begin praying together. Our group started with just two of us in a conference room a couple years ago. See these resources for more information: starting work faith groups, the Work and Faith Workshop, and Faith Driven Global.
So, what do we do about it?
Let's get to it. Here are a few of my favorite business techniques for driving engagement and action. I've collected them over twenty years as a curriculum developer, corporate trainer, technology director, and university instructor. I pray they bless you.
10 marketplace techniques to drive engagement in church
Check on progress: Start by asking attendees how they implemented last week's teaching. Knowing that the pastor may ask this question helps attendees stay accountable during the week and gets them excited to share. Have them share with their neighbor or a few in front of the group.
Gather questions: Have people submit questions on paper or electronically throughout the sermon. Someone can select a couple of these for the pastor to answer at the end. As a bonus, leaders can review all the questions after church as a way to better understand what is top of mind for attendees. They can even share themes and trends at next week's service to help people feel heard.
Online voting: Let attendees participate in the sermon using electronic voting tools like mentimeter. Attendees type menti.com on their phone browser, enter a short code, and submit answers to pre-loaded questions. For example, the leader can ask people to vote on multiple-choice answers to questions related to the lesson, ask them to enter words that describe your church family (which results in a world cloud that dynamically forms on the screen), or survey the crowd. No installation is needed. See this 3-min demo of one tool.
Role-play: Try a role-play of the lesson at the end of the sermon. For example, say, "Now turn to your neighbor. Person A plays a colleague who's experiencing a painful situation, and person B plays themselves. Person B, practice being Christlike in this moment.”
Shout it out: Give people a few minutes to thank others for what they’ve done for them during the previous week. This will give people ideas on how to help others and build intimacy. For large gatherings, have mic runners, throw a catchbox, or let people submit electronically.
Identify ah-has: End the sermon with a reflection. For example, say: "Take one minute and write down what stood out to you. Share with your neighbor. Now, could three people share with the larger group?”
Give three sample next steps: End the sermon by giving three possible actions, and asking them to commit to one of them. Ask for two or three people to share what they're committing to and how they might go about it. For large groups, do this electronically or with partners (see next tip).
Establish accountability partners: Say "Find someone who will check in on you via text during the week to see how you're progressing on your commitment." For large groups, form online circles and a cadence for checking in with each other.
Run retros: Every quarter, run retrospectives (retros) by gathering live feedback about what’s going well and what to do differently. Let attendees vote items up or down electronically using tools like funretro.io.
Quiz your congregation on the vision: Remind them of your church vision regularly to ensure alignment. Quiz them every now and then by saying: "Who can recite our church mission statement and share what it means to them?"
Jesus had but three years to change all of human history. Every day for Him was precious. Every opportunity to teach and change hearts and make disciples: a miracle. Are we reaching with everything we've got to do the same? Are we stretching, and grappling, and stumbling, and experimenting, and failing, and using every ounce of our God-given creativity to do everything we can to obey Jesus’s final, earth-shattering command?
"Therefore Go," says Jesus. Could churches do more to get people going?
What do you think?
About Sue Warnke
Sue is currently the Senior Director of Engineering Content at Salesforce. Other roles include Director of Innovation and Leadership, where she worked with Microsoft, Uber, Nike, SAP, Intuit, Sony, GAP, and Warner Bros to create experiential learning experiences. She has a Masters in English and was profiled in Liz Wiseman’s best-selling leadership book, Rookie Smarts. After a lifetime as an agnostic, Sue became a Christian in 2017 and now leads Christians@Salesforce and Faithforce San Francisco, Salesforce's interfaith Employee Resource Group.