Digital
Discipleship

The Ultimate Church Guide to Strategically Planning for Growth


What is digital discipleship?

Discipleship is the process of learning more about God and starting to live in a way that’s consistent with what we believe about him. As pastors and church leaders, our job is to help lead people through this process and to make disciples who can continue this discipleship work with others in their community. After all, we’re all called to make disciples.

Digital discipleship is using technology and automation to help nurture people through this discipleship process. When done well, it can provide easy ways to access rich content from anywhere, simple prompts and online community to keep the conversations going, and intentional growth roadmaps that lead to deeper and more meaningful understanding and love for God and neighbor. And the most beautiful thing about it is once the technology is set up, anyone in your church can use it to nurture someone through their own discipleship journey.

What makes digital discipleship different from ‘regular’ discipleship?

Historically, discipleship has been one-to-one or one-to-few. However, one of the benefits of technology is that it allows for discipleship “at scale.” By creating a discipleship journey anyone can work their way through remotely with a group or guide, digital discipleship breaks down both geographical barriers and management obstacles that may have existed and/or were limited in the past.

How does digital discipleship work?

Digital discipleship works by creating a progressive funnel of interactions (events, emails, content, discussion questions, message and video chats, online courses, and more) that take people who are new to the faith (or your church) through a series of step-by-step activities that can help lead them to greater intimacy with the Word until they are ready to disciple others in the same way.

However, digital discipleship isn’t just a machine. It requires real people doing real discipleship work. But this work can be aided by automation, prompts, digital content, and more. In fact, these automations can help keep everyone aligned and on track.

The key to digital discipleship is having a clearly-defined strategy. We’ll outline one strategy you can use below. It’s built around the idea of gradually nurturing people through six stages that will help them learn more about God and apply what they’re learning to their lives.

It's important to note digital discipleship isn’t something you just “turn on” and leave. Rather, it’s a system designed to prompt and nurture everyday conversations about and interactions with Scripture.


Why should churches have a digital discipleship strategy?

Discipleship is impossible without Christian community—that’s one of the reasons the Church exists. Churches around the world fulfill Jesus’ call to discipleship in different ways, and we have a lot to learn from each other. But with the prevalence of technology (not to mention a supercomputer in every pocket), your church will have new discipleship opportunities online. You’ll miss out on those opportunities and countless others if you don’t have a digital discipleship strategy.

And as COVID-19 has shown us, it’s always good to have additional ways to stay connected with people even when we can’t be together in person. In some ways, this experience has opened our eyes to the isolated world that the sick and shut-ins live every single day. Many churches admit they’ve done a poor job of helping these people stay in close communication and fellowship with their community. And we are learning now how to be better at this.

Here are four ways a digital discipleship strategy helps churches fulfill their mission and reach more people for Christ.

  • The Church is commanded to make disciples

    Throughout the Gospels, Jesus tells of his mission in the world—and he invites men, women, and children into his mission. We see it clearly in the Great Commission (Matt 28:18–20), but we also see it throughout his public ministry. He speaks in analogies, but his calling is clear: “I will send you out to fish for people” (Mark 1:17 NIV), he says, and then commissions his disciples to labor in the harvest (Matt 9:37–38).

    The early Church learned what Jesus meant when he prophesied they would be his “witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Indeed, through their work, the gospel of Christ spread throughout the world.

    And Paul, who was discipled by Ananias, sought to build up the body of Christ “until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:12–13 NIV). Meaning, of course, that discipleship doesn’t end when someone becomes a Christian—it’s an early step at the beginning of a corporate, lifelong journey.

  • The people are on digital devices

    The numbers don’t lie—people are relying on smartphones and other digital technologies more and more.

    According to a 2019 Pew Research survey, in the United States,

    • 96% of adults own a cell phone, and of those, 81% are smartphones
    • Nearly 75% of adults have a computer
    • Around 50% of adults have a tablet or e-reader

    It’s not just the United States, either: another study estimates that 5 billion people have mobile devices. The study also shows that “a median of 76% (of people) across 18 advanced economies surveyed have smartphones, compared with a median of only 45% in emerging countries.”

