Are Digital Campfires Part of Your Church’s Strategy?

A group of people gathered around a campfire on a beach

Last February, I read an article called “The Era of Antisocial Social Media” that I haven’t stopped thinking about.

Sara Wilson, the author of the article, explains how the future of social media is shifting towards “digital campfires.”

Digital campfires are intimate and interactive online spaces where people (especially Gen Z) are connecting. There are three categories of digital campfires: private messaging, micro-communities, and shared experiences.

This is what I can’t stop thinking about — the exciting opportunity for churches to share the Gospel and make disciples within these digital environments.

Be the light of the (online) world

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.” — Matthew 5:14

According to a 2018 World Economic Forum report, millennials use social media for an average of two hours and 38 minutes daily, while Gen Z use social media for two hours and 55 minutes daily. We can expect those numbers to have surged in 2020.

So with more people online than ever, digital campfires are excellent environments for worship, community, and discipleship. If a bonfire is your Sunday worship service, campfires are how you connect and disciple people throughout the week.

Before I continue, I want to stress that an investment in new forms of online discipleship isn’t a replacement for offline discipleship. I suppose a “both/and” approach is useful here. Behind every church’s mission should be a strategy to intentionally build and strengthen relationships, both online and offline.

And as we move beyond 2021, many of the ideas I share below can be adapted to become hybrid or offline campfires.

Alright, let’s look at how churches can launch the 3 types of digital campfires — private messaging, micro-communities, and shared experiences!

Digital Campfire #1: Private Messaging

Whether it’s WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, or Instagram DMs, people are connecting with each other in private messages and forums.

In fact, 63% of people say messaging apps are where they feel most comfortable sharing and talking about content. Three of the top 5 social media platforms are messaging apps (not counting Instagram).

But private messaging campfires aren’t just found on social media platforms. When it comes to SMS marketing, text messages are reported to have a 98% open rate. In comparison, the average email open rate in 2020 was about 21%.

So as Facebook and Instagram engagement decreases, and organic reach is left at the mercy of the algorithms, how can your church meet people where they are?

Private Messaging Campfire Ideas:

  • Use WhatsApp Groups, WhatsApp Broadcasts, or Telegram to send out short devotionals (video or text), daily Bible verses, or volunteer opportunities. Watch this episode of Word Made Digital to learn more about how churches can leverage WhatsApp.
  • Create a website chatbot or a Facebook Messenger bot to match people to small groups or serving opportunities.
  • Consider using a service like Text-In-Church or Pastors Line to connect with first-time guests and visitors.
  • Set up a SMS short code for giving (e.g. Red Cross Text to Give $10) and then send a personalized thank-you text message to donors.
  • Invite your congregation to text their sermon questions. Depending on whether you livestream or pre-record your service, these can be answered immediately at the end of the service, during the next service, or in a separate video.

Private Messaging in action: Meet Renée from People’s Church

Last year, People’s Church launched Renée, a digital assistant. To get started, all you have to do is text a keyword to the local number provided. Once you follow the prompts, you’ll be connected to Slack.

In the various channels, you can sign up for small groups, register for discipleship classes, share prayer requests, learn about upcoming events, and chat with others in community forums.

Meet Renée, People’s Church’s digital assistant (built in-house!)

Private Messaging Tip: People may be open to receiving texts or connecting through private messaging, but nobody likes spam. It’s important to segment your audiences to ensure you’re providing valuable and relevant information to your congregation. After all, with great power comes great responsibility…

Digital Campfire #2: Micro-communities

Churches have the advantage to launching and growing these types of digital campfires. The local church is made up of micro-communities! You just call them “ministries.”

If your church’s small groups are meeting online during the pandemic, guess what? You already have digital campfires where discipleship is happening!

When you think of digital micro-communities, you probably think of Facebook Groups. There’s also Slack, Mighty Networks, and even a UK-based community platform called Disciple!

But we also see micro-communities grow around podcasts (and their hosts!). Platforms like Discord, Clubhouse, and Twitter’s soon-to-be released Spaces are sure to grow in popularity in 2021 as people experience screen fatigue.

So how can your church ignite your own micro-communities? Start with existing communities within your congregation. Find ways to connect, disciple, and expand these communities digitally.

Micro-communities Campfire Ideas:

  • Start a Group Devotional using a YouVersion Bible Plan that aligns with your sermon series. Up to 150 people can join a group devotional, and there’s a space to talk over each day’s reading in a private discussion area.
  • Start a podcast and build a community around it. The brilliant premise behind this Gen XYZ podcast is a multi-generational family sharing their perspective on life, faith, and culture.
  • Create a Messenger Room for prayer, or use a Room as a “Digital Lobby” before or after your service. Rooms can have a maximum of 50 people, but they have no time limit, and you don’t need a Facebook account to join!
  • Start a monthly book club and meet on Instagram or Facebook Live to chat about the book. For example, Highland Park Methodist United Church is reading through “The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry” as a church this winter.
  • Prayerfully consider whether your church can launch an intergenerational ministry with a group mentorship program. Using Zoom or Facebook Groups, develop a micro-community where older and younger generations can connect, grow, and learn from each other. You’ll see an example of what my church has done below.

Micro-communities in action:

Micro-communities Tip: Be engaging. Don’t be exclusive. Make your digital campfires accessible to new members, by creating communities around campuses/locations, ministries, and life stages. You’ll need a communications strategy to create awareness of your micro-communities. You’ll also need a content strategy and community guidelines to ensure your groups are engaging in a safe and effective way. Finally, you’ll want to consider recruiting and training volunteers to welcome people and facilitate conversations.

“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another — and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” — Hebrews 10:24

Digital Campfire #3: Shared Experiences

Shared experiences are the epitome of “doing life together.” That’s because shared experiences foster a sense of belonging and connect us to something bigger than ourselves.

It’s been fascinating to watch brands and companies find ways to create unique shared experiences. Disney’s Family Sing Along in April garnered 10.3 million viewers, and Pizza Hut’s weekly “Friday Night Bites” series on Twitch garnered 5.