By Erica Bray
In an amazingly funny episode of the television show "Portlandia," Ed Begley, Jr., plays a priest trying to convince wayward spiritualists that “Church is an option.” Instead of organized religion, he touts “disorganized religion.”
Instead of sermons, he leads vision boarding.
Instead of organ music, he plays rock music.
His church even offers free acupuncture sessions whenever you need it.
Doesn’t sound like your traditional church, does it? Well ... that’s the point. It’s comedy gold that parodies a legitimate issue for churches in the 21st century: remaining relevant and attractive to a modern society that, for the most part, associates “church” with being stuffy, dogmatic and old-fashioned.
In fact, a recent Pew Research Center study found that nearly 23 percent of American adults don’t associate with any organized religion, an increase of 6 percent during these past seven years. This has lit a fire under church leaders.
"Our main focus is to reach 'de-churched people,'" says Brennan LaMar, worship pastor at Bakersfield, Calif.-based Discovery Church. "These are people who maybe grew up in church, but they’re totally turned off or disenfranchised because it's so traditional and behind the times."
For forward-thinking churches looking to reach this population, old-fashioned approaches are giving way to new ones, with much of them pegged to digital technology. After all, active and prospective parishioners -- specifically, the younger demographic that will keep churches alive into this century and beyond -- are active online. They seek answers to life’s big questions in front of a computer or mobile device, not from a church pew.
To this point, a growing number of churches are beginning to distinguish themselves online in one relatively simple way: by choosing a 'dot-church' (.church) domain name. This extension is one of hundreds of new domain choices available. It's one that clearly defines what these organizations are -- a church -- while showcasing a digital savviness that's appealing to a next generation of churchgoers.
It's just one piece of a bigger digital opportunity that churches across the country are starting to embrace. Here's a snapshot of 'dot-church' congregations that are leveraging digital tools such as Facebook, apps and online sermons to stay relevant and accessible to 21st century audience.
Locations across the U.S.
With nearly 35,000 followers on Twitter, Bobby Gruenewald isn't your typical pastor. He even holds a second title that reinforces his digital savviness: Innovation Leader of Life.Church.
Life.Church is a community of 24 evangelical churches spread over seven states -- but reaches a global audience, thanks in large part to the online innovation of Gruenewald's team.
“There’s scripture that says ‘Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature,’” he says. “We’re just using today’s digital tools, and some of the tools of the ministry, as a way to build new relationships with people.”
In addition to recently switching the website to a 'dot-church' domain (which is simultaneously featured in the church's logo and name), Gruenewald oversees the Bible app YouVersion, which has been installed more than 200 million times, and helps to produce nearly round-the-clock online church services and podcasts that net more than 150,000 viewers a week from more than 100 countries around the globe.
Lighthouse Church www.Lighthouse.church
Glen Burnie, Maryland
Evan Connelly, systems administrator for Lighthouse Church, says its 'dot-church' domain name is a big part of their communication strategy because its "incredibly simply to remember and share." The church also invests in Google AdWords to help attract those searching online to its website, which has helped to gain them a new audience.
Communication doesn't begin and end with its website, however. An active social media strategy, regular text alerts and even a mobile app make this church a digitally savvy role model.
"We've found that many people will ask questions about our services via social media before attending," he says. "Our social media team does a fantastic job of promptly responding to posts and messages and gets them any information they request."
Foundry Church www.Foundry.church
"More and more, people are expecting the same level of sophistication and communication from churches that they get from their bank, work and businesses," says Judi Thomas, staff coordinator at Foundry Church.
The congregation's 'dot-church' website is the nucleus for accessing information that used to be reserved for paper bulletins. It also hosts online sermons for those who wish to participate digitally -- and on their own schedule.
The importance of the website inspired leaders to include the domain name in signage. "We want the people in our community to know that we are a modern church that has a relevant message for their lives," Thomas says.
The Mill Church www.TheMill.church
Adam Schnaare, worship director at The Mill Church, views his 'dot-church' domain as "the juxtaposition of internet speak and verbal communication" and says it's a valuable part of the organization's outreach. When the church was birthed six years ago, he opted to veer from old methods when it came to interacting with its members -- and this recent domain switch is just one example of staying current.
"One advantage [of being a relatively new church] is the freedom to design systems of communication around new and growing trends without having to hold on to expectations of an organization that has been around longer,"Schnaare says.
To better adapt to a culture that operates dynamically and on-the-go, The Mill Church also relies on the latest technology to help with its ongoing communication. "We use open source software to write middleware that posts this info to our Sunday slideshows, 'Welcome Center' ipads and weekly emails," he adds.
Discovery Church www.ILoveDiscovery.church
Discovery Church began with 30 members in 2013. It now boasts 500 attendees each Sunday, according to Pastor Brennan LaMar. He says it's growing thanks in large part to its modern approach in reaching members -- and prospective members -- who are disillusioned with "traditional" church ways.
Facebook has become a big tool in the church's digital arsenal. "We've really leveraged Facebook over the last two years," LaMar says. "We have more people say they saw a post on Facebook than any other medium." When people click over to the Discovery Church's website -- a 'dot-church' website that exudes a fresh and youthful vibe -- to learn more, LaMar hopes they find a church that is a refreshing departure from what's "traditional."
"We really want to reach people and want people who have the wrong idea about church to reconsider," he says. "Because we know once they come they'll be like, 'This is totally different than anything I’ve ever experienced.'"