    And what are people doing on their phones? Things like:

    • Consuming entertainment like streaming video, music, and games
    • Connecting with others via social media and messaging apps
    • Searching for answers to questions
    • Shopping and managing finances
    • And more

    Creating a digital discipleship strategy for your church might feel radical, but to your members, it shouldn't seem revolutionary because of how it so naturally fits what people are already doing on their phones.

  • To make disciples, you have to go where the people are

    Mobile technology is the new Roman road or movable-type printing press. Most people don’t leave the house without their cell phones. And for many, their smartphone is the first thing they look at in the morning and the last thing they look at before they go to sleep. Mobile is a great disruptor—meaning, it has fundamentally changed people’s behavior
    Think about it. It’s changed how we communicate, how we bank, how we store and listen to music and books, how we stand in lines, and more. We’d be fools to not use this tool to amplify the gospel message and disciple our communities. The fields are white for harvest (John 4:35).

  • Digital is not the enemy but an opportunity for churches to bring timeless truth to today’s context

    While technology may seem scary to some, it’s not the enemy. It can definitely be abused, and we’ve seen many examples of that in recent years. But it can also be wielded for good.

    Our challenge to churches everywhere is to seize the opportunity to reach people in the places where they spend the most time. Break through the noise of the world and give them wholesome and edifying content to spend their time and energy on.

    This is as good a moment as any for churches to embrace technology to amplify the gospel and reach many with the good news of Jesus.

If your church fell off the map tomorrow, would anyone notice?

How to make an impact

Who should be involved in my church’s digital discipleship strategy?

Don’t let the lack of a certain role or team member stop you from getting started. Start with what you have and move forward from there. Here are a few great roles or teams to involve:


How do I build a digital discipleship strategy?

Start with prayer

As with any plans you make, start by asking for God’s wisdom. He promises to give it (James 1:5), and you’ll need it as you think through how to steward your time and money to make disciples in your church and community.

Identify your team

To build a digital discipleship strategy that lasts, you’ll need some key people involved. It’s important to bring others into your planning, because you’ll need their support when it comes time to roll it out.

Depending on the size of your church and its leadership, you may want to start small (3–5) and gradually grow the team as your plans come together.

Tip: make sure the people on your team have a range of gifts. Enlist team members who are gifted in setting and communicating vision, discipling people, using technology, and even managing projects. Each person will bring a different set of gifts to the table, but by bringing in a diversity of gifts, you’ll likely achieve a better result.

Know your people (as they are)

One of the greatest pitfalls church leaders can run into is planning for the church they want instead of the church they have.

For example, say you want to see more young families in your church (and that’s a good thing!). If you build all your discipleship programs for young families, you will miss out on discipleship opportunities with members and attendees who don’t fit that description.

“If you build it, they will come” may be a good strategy for a fictional baseball field, but it leads to ineffective ministry at an established church.

One of the best ways to know your people is by running an anonymous survey. You can ask questions about each person’s demographic and faith, such as age range, marital status, and spiritual struggles and goals.

Then, when you have those survey results, you can use those to build personas for your church, which helps you create discipleship strategies to reach people in those personas. (A persona is simply an ideal representation of a type of person.) Your personas could cover life stages, like empty nesters or college students, or even professions or interests like warehouse workers or budding theologians. Whatever you choose, you’ll want to make sure your church is adequately represented.

Know your community

God has put you in a particular place at a particular time among a particular group of people to meet particular needs.

Does that sound like a lot of “particulars”? It is—but having this mindset prepares you for more impactful ministry in the place where God put you.

