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5 Things Netflix Is Showing Church Leaders About the Future

Netflix and other on-demand video providers, have already changed the culture more than you think.

And they’ve probably changed you more than you think.

Remember the good old days, back in say, 2007,  when people would gather around a set together to watch a TV show live when it was first broadcast?

Barely, right?

Whenever culture shifts, church leaders should pay attention.

Prudent leaders are taking notes now, because while the change will come later in the church (it always does), change is inevitable and it will be unkind to the unprepared.

5 Things Netflix Is Showing Church Leaders About the Future

So what can we learn from this? Plenty.

While it’s hard to say exactly how things will play out, the shifts are significant enough that you can begin to craft a strategy now. All of which serves the larger purpose of reaching your community with the message of Christ.

Respond, and you won’t be left wondering what happened.

Ignore the change, and you’ll be like an encyclopedia salesperson wondering why no one wants to answer the door anymore.

Church leaders who see the future can seize the future.

So, here are 5 things ways the changes Netflix (and the like) have brought about will impact the future church:

 

1. Live, simultaneous viewing is waning

About the only thing many people watch live now is sports, particularly if you monitor the viewing habits of people under 40.

Even regular shows people track with are often DVR’d so people can skip through commercials. Personally, even though I’m over 40, I rarely watch network television, but when I do, I’ll record a show and start watching it 15-20 minutes late so I can skip through the commercials.

A few implications for church leaders:

1. Will once on Sunday seem strange? People are increasingly used to listening to your content on their schedule. If your main draw on Sunday morning is the message, offering it only once live on Sunday will not resonate as much in the future as it has in the past.  While this might not mean adding more services (extra services with 12 people each attending is not compelling), it does force you to reconsider what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.

2. Relationships and mission will be more powerful than singing and speakingThe gathering of the church at its best has always been about more than just a service or even a message on Sunday. The church is community on a common mission in which relationships with insiders and outsiders are central.

Churches that elevate relationship—both for new attenders and regular attenders—will see far more effectiveness in the future than churches that don’t.

In fact, you might even see more people drawn to your services not just for the services, but for the relationships and for a chance to make a difference working together on a common mission that makes a difference.

If all you do is sing and speak on a Sunday, it will become harder and harder to gather a crowd.

If you want to read more about the importance of relationships on Sunday and how to respond to declining attendance, this post on 7 Ways To Respond As People Who Attend Church Attend Less Often can help.

 

2. Watching is becoming personal, individual and portable

Like you, I now consume content on multiple devices. I can watch TV, movies and Netflix on my phone, iPad, laptop, desktop or TV.

And, like you, I simply pick up where I left off. Stop a show at 33:23 on one device and pick up at 33:24 on another, whenever you want. Start at the gym, finish in the car or on the back deck.

Recently Netflix began to allow subscribers to create individual users on a common account so your kids or spouse can watch what they’re watching and you can watch what you’re watching without messing up each other’s feed. As a result, various members of a household may be watching the same series, but will be at different places in a series.

The implication for church leaders is that one more shift from the communal to the individual is happening.

So what on earth does that mean?

Great question, because it tears at the fabric of what the church is about—a community.

Some thoughts:

1. It’s an opportunity for people to access your content the same way. Like many churches, a few years ago we created an app for Connexus that allows people to stream messages whenever and wherever they want across devices. Our content is available on our website as well, in addition to via podcast. Accessing your messages will become more personal, individual and portable. Embrace it.

I realize that this sometimes mean people will watch online rather than attend, but it’s also a great way to spread the message more quickly than otherwise. People who love what you do will share it with their friends and talk about it on social media.

2. Still call people to something greater. As people’s experience of content consumption on an individual level becomes more prevalent, the need for community still won’t go away.

We’re more connected than ever as a culture, and many people are more lonely than ever.

As much as people want individualized access to content, they also want to be part of something bigger than themselves. Mission-driven, mission-focused and relationally rich churches will call draw in people longing for something bigger and more significant than themselves.

