How Online Learning Platforms Will Change Churches

Churches who adopt online learning platforms will increase their influence and impact while developing a future-proof discipleship framework.

Americans love choice: What food to order and what service to have it delivered to our doorstep, where to move and put down roots, what club team or sport should their children be involved in. We love choices, but the church does not often present choices for their congregations. There are certain ways that a church does business and there is no deviation. In essence, if you don’t like what we’re doing here, then maybe this isn’t the place for you. 

What if there was a third way forward; a way you could stay true to who you are and pivot to meet the growing needs of your community? Just like people don’t like driving more than twenty minutes away from their home to get what they need, they don’t like limited options for their church contexts. Let me give you an example: 

  • A church is holding an in-person Next Steps course for four weeks.
  • The course will help people take their next step in service. 
  • It will consume 4 hours of in person instruction, or 240 minutes.
  • The average attendee will have roughly 160 minutes of drive time. 
  • Assuming people like to talk to one another, add 30 minutes per session.
  • That means the total time load on a person is 520 minutes. 

Do you think the average person who is looking to move forward in their service at your church is interested in devoting 520 minutes or almost 9 hours of their time to finding out how to do something relatively simple in your church? When everything else in their life is near instant gratification, we need a culture shift within the church to meet the growing needs of our digital first audience.

Scroll down to keep reading this post, or read how Online Courses Create Healthy Churches.

Why are online learning platforms essential for church success? 

When done well (and that is important to say!) online learning platforms make everything easier for both the staff and their intended audience. An organized, easy to use online learning platform gives a church staff a unified “go-to” to point church members and visitors to engage original and curated content. Let’s be honest, many of us have been part of a church staff where there was a go-to person for the information or next steps. While that is a good personal touch, it is not systematic or automatic. Systematic steps are important as there should be a funnel with anticipated, sequential steps that get people where they want (or need) to go. And then automating it eases a staff member from having to use precious time to monitor the systematic steps progress. Where there is a regular need, there should be a page on the website that hosts compelling content that meets that need. 

Does this mean there is no place for a personal touch? Absolutely not. Personal touchpoints are what humanize our ministry in ways that no technology can. However, what we are saying is that we automate what can be automated, leaving personal touchpoints for what is most important in the process. Plus, we do not want to underestimate how digital content can still be personal. Think of some of your favorite podcasts or YouTube channels. Have you ever met the host? Probably not. And yet, there is still a connection you feel with them and that is one of the reasons why you subscribe! That is because giving value to someone is inherently a personal touch. When push comes to shove, giving value is how we help restore people in God’s image, making them even more human. 

Online learning platforms provide instant gratification… and discipleship.

Our audience has adapted to using technology for literally everything in their daily life. Creating an online learning platform communicates that you are aware of how people prefer to engage (at least at an entry-level). Remember, this is about being accessible to all our audience, not only some of them. As we discussed this with Assad Saif from Orchard Community Church in Escondido, we kept coming back to online learning platforms being a critical component for future-proofing discipleship. As a biblically-centered and teaching church in the heart of North County San Diego, Assad knows his community well and understands the church needs to slightly pivot in order to better disciple believers. Before we move too much further, let’s take note of some principles we have found in developing online learning platforms for dozens of church and for-profit clients. 

  • Online learning platforms save time (not waste time) for your staff and audience.
  • Online learning platforms are exponentially available and accessible for everyone.
  • Online learning platforms are your best bang for buck for discipleship. 
  • Online learning platforms are modeled after how people engage media.
  • Online learning platforms are right for both new believers and seasoned vets.
  • Online learning platforms are missionally aligned for ministry post-Covid.

The pandemic sparked by COVID-19 put a flame under many churches to create a platform to sustain ministry during stay-at-home orders. What we observed during this time were two main reactions. 

  1. Churches saw online learning platforms as a “band-aid” that would keep their church afloat but would be a temporary effort until things returned to a sense of normalcy. With this philosophy of ministry, efforts are begging. 
  2. Churches saw online learning platforms as the way forward, that would help their church thrive regardless of a pandemic or not. With this philosophy of ministry, everything is strategically created to have a dual emphasis on the in-person and online experience. 

The truth is online learning platforms are an essential integration for ministry in the 21st century, American context. What we want to show you next is what your church needs and then how to achieve it (even with limited resources!). 

“The modules [for the online courses] are great because I can go back and relisten to them. I take notes but sometimes in person I miss what is said.” - Andrea, Newbreak Church attendee 

Sunday School can still work.

Before online learning platforms were possible, things like “Sunday Schools” were the go-to way to distill content for your congregation. While there is certainly nothing wrong with carrying on the tradition, creating online courses makes it possible to create evergreen content available 24/7, at the ease of anyone, anywhere being able to access it. For example, many people at Newbreak Church were interested in learning more about the principles and techniques involved in studying the Bible. So, the church created a course on it! And now anyone, anywhere, can access it and benefit from its value, whether they are part of our congregation or not. We hope you see how this is not an either/or approach; it’s a both/and. Anyone at Newbreak can now host and teach a Life Group on the topic of “How to Study the Bible”, but the church is also to point people to the course for them to take on their own with no strings attached. 