In the same way that you need to know the people who make their home at your church, you need to know the community you exist within. That means knowing some important facts about your city or region, such as:
  • Demographics: age, employment, education, financial info, family details, etc.
  • Largest employers
  • Common struggles (such as addiction or dropout rates)

A good place to start is by looking at your city or county’s census data (you can check your city or county’s website to find related info). Another way to learn about your community is through building relationships with people in your city or county government. They will be able to tell you even more than the data can about your community. Even better, when someone in your community has a need, people in your local government know they can call on your church to help.

Identify what’s working

Whether or not you currently have a formal discipleship program, your church is active in discipleship. Maybe discipleship primarily happens in small groups or DNA groups, or maybe you empower ministry leaders for discipleship in their individual ministries.

Every church’s discipleship structures are different, and that’s not a bad thing. But before you can make a plan to grow, you have to know what’s working—and where your church has room for improvement.

While you could make some educated guesses about how discipleship is going, we recommend asking a handful of people the same questions and listening to their responses. Make sure you’re asking a broad cross-section of people: staff members, small group leaders, regular attendees who haven’t joined yet, and people who are relatively new. Here are a few questions you can ask:

  • What do you think discipleship means? (Everyone will have a different definition, so you’ll likely need to do some teaching later about what discipleship is and isn’t.)
  • Have you ever been discipled?
  • Who are some people who have discipled you, or that you’ve wanted to be discipled by? (Exclude well-known pastors or church leaders—keep this answer local to the other person’s life.)
  • Where do you feel hung up spiritually that you need discipleship help?
  • Have you ever discipled anyone?
  • Do you feel qualified to disciple another person?

Establish milestones

Activating your digital discipleship strategy shouldn’t be like turning on a fire hose. You’ll need time to enlist and train the right people before you roll out your plan, and you’ll need a few easy wins along the way so your congregation finds it easy to jump in (and bring unchurched friends along for the ride).

A few milestones you might want to consider:

  • Enlist key discipleship leaders
  • Train small group leaders and ministry leaders
  • Establish online on-ramps, like moving small group communication online
  • Set up some repeatable discipleship opportunities, like membership class follow-up

Measure success

Measuring a work of the Spirit is like measuring air—it’s practically impossible. This is by design: “to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor 4:7). You will always be reliant on God for success, no matter what form it comes in.

That said, there are a few tangible and intangible ways to see how your digital discipleship strategy is working.

Tangibles:

  • % of members attending regularly
  • % involvement in small groups
  • % serving in your church or church-related ministries
  • % giving regularly
  • % in training or leadership groups
  • % evangelizing or inviting others to church

Intangibles:

  • Maturity/growth in godliness
  • Deeper love for God, church, community, and the world
  • Biblical literacy

No matter what, remember this: true success is found in being faithful to the work and the people God has given you. Numbers have great value when it comes to revealing how effective your discipleship strategy is, but it’s not the main thing.

Common objections

As with any “new” thing, there are stages of adoption. When it comes to church technology that would be used to build a digital discipleship platform, there are “early adopters” and the “early majority” who have been doing digital discipleship now for many months or years now. But there’s also the “late majority” and “laggards” who tend to wait and watch for various reasons.



Below are some common objections from the latter two groups who may be reticent to jump into a digital discipleship strategy just yet.

  • We don’t grow the Church. Jesus does!

    The Bible makes it clear that Christians are called to disciple the nations (Matt 28:19). Just as church leaders need to steward their finances well, they also need to steward all of what’s available to grow their discipleship efforts. Today, that looks like using all the digital tools available to reach people where they are—while still trusting Jesus to bring the results.

  • We’re a traditional church. Why should we care about digital?

    Digital allows traditional churches to expand the reach of their message to the broader local community and the world. Technology doesn’t have to be about abandoning the historic faith, traditional worship styles, or liturgical practice (as some may be fearfully inclined to think). Rather, technology can enhance the work the church is already doing by simply engaging people throughout the week with conversation, prayer requests, book studies, small groups, and more.

    Much like Martin Luther took advantage of the movable-type printing press to spread the gospel at the time of the Reformation, churches today have an opportunity to use digital—and especially mobile—to reach the nations with the good news of Jesus.