Churches can call people to something far greater than themselves. So do it!

 

3. There’s a market for binge watching

Binge watching is increasingly normal. Although it may have started back in the 80s or 90s when people lined up VCR tapes or DVDs and watched them in a marathon session, now it’s just far too easy to press ‘play’ from your couch without ever getting up.

Since Netflix streams entire series commercial free, you can easily power through several seasons of Suits, Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones or House of Cards in a day or even a week.

New seasons of series are now being released all at once rather than episode by episode (week after week) as in the past, again resulting in binge watching for many viewers.

The implications for church leaders are actually quite good on this one.

People will consume really great content in marathons, including yours. Your audio podcast could become a place where people go through entire series in short spans of time on their commute or while working out. Your video podcast could become the subject of binge viewing. Ditto with your website. Some churches like North Point are even building microsites around each series, like this one.

Bottom line? Make sure your content is accessible in the easiest forms possible for people to access.

 

4. Great stories are alive and valued

It’s fairly widely accepted that the best content being produced these days is not coming from Hollywood or even network TV, but from specialty channels like AMC, Comedy Central, USA network and Netflix itself.

Shows like Madmen, Breaking Bad and others win the ratings wars because of their rich plot lines, complex characters and willingness to take a viewer seriously. They don’t dumb down.

Many critics believe TV has become what movies used to be: a forum in which great stories are told.

The church, as I think most readers of this blog might agree, sits on the very best message on the planet.

The implication: tell the story….well.

The Gospel has always been about God’s story intersecting with the human story. The church is uniquely positioned to tell the best story of all.

So do it, well.

Clearly people are looking for a better story. Church leaders need to bring it to them.

 

5. People will pay for something they don’t use, until one day, they won’t

I realize I pay almost $100 a month for something I almost never use—network TV. I rarely watch it anymore.

I hold out and pay the monthly bill because I might watch the World Series or the Superbowl. I don’t like the illegal options (I don’t do illegal downloads) and watching live sports in Canada legally without subscription TV is more difficult than in the US.

But seriously…$1200 a year in case I might watch something? I could almost fly to the World Series for that.

For the first time in the US, traditional television subscriptions declined year over year as people cut the cord.

This is only going to accelerate.

If your entire church model is built on people coming together at set times to ‘consume’ content, how long will it be until people eventually wake up and realize they are paying for something they rarely ‘use’?

This is a bit of hyperbole, of course, when it comes to the church. Because the church is SO much more than a common gathering around content. Except that sometimes it’s not. It should be, but it’s not.

If you are simply try to attract people to a one hour event that people increasingly don’t attend, you will always struggle financially. People will support something they don’t attend until one day, they won’t.

The good news? Mission-centered, mission-focused churches will not be impacted by this. A church that has a white-hot sense of mission will almost always have the resources it needs to do what the church is called to do. But churches who want to prop up what used to sort-of-work, won’t.

So focus on your mission. Focus on your purpose.

Call people to something greater than themselves.

Personally, I’m fascinated by these cultural shifts and would love to hear your take on what you see happening and how you are responding or think the church should respond.

And if you want more on cultural shifts, my friend Rich Birch of Unseminary.com has a great post on 8 demographic shifts happening in the US that also have huge implications for church leaders.

Also, if you’re leading change and worried about backlash to changes, I wrote this short book to help you and your team navigate the opposition you’ll face. (You can get the Kindle version here, or hard copies for your team here.)

So what do you think?

Leave a comment!

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  • Ron Powell

    Hi Carey love your blog!
    Maybe someone already commented about live theatre, live concerts and opening day at the movies. Futurists imagined that theaters were dead when everyone was going to blockbuster. Now block buster is dead but opening days are beating all previous records. Disney is turning their stories into Broadway hits. Using similar logic, I wonder that if church is an excellent experience, involving all of the senses, artistry, story, and community, that it will continue to draw crowds. Streaming it, binge watching it, sharing it will help us to relive and enhance the experience. Maybe it will be something like going to the live show in person and then downloading the live concert from itunes… just wondering …

    • Love the way your mind works! Some great points Ron. And thanks!