What keeps churches from building online courses for their online learning platform? Two objections: excuses and perfectionism. Excuses are simply reasons without solutions. Yet, providing excuses makes us feel not as accountable to a task or expectation. The main excuses for not building online courses for your church usually comes down to a lack of resources. However, the Bible Study course Newbreak built (and referenced already) was shot on an iPhone X mounted on a tripod; the audio was captured using a plug-in lapel, and the modules were edited using Adobe Premiere Rush before uploading the course to the website via Vimeo. It was a simple reproducible course that was also excellent in quality, purposefully built to prove that it could be done with a minimal amount of resources. No more excuses; start building courses!

“But I don’t have the time to make the courses as good as I want them to be.” 

Perfectionists rarely are pioneers of innovation and end up falling behind on the opportunities afforded to us. They miss out on the possibilities that those with a more moderate perspective take advantage of. If you are a perfectionist, you put so much into your content that it limits or possibly exhausts what you can do. There are no secrets to share about this, but finding the right amount of passion for quality, but also determination to be efficient is key if you want to put out the right amount of content for an online learning platform, such as online courses. As North Coast Church Teaching Pastor Larry Osborne has said on many occasions, “Do your best and take a nap.” In this case: “Publish your best course and take a nap.”

Online learning platforms help you understand your audience.

Your goal is an online learning platform that allows for the development and distribution of content, consumed on your own (or in a group) and at your own pace, with options and opportunities to scale in-person or online according to known metrics. If you are achieving your goal, then you will have a growing audience that will help you better understand your reach and discipleship. 

Because online learning platforms allow you to track student progress in real-time, you gain keen insight through in-depth analytics. Say you create a course, distribute it well across your campus and sign up 100 students. Assume they all start at the same time but that 65% of them fail to make it past the first lesson, 20% stop at lesson three, and only 15% complete the course. Immediately, you can make the adjustments needed in lesson one, engage your audience at lesson two, and help increase your completion rates. If your first in-person lesson fails to engage the majority of your audience, your speaker and crowd are defeated, resulting in lower overall engagement and completion rates. Because we are in the business of making disciples, we need to leverage and understand audience behavior through student tracking and in-depth analytics. As we do, we better meet the needs of our growing diverse community and congregation. 

“My schedule is always changing so it is hard to commit to showing up to a group or class at church, but Newbreak’s ‘How to Study the Bible’ course was something I was interested in, and since there were modules I could go through on my own time it worked for people like me!” - Norm, Newbreak Church attendee

How can we create and manage online learning platforms?

There are hosted solutions readily available to you and your church like Podia, Kajabi, or Teachable, we recommend a self-hosted solution integrated within your website. While these platforms are good, they are often costly and you never truly own your own content. We work off the principle of “keys to the kingdom”, where everything we produce has a simple path forward for pastors whose work is to be with people, not projects. 

Eight Benefits to Creating Your Own Self-Hosted Online Learning Platform

  1. Always own your content.
  2. Adjust your content on the fly. 
  3. Align your platform with your church’s branding. 
  4. Entire marketing flows can run through your website. 
  5. Increases in engagement will increase your SEO return. 
  6. Platform is built on a system you are already familiar with. 
  7. Website users remain on your website, not link off to someone else.
  8. Scalable as in-depth analytics show signs of need or want.

The end result is an online learning platform that works within your already known and established digital ecosystem, is not a burden on your admin staff, and is easily engaged by your current and intended audience. 

Think of it almost like RightNow Media, but perfectly contextualized for your own unique audience. It’s what we did for Peyton Jones and Ministry Ninja’s Jump School: Core Team Training. While this content could have worked well if it was kept on a hosted platform, it’s better managed for his hyper-niche audience of users who align with his church planting organization New Breed Network; who want access to content through a platform they’re already familiar with, just like Newbreak Church and their growing list of courses

If your church can adopt online learning platforms as an integral component of their discipleship process, then you will securely move your church forward in ways that will better understand and engage your congregation and community. 

Online learning platforms are changing churches for the better. They are creating new and exciting ways for your intended audience to engage your church, on their terms; in ways that matter to them. They are cost-effective, add a new pathway to your church’s discipleship strategy, and encourage your staff’s creativity. In short, online learning platforms are your church’s best way forward.

This article was a collaboration between Catalyst's own Russ Cantu and Brayden Brookshier from Newbreak Church. Brayden Rockne Brookshier serves on staff on the Teaching Team with Newbreak Church (with three campuses in San Diego, a growing network of churches). Brayden is the author of the forthcoming book: A Resurrected Cosmos (Fontes Press, 2021). He also the host of the Adventures in Theology podcast featuring over 70 episodes. He describes his role like a time-traveling tour guide, taking people into an exploration of Scripture in search of timeless, life-giving truths. Brayden truly believes that trusting Jesus is the greatest adventure.