Continuing Your Church App Momentum

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So you’ve made the big plunge and your church has decided to jump onto the Church App bandwagon. There are only blue skies ahead now because your church can more easily communicate and all of your media is available in one place! And let’s be honest, you are officially the coolest church on the block.

So, what could go wrong?

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A Series of Unfortunate Events

Almost exactly a year ago I worked with a church to develop their app. The church’s website left a lot to be desired and iTunes didn’t even know what to do with their podcast because the feed was manually coded (yuck!) and badly written (i.e.: it was corrupt and it made iTunes cry). From this unappealing starting point, we worked through fixing the church’s podcast feed, we set up YouVersion for sermon notes in their app, and we configured all sorts of bells and whistles to make their app appealing and useful.

Once the app was done, I would have told you that the church would never quit using it. It was a million times better looking than their website and contained all sorts of useful content that no other mainstream medium could handle.

But here I sit… one year later… and they just decided to disable their app.

What could have possibly happened that would change the church from a mindset where they are excited to invest the time to create an app all the way to the mindset where they are asking to disable it?

Where It All Began

When going on long term mission trips, people are often warned about the “Honeymoon Stage.” This is where the traveler sees nothing but sunshine and rainbows. They love the new culture, enjoy the local delicacies, and are fascinated with the new people they meet. The missionaries are not told about the Honeymoon Stage to get them excited, but instead to warn them so that they are ready for when the culture shock hits them, they become bored with the food, and the way the people act begins to annoy them. If they are unprepared for the honeymoon stage to wear off then the mission could be seriously crippled when the culture shock arrives.

It might seem like an odd way to start talking about your new church app, but this honeymoon stage will most likely parallel your feelings for your new app in multiple ways. Many things about the app probably seem magical to begin with, but as the months pass, you will undoubtedly begin experiencing issues (especially if you are not expecting them). What I want to do is warn you about how to avoid the worst obstacles and reap the benefits of an app that is deeply integrated into your church.

Updating the App Every Single Week

The usage of your app will most likely be hard to measure regardless of who developed the app for your church. Having no real indicator of app usage can make it difficult to stay motivated with updating the app. At first, there is real charm to seeing your sermon notes in digital form, but after three months, the process of posting them to YouVersion might start to seem like it just isn’t worth it when you cannot tell if anyone is even using them.

If you decide to take a week off from updating, then please just remember that there is no better way to kill your app than to stop updating a section of it. Every time someone in your church tries to access information in the app and it simply isn’t there, the person will consciously or subconsciously lose faith in the app. So if you don’t post sermon notes, then you just told all of your app users that they cannot depend on your app for notes and they should start grabbing a bulletin in the morning. Don’t post them for two weeks and they may just stop opening the app at all!

This applies to the entire app and not simply sermon notes! Do you feature weekly announcements? An in-app newsletter? Podcasts? I imagine that you hope your church is using the app to access that information, but if you fail to update it regularly then can you blame people for deleting the app out of frustration?

Instead of banging your head against a wall as you wonder if anyone is using the app, try promoting the information that you are updating. If people are aware that new information is there, then chances are good that they will start accessing the app more for different types of things. Which leads us to…

Never Stop Promoting

App promotion seems so obvious to begin with, but it will quickly become very easy to assume that people just know that the app exists and will use it. I imagine that after the first month of having an app, most churches don’t even mention the app verbally anymore (I know that mine stopped). The app promotion tends to be relegated to the church newsletter or a slide for the projector.

To express the severity of the issue, I make church apps for a living and even I thought it was ok that our church was just sticking the app in our bulletin and in our newsletter. Fortunately I am a developer (cue the Superman theme), and I have access to all sorts of fancy tools and soon found that my assumption was wrong.

Even though we deemed that it was not a necessity to verbally promote the app, my pastor mentioned the app off-hand before every sermon. He would say something like, “If you’ll pull out your sermon notes or open the [enter church name] app on your phone…” Over time, he made a habit of mentioning it and did it consistently, but I didn’t ever think much of it.

Then the day came that we had a guest speaker who didn’t even know he should mention the app. I had been watching our app usage data for months and the following Monday I was amazed to find that our usage went down by half! We literally lost half of our users for the day (see the fist red arrow in the diagram)!

Church App Usage

App Usage For March and April of 2015. Arrows = Sundays, Red Arrows = Sundays The App Was Not Verbally Mentioned.