    • Stanley Ziegler

      Ron, I agree with you. Sometimes a Church will take that ‘live’ experience and have it separate from the Sunday morning worship, instead of part or in place of the worship. Imagine Sunday worship based upon going door-to-door and inviting people to a potluck hosted by the Church while some stay and prepare the meal.
      Sunday morning sermons need to be like sports, alive and unpredictable. The sermon rut of opening hymn, call to worship…closing hymn needs to change. Imagine a sermon where the pastor walks down the aisles and asks the people to witness or describe their relationship with Christ, all unprepared. You could vary the ages of people asked from the elders to those in elementary school. Just my thoughts.

  • greg walker

    This was fascinating, and got me to thinking (more). I’ve really been wrestling with the question, “what would church look like in our culture today if we weren’t saddled with the last 200 years of tradition?” (Don’t flame me; I love tradition, but it feels that we’ve let tradition become the mission in too many ways).

    Anyway, I’ve been devouring your new and old blog posts since I discovered this site a few weeks ago, and had a few thoughts to throw out for consideration–I’d like to hear what others think, as I am exploring alternative ministry models. This blog article, along with a study I read a few years back got me thinking. The study described some schools (possibly in Canada?) that were flipping the traditional model: Students were assigned to watch video teachings at home at night. The next day’s class time was devoted to doing exercises to practice the learning (traditional “homework”) along with discussion of the topic already taught, and interaction with the teacher to get individual help. Watching the teaching on video allowed each student to focus on their own learning needs, rewinding to hear something again, clicking through to additional content on difficult subjects, etc.

    So, here’s my concept:

    -What about providing teaching (traditional sermon material) as online content that people could consume at their own time throughout the week?

    -Offer a discussion forum where people could ask questions (publicly or privately), engage in conversation, get clarification, etc.

    -Weekly (Sunday morning?) gatherings would focus on connection, relationship, and mission (serving, discipling, evangelism, worship, etc).

    • It’s going to take a lot of experimentation to figure out what’s next. Thanks Greg!

    • Hey Greg, I’ve been thinking in the same direction you’re describing here. Would you be open to a chat? scottmagdalein@gmail.com

    • MRM

      This concept you are talking about is being done to an extent, by RightNow Media. While the teachings are not “Live” they do offer what is dubbed “The Netflix of Bible Studies”. Like you, I wonder how to harness that concept into a Live worship/teaching experience.

      • greg walker

        I wasn’t particularly thinking of being able to offer teachings “live”, although Scott Magdalein was heading in that direction when he and I discussed.
        What RightNow Media is offering could be good to integrate into my proposal, much as a church would bring in a guest speaker, etc, but what I was envisioning was more like the teaching pastor creating his own custom content (what would normally be the “Sunday Sermon”), and uploading it for church members’ consumption according to their individual schedule. Then at the weekly gathering, everyone joins in for a discussion of the sermon (possibly in table groups of 6-8, either established groups, or ad hoc ones that form each week, with dedicated, trained discussion leaders in each group).

        • Eagle36

          Hey Greg, I just came across your comments here and I have been thinking about the very same thing in regards to “flipping” what is done on Sunday and what is done throughout the week. Right now the teaching is on Sunday and small groups happen some other time. But it is increasingly hard to get people to gather together during the week because their lives are so busy. So why not encourage them to watch the teaching whenever they want to during the week and then Sunday would just focus on gathering together to discuss the content in small groups possibly with a meal and around tables, or maybe even in homes. You could have an option for children to go to or you could make it a family gathering time. I am working on starting something along these lines especially to reach people who don’t go to church on a regular basis or have never gone to church. Have you tried anything with this idea yet?

          • greg walker

            Unfortunately I have not. I don’t have a good situation right now to do so. I would love to he’s more about what you do and how it works.