  • The Bible doesn’t say anything about technology. I’m suspicious of anything that adds to Scripture.

    In Scripture, God has given us “a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps 119:105). Praise God for that! At the same time, the Bible doesn’t directly answer all of today’s pressing questions, such as how should we use technology or how ministry is different today. After all, the New Testament was written in the first century—to first-century believers. Following the model of Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:19–23, your church’s methods ought to adapt to fit its context. This isn’t new, either—remember the ways the Church throughout history has used advancements in technology to spread the gospel. The printing press, the radio, and even microphones are examples of that. The gospel message is unchanging, but the methods will always adapt.

  • I don’t want my church’s discipleship to stop if/when technology fails us.

    This is a legitimate concern, and that’s why your technology provider is so important. When choosing a church tech provider, find a company you trust that is known for its uptime, reliability, and security. That said, all of life has interruptions and delays, and no program will ever be perfect or 100% reliable, whether in person or online.

    It’s also important to remember that technology is a tool. It’s not meant to be turned on and left. Rather, it’s meant to be actively used to engage your community day in and day out. So, you’ll need to regularly check that your programs are doing what you want them to do and are making the impact you anticipated. And you’ll need to optimize those programs from time to time to keep them fresh and current.

  • My church already has a Facebook page or YouTube channel. Isn’t that enough?

    Facebook and YouTube both have their place, but they’re not optimal tools for discipleship. For example, nobody likes writing their prayer requests in a public Facebook chat window for the broader world to see. And who wants an inappropriate ad showing up right next to or after your live stream on Sunday morning?

    Sure, either of these platforms and others can be used in a pinch and when budget demands it, but if you want to build a discipleship flywheel that solves some of these issues above and that you won’t have to piece together with multiple tools, it’s best to find one fully integrated platform where you can do everything.

    This will make things easier both on you and your congregation by requiring only one login and one password. And when all your technology is fully integrated, pushing files from one place to another (say from your live stream to your website, or from your announcements to your newsletter) is a snap.

  • There’s so much garbage online. I don’t want to lead my church to get sucked into it.

    That’s true—there are a lot of temptations online. (Spoiler alert: there are lots of offline temptations, too.) Instead of writing off all online means as “garbage,” you have a chance to disciple your congregation toward wisdom. Rather than saying something like, “All social media is bad,” you can teach people how to use social media for good: by encouraging edifying relationships, inviting people to church, and even sharing truth from Scripture. Similarly, you can encourage your congregation to be intentional about their TV-watching habits or even how they read the news.

    Ultimately, it’s an opportunity for spiritual formation: disciple your people to use technology wisely. Technology isn’t going away, so your efforts now have the potential to reap untold benefits for generations.

  • Technology intimidates me. I don’t think I’ve got the chops to build my ministry around it.

    That’s fair. Technology can be tricky. That said, the best technology companies are working to make technology so intuitive that it just works. And that’s the kind of technology you should be looking for when it comes to your discipleship strategy.

    Many church technology companies also have CSMs (customer success managers) whose main job is to ensure you are successful as their customer. Most CSMs are able to help the tech-challenged along this journey, as it isn’t easy making the transition.

    Here’s how Faithlife works with the tech-challenged in our customer base to make sure they experience success with our platform.

  • Technology is too expensive. We should be using our money wisely.

    Technology can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. There’s lots of free software available that you can try, but the best way to save is by bundling your tech into one subscription. An added benefit of bundling all your technology together is that it helps you spend your time wisely, too—bundled tech is integrated tech, which saves all your work and keeps you from doing double entry.

    And when you think about the cost of printed resources (bulletins, pew Bibles, and signage, to name a few), technology and the accompanying gear is usually a flat annual or one-time cost instead of a moving target that increases with the price of paper.

Want to learn more about Faithlife’s integrated ministry platform? Schedule a custom demo with one of our account executives today.

