The time and place experience that is Sunday morning church is losing value in the face of new realities that we face in part because of new media…and I think there is more opportunity here than there are things to be scared of.
Last year I discovered Top Gear on the BBC while perusing Netflix for something to watch. I’m not that into cars; after all I drive a Kia. But I was quickly drawn into the show. The format was refreshing. The personalities were magnetic and so was their chemistry. The dialogue was witty and the overall quality of the content was phenomenal. It also captivated me because in 2009 we piloted a similar format for 4 weeks at Gateway Church as we explored what it would take to do church on the internet. So my immediate reaction to seeing an episode of Top Gear was: this is the future of church! A short time later I realized that Top Gear was garnering 350 million viewers weekly with 300 million more watching later via the web making it essentially the most watched english speaking television program in the world at more than half a billion viewers.
What Top Gear does right
Top Gear Has Multiple Personalities
Top Gear has three hosts, which is to say they don’t have a host and then ‘co-hosts’. This is different than what we’re used to on information based TV and clearly different than what we are used to in Church. We are accustomed to a lead personality that is supported by others to fill in the gaps where needed but mainly to serve the voice of the lead personality. Having three unique personalities allows the creative team of Top Gear to put the right personality into the right segment without the audience feeling like this is a pinch hitter and thus check out. Each personality has equal equity with the audience and can carry a segment alone or with one or more of the others without a hitch.
We have a teaching team at Gateway Church and it is starting to really pick up some steam in terms of what we are capable of creatively. A couple years ago we stopped posting who would be teaching on Sunday on the website because we wanted to communicate that the Sunday experience was a quality experience that superseded who was delivering the teaching segment.
The future of church is multiple personalities rather than the alpha male model we have seen the last 100 years.
Top Gear is a Segmented Experience
A Top Gear episode generally consists of several non-linear and un-related segments that can stand on their own or serve a greater story by tying together with the other segments. You may have a segment live in the studio and then cut to a short film on a particular car that was produced earlier and then move to a live interview in the studio. The beauty is that all of those ‘bits’ can stand alone. If all you ever saw was the short 7 minute film on a Mercedes, the story therein would be complete and not lacking for not experiencing what was before or after.
What we do in Church on Sunday morning is deliver an hour or longer experience that has pieces stacked together that are dependent on each other to tell a bigger story and deliver a ‘take-away’ to those present. The music, the drama, the short film or the movie clip are designed to support a bigger arc more or less fall flat if it was the only bit one experienced. This makes it difficult for the experience to live on beyond Sunday morning which is of paramount importance in our new media culture.
The future of church is a segmented non-linear experience.
Top Gear is Shareable
For something to be shareable it needs two components; portability and broad appeal. Top Gear obviously has broad appeal as it is the most watched English speaking show on the planet but why does a car show have such broad appeal? I can only speak for myself on this one but my guess is I’m not alone; I don’t really care that much or know that much about cars so it’s safe to say that the topic in and of itself is not that interesting to me (and others). The creative people at Top Gear have managed to make a show that is essentially about something that most people aren’t that interested in and made it remarkable.
I can see it in people’s faces when I tell them about this show they have not seen. When I mention it’s a car show they immediately tune out and I have to begin the hard sell. Sound familiar (think inviting someone to church)? Top Gear seems to stop at nothing to achieve quality and they make no apologies to automotive purists for their style that creates such broad appeal. It is very clear the the hosts know A LOT about cars, but they don’t speak in high level expert terms, they instead make it reachable for people like me who know very little.
Top Gear is also portable because of the nature of the segmented experience. If I were to share a 40 minute video on my Facebook or Twitter feed the amount of people who would watch the whole thing would be small and in turn the amount of people who share it based on that would be smaller yet. But a 5 minute high quality short film on a something remarkable like an amazing car or something related to driving stands a much greater chance of being shared and consumed on social networks.
The future of church is compact shareable content.
Top Gear Has Shelf Life
I can watch an episode or a segment of Top Gear that is 5 years old or one that premiered last week and very little, almost none, of the content is lost due to time lapse. The writing and creative elements of Top Gear are not dependent on current events to deliver virtue to the user.
How often does the content delivered on a Sunday morning, especially during the teaching/preaching segment, depend on current events; not to mention references to local realities alienating people not living in proximity to the church? This is probably the lowest hanging fruit on this tree that your church team can grab onto and adapt to this weekend’s service.
The future of church is content that has indefinite shelf life on the web.
Top Gear Runs in Seasons
Top Gear doesn’t air every week of the year. Like most TV shows it runs during seasons, in this case in the fall and in the spring. This is not to say that the team at Top Gear takes the rest of the year off; it’s a full time gig creating content of this quality. Top Gear does augment throughout the year in social space with teasers and specials.
This is going to be the biggest turn for the church but I believe it is the future. If the experience is good enough and has shelf life and shareability running for only a couple of seasons would be a viable model for a church. This would need to be augmented with hyper local community gatherings, serving/community projects and other relational experiences throughout the year. Imagine a church the was built on a foundation of relationships rather than a shared consumption experience? The biggest hurdle your team faces is that Sunday happens every seven days and that greatly reduces the quality and impact of your content.
The future of church is running the time and place gathering in seasons.
Can this be done?
I really believe this is the future of church and I also think we can take steps in this direction now. You can build your Sunday experience now with multiple personalities, segmentation, shareability and shelf life without fracturing what it is you already do. The concept of seasons will take a pretty big paradigm shift for just about every church…but I think it’s the future none the less.