            My initial effort will be focused on creating the online teaching and possibly setting up a discussion board. I hope to be able to plant a church in the next year where I want to explore transforming the Sunday meeting format.

          • Eagle36

            I am just in the initial stages of trying to launch a new idea so I don’t have any experiences to talk about yet. I found it interesting that there were people thinking about some of the very same things I have been thinking about. I would like to stay in contact with you and talk about this. You can send me an email at fieldsoffaithnetwork@gmail.com and then we can talk about ideas.

  • Wow incredible article. I am archiving this one to come back to. Thank you for sharing, very encouraging and challenging to compare our direction and functionality. God bless

  • It is refreshing to find ministry leaders that pay attention to the impact that media has on culture. Even more exciting to know that there are those who look beyond the face value of entertainment and find ways to utilize media to further the work of the Great Commission. As a media producer who has worked for government and secular industries, I am building an online Christian network and putting video, graphics and other mediums to work for the very reasons that you explain here.

    Every ministry/pastor has a distinct call; some to local missions others to global. But without question, those that have an ear to hear should pay attention. Responding to the ways in which this generation chooses to communicate is key if our ultimate goal is to reach them with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Thanks for sharing.

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  • Daniel Epler

    A lot of truth here! It’s funny, i very often binge watch sermons on youtube. I just never thought about it like that!

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  • Stefan Schiavone

    Some interesting thoughts here, the question I have is how much of a correlary should we draw between people’s attitude toward church, and their entertainment consumption habits? Furthermore, should we accommodate these changes or seek to challenge them?

    • Carey Nieuwhof

      Stefan…great question. I know we do both. We cater to them, and challenge them. We capture people’s attention by often talking about things they want to hear, but then we deliver what they need to hear. People are grateful for both in my experience. If you only focus on what you want, and not how people naturally respond to you or your organization, you can soon be talking to the just the choir.

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  • Joel

    “If you don’t teach your church to worship; you will be responsible for entertaining them.” – @pastorbrady (Brady Boyd)

    • Thanks for that quote. I think that’s true. I think that the central term that resonates most for me is mission. We’re on a mission together. People on a mission together can change the world.

      • Joel

        Church or the fellowship of believers is a not a commercial entity. There’s no comparison of “body of Christ” to Netflix. If a church is biblically grounded, there’s no reason to fear of changing trends or “consumer” behavior. Romans 12:2 Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind…

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  • Diane

    yes, yes yes. I’m launching a new mission project (nutritional education programs at our local community shelter and food bank), and I have a small group of friends joining me in this work. It’s like we’ve suddenly formed a small group ministry. The energy and excitement around this is palpable. This is what church should feel like. Another church (in another city) I belonged to years ago had a yearly Artist and Writer’s retreat, which had way more sense of community than I ever felt in the larger congregation. So maybe our “coming together in person, in community” becomes more like a twice yearly retreat like a return to camp. Maybe that’s why many of the people who attend the Unitarian summer camp don’t also belong to a congregation. We get our “in person community quota” in binges, too.

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  • Great post Carey! The structural changes that go along with declining attendance feel especially hard to take. You have wrapped these kinds of concerns in some excellent perspective. The angst we go through when we have to choose a NetFlix movie………the struggle with choices, (so many movies to choose from before we settle on one) that’s got to be affecting our faith communities too.

    • The structural changes are huge. For sure. And yes, the paralysis of choice can be overwhelming. That’s an opportunity for curated content.

  • hoggie

    Netflix has nothing to do with #4. Has always stood the test of time.

    • For sure…great stories have been timeless. Netflix has helped them find new audiences. 🙂

  • Love this. Really insightful with a lot of practical application for not just church leaders but ALL leaders.

    • Thanks Daniel. And thanks for ALL you do for leaders.

  • These shifts ought to be obvious because, well, they apply to me and my media consumption too. No doubt this has implications for church, but can we equate the *experience* of worship with the consumption of *content.*

    • We all see ourselves in this. Had an unrelated conversation today after church today when a guy told me he was binge watching a series we both loved.

