The post-pandemic church: Moving from pipeline to platform for ministry
As much as access to the internet has changed the way people relate to one another, work, live, and experience the world, the moveable type printing press has had an equal, if not greater, impact in the way people have access to information. The internet is over 40 years old, but the moveable printing press is over 500 years old. Much like the internet, the flow of information via a moveable type printing press made access to information economical and widespread in previous centuries. Christians saw the new technology as a way to share Christianity with the masses. Widespread efforts in literacy helped fuel the Protestant Reformation in Europe. The moveable type printing press enabled a free exchange of ideas and Christian theology, which were not available to the masses previously. The moveable type printing press disrupted the theological pipeline monopoly of the Catholic Church.
Most mainline churches, without realizing it, are accustomed to a pipeline approach to ministry. The denominational system is a pipeline, where the denomination is the source of religious goods and services, and the congregation and the people are the end users. This system of pipeline delivery worked well for the 20th century, but as many know, the ecclesiastical pipeline system is no longer providing what churches need as congregations see declines in church affiliation and attendance.
What is emerging now for congregations and Christian communities is an evolution that does not see the local congregation as the end of the relational pipeline of denominations but sees the congregation as a spiritual platform.
In the book, “Platform Revolution: How Networked Markets Are Transforming the Economy — And How to Make Them Work for You” Geoffrey Parker, Marshall Van Alstyne, and Sangeet Paul Choudary make the case that companies like Netflix, Uber, Google, and Airbnb have transformed the landscape of how people relate with media, transportation, and information. These companies often do not own their own content or products but serve as a platform between providers and consumers. The authors argue, “Platforms beat pipelines because platforms scale more efficiently by eliminating gatekeepers. Until recently, most businesses were built around products, which were designed and made at one end of the pipeline and delivered to consumers at the other end. Today, plenty of pipeline-based businesses still exist—but when platform-based businesses enter the same marketplace, the platforms virtually always win.”[i]
While many will be quick to point out that Christians and inquirers into Christianity are more than religious consumers, this is a powerful model for congregations to consider: Congregations can see themselves as a platform, rather than a pipeline, of ministry. The early church in Acts 2 served as a platform for the community to gather, meet needs, grow spiritually, and to provide for the common good. Likewise, churches can see their building, people, and property as a platform and can serve as a meeting place for single moms, a place to gather for the local pickleball club, and for job seekers to find employment at job fairs. Churches do not have to create the pipeline for the structure and planning for these groups to meet. Congregations can partner with existing local organizations that are already involved in the facilitation of these groups.
My own church, DeWitt Community Church in DeWitt, NY, partners with non-profits like Sleep in Heavenly Peace, which provides beds for families without bed frames and beds. In the past, our congregation partnered with YMCA to provide affordable childcare for the community in our building and worked with Meals on Wheels to deliver dinners to homebound seniors. If we attempted to do this outreach on our own, from conception to execution, there would be considerable challenges involving logistics, resources, and cost. As a platform, our congregation works with existing organizations to align resources with needs.
In the past, churches would form committees that needed approval from the church leadership to address tangible needs. Inevitably, the question of, “How are we going to pay for it?” comes up and usually, such missional serving opportunities never see the light of day because of fears of a scarcity of resources.
In the 21st century, and in the world that is emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic, churches that see their congregation as a platform for good in the community will thrive and connect with more people than churches that see their congregation as a pipeline of ministry. Pastors and church leaders who can see their congregation, building, assets, people, and resources as a platform are ready to evolve to our rapidly changing world. People already use platforms, from Uber to Airbnb, in their everyday lives. Why not apply similar approaches of connecting with the community to congregations?