I let the pastor know about the issue and I am blessed to have a pastor who was interested in experimenting with the data (I am an engineer, so offering to get me more data is like baking me cookies and giving me a back rub). The following week he said a little more about the app by encouraging people to download it, and as expected, app usage went higher than ever!

The following week we had another guest speaker who once again didn’t mention the app, and we once again fell to half of our normal Sunday app usage (see the second red arrow in the diagram). While I will be the very first in a long line of mathematicians and engineers to admit that four data points in nothing to draw a definite conclusion (You hear that engineers? Don’t burn my house down please!), there is no doubt that the simple act of verbally promoting the app had a huge influence on app usage on a weekly basis.

And the craziest thing about all of this? The app had been part of our church for long over a year at this point! Even after all of that time, the simple act of mentioning the app could fluctuate usage that dramatically!

Culture Integration

The final critical area I want to expand on is integrating the app into your church culture. If you nail this area then you’ve most likely bought yourself some breathing room if you mess up with app promotion or fail to update a section of the app for a week or so. Just like with app promotion, it’s very easy to assume that people will see what the app can do, they will begin using it, and it will permeate the culture of the church.

The problem is that things didn’t happen that way for our church (and I doubt they will for most churches who approach apps as self-promoting-machines). We did our bit of promoting for the first year, but we never really felt a change take place because it never did take place. And unfortunately, I can’t tell you what it will take to make it take place for your church, but I can tell you what I learned from ours!

Our biggest problem (which I didn’t realize was a problem at the time) was that people had not been experimenting with the app to see what it could do. It was understood that people would be excited about the app and would try out every little function available. We could not have been more wrong with that assumption.

Around 15 months after the app had launched, my pastor had me explain the app to our church leadership. I believe my pastor thought he knew everything the app could do but he knew I could explain it better because I understood the app better than anyone. We had a meeting with around 40 influential people in the church and I got up in front of them and started going through everything that the app can do.

What happened next was fascinating and alarming.

Even my pastor didn’t know some of the very most important functionality. There were multiple times that I was stopped mid-sentence by people making excited exclamations or asking the person next to them if they knew the function existed.

This group consisted of our staff, board, as well as core members of the church, and some of them did not know about how to use the calendar, access push notifications, take sermon notes, share a sermon, etc… I honestly couldn’t believe it! From that moment, I began seeing a shift in how the church used the app. Once we had that core group of people understanding the app, the app began to propagate through our members and became a part of our culture.

After over two years of having an app, I now have people mentioning the app to me all the time (oblivious to the fact that I am the developer of the app), I hear questions answered with the response “Just check the app,” and I know that the staff is beginning to feel multiple burdens lighten as the app accomplishes things that the staff previously did manually. We are finally seeing a return on our investment, and it is a much better payoff than any of us imagined!

It’s impossible to say exactly how to integrate it into your culture since your church is most likely very different than mine in so many ways. My best advice would be to make sure that the most influential people know how to use it and encourage them to start using the tagline “Just check the app for that!” With the correct integration, you can see a dramatic change in the way information is communicated to people.

Sad Story, Happy Ending

Let’s finish up by returning to the church which dropped their app after the first year but started off so excited. To be honest, I think that could have happened to any church. The church struggled with basically every single important factor that was just discussed:

  • The church stopped updating their newsletter after three months, stopped updating their sermon notes after six months, and stopped updating their podcasts after around nine months.
  • App promotion made no sense since they had nothing to promote when no content was being updated.
  • Things began to stagnate after just three months, and three months is not nearly long enough for the app to deeply permeate a church culture. I am sure that the bad habits had begun taking root before the app could take hold.

But there is good news that comes with all of this! I thoroughly believe that if you go into your shiny, new app understanding the Honeymoon Stage, Promotion, Culture, and have a plan, the app can be the most important tool your church has ever used and can hopefully take hold long before two years have passed!

And if you belong to a church who is struggling with its app then take note: There is hope! Remember that my church stumbled for at least 15 months before really getting our act together. As long as you begin implementing a plan and give your church body a reason to use the app, there is no reason you can’t change your culture!

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About the Author

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John Holtkamp

John Holtkamp is the Founder and CEO of FaithLink Apps which specializes in developing apps for churches. He connects with churches around the Unites States and Canada on a weekly basis to discuss methods to strengthen their media strategy. Outside of programming he enjoys reading, ultimate frisbee, and mentoring youth from his church.

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