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What are the stages of a digital discipleship flywheel?

The image of a flywheel is used here to indicate the kind of momentum that can happen when you align your entire church around building disciples. It’s cyclical because it builds on itself. As you grow more disciples, they will, in turn make more disciples.

But discipleship is a process, and that’s why we’ve broken it down into six stages churches can use to gradually nurture their community step by step through the discipleship journey or flywheel. We’ll talk briefly about each stage below.

Discover

The discovery phase is all about helping strangers find your church. This is often done through having a great website that’s optimized for SEO and is producing regular, fresh content for search engines through blogging and/or publishing sermons each week. But it’s also done through running advertisements, creating interesting events, and asking current members to share invites with their friends.

To support this stage, churches should consider having the sorts of events that can inspire people to walk through the door the first time—not necessarily on a Sunday morning. In other words, what kind of event could you throw for your community that would bring in a wide variety of people who can find out about your church for the first time and allow you to begin a relationship with them?

Attend

The attend phase is all about helping those who are now vaguely familiar with your church through a peripheral event or word of mouth to attend either an online or in-person worship service.

Great things to think about at this stage are creating a welcome team and having a welcome gift to give to visitors. But one critical thing many churches miss is finding a way to stay in touch with this visitor after they leave your service. That’s why we also recommend having a digital bulletin, a church app, and digital connect cards. Provide multiple ways for visitors to give you their contact information so you can stay in touch with them.

If you do end up getting an email address, try dropping these visitors into a short 3-part email series telling them more about your church. End that series with an invitation for the visitor to get coffee (or have a digital coffee) with one of your staff members.

Connect

The connect phase is all about getting attendees plugged into the life of the church.

After a visitor has attended for a couple weeks and/or has made it through your 3-part welcome email series, it’s a good idea to try to connect that person with a small group or midweek activity of some sort.

Some churches also see success with a “buddy system,” where visitors are paired up with host families who can help orient them to the church and introduce them to more people. Whatever programs your church has, consider this the phase to start integrating visitors into those programs.

Serve

The serve phase is all about getting your regular attendees to take a step further in the discipleship process by volunteering to serve. Consider having your attendees take a gifts assessment so you can come up with opportunities for volunteering that are a great fit.

It’s a great time to put a common cause in front of these individuals to inspire them to give their first donation. Service and giving are important spiritual disciplines and signs of deeper commitment and integration into the life of the church, but they should by no means be forced upon anyone who isn’t ready yet. Approach this phase with care, and make sure your attendees are stepping into these important disciplines with the right understanding and attitude.

At this stage, if attendees haven’t yet taken a new members class, it would be a good idea to ask them to sign up. This is also a great stage to share testimonials and stories about how Jesus has changed the lives of others in the church.

Grow

The grow phase is all about helping committed members of your community grow deeper in their knowledge of God and fellowship with one another. This is a great stage to introduce rich theology courses, apologetics, and evangelism classes, whether online or in person. It’s also the perfect time to invite members to a midweek Bible study that goes a bit more in depth than the standard small group. And it’s an incredible time to encourage your members to start investing in their own theological library.

During this stage, it’s likely those who are good candidates for leadership will begin to stand out. When you notice people who might have what it takes to be a leader in your church, find ways to nurture their growth and mentor them intentionally with that goal in mind.

Share

The final stage of the flywheel should be full of momentum and help to keep the flywheel moving. That’s why it’s appropriate to focus here upon sharing and advocacy. It’s critical in the disciple-making process that those being discipled eventually start to disciple others.

For those in this stage of their journey, it’s important to ensure you’ve not only equipped these individuals with outreach and apologetics training and ensured they’ve had practice having tough conversations about very serious issues but also provided an outlet for them to put these skills to good use. Consider launching an outreach or evangelism team. Create engaging, shareable content this group can give to those they’re evangelizing and discipling.

For those leaders you identified, consider creating a formal training course they can take before stepping into an official leadership role in your church.

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