  • This is such an insightful post Carey. The causality behind the changing way we consume media is another significant factor too. Not only is this on demand media available and easier to access but more importantly in the West, the way we are living our lives is rapidly changing. Shift work 7 days a week is changing our weekly living patterns, people are more mobile and shift cities or even countries at a ever increasing rate. Thus, the way people experience church for a variety of reasons including those above is changing. Our challenge is to:
    1) Find those people and also help them find us.
    2) Interact with those people – not just broadcast at them.
    3) Lead them into something greater than just viewing/attending.

    • Steve…nice to connect on the blog. 🙂 Three excellent points and you and the team at Crossway are making some great strides on being the church online. Way to go. Hope you’re well!

  • Jamie Schulz

    Great post! I overheard my 8 year old son saying, “They only have one of those old TVs at the hotel. You know, the kind where you have to watch what they tell you.” Our kids are growing up in a highly interactive, tailored to their preferences media world. It is important to consider as we make decisions about how we do church, especially for the next generation. Thanks for this post! I am going to be referencing back to it for future conversations.

    • Jamie…that’s really fascinating. Funny how he’s already characterized traditional TV as old and beyond our control. I have the same feeling. It just feels…dated now. Funny how things change.

  • micahfoster

    You’ve done it again. We’re going to discuss this at our next staff meeting. Thanks for helping us keep an eye on what current trends may mean for the future.

    • Thanks Micah! Glad it helped! Hope you’re well at Two Cities!

  • Charles Hodsdon

    I was skeptical when I read the title, but I love this post. Since stepping out of paid ministry last year, I haven’t found a new church that I really track with. After reading this post, I realize I’ve been in a “netflix” like pattern. Instead of a weekly sermon, I’ve been “binge reading” books, or blogs. Instead of going out to eat and discussing the sermon I just heard, I’ll go out to coffee with a friend who has “binge read” the same book. While we are looking for a church I want my kids to have something consistent, so we watch the videos on the Orange Parent Cue App. I’m consuming “church” in very much the same way I do netflix.

    • Fascinating Charles. Thanks! Hey I hope your recovery continues and that you find your way back into a healthy, thriving local ministry. Cheering for you Charles. I remember your story.

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  • Ben Bartosik

    Great post, love #4.
    TV is evolving and has definitely become the best storytelling mechanism we have in our culture, which has been lacking an emphasis on stories (likely a product of Modernity’s emphasis on imperial truth). It’s a return to GREAT storytelling as a way of looking at our lives.

    There are huge implications here as Western churches move into post modernity (late to the party though we are) and increasingly interact w story based cultures.

    Have you done anything that really embodies this idea at Connexus?

    • Thanks Ben! As far as story telling goes, we always remind ourselves “tell more stories.” By default, I talk in principles (just read my blog posts) and I constantly remind myself to tell stories in my messages.

      Additionally our crew does a great job capturing baptism stories.

      We would also like to free up the bandwidth to tell more stories via video. Next week I am going to shoot a building update, but rather than me just talking bricks and mortar, I’m planning on doing an interview with a guy who recently came to faith while standing in the construction site. I want the building to be more about the why than the what, even though the what is interesting. So those are a few things we’re doing.

  • Awesome overview, very helpful. Thanks a lot. Even though in my country we do not have Netflix, the pattern is just about the same.

    • Isn’t that interesting Lukas? Funny how human behaviour changes even when certain formats aren’t available everywhere. Where are you from?

      • Yes, it is really interesting. I can’t even remember what I did before smartphone and iPad 🙂 People are used to stream now everything whenever they want or download it and watch it in binge – just as you said. Anyway, I am from the Czech Republic, where I lead a church in Hradec Kralove. In May I was at Pastor’s lunch during Orange where you lead the conversation with Jeff and Perry.

        • Lukas…so cool. Thanks for making the trip across the pond for Orange. The lunch with Jeff and Perry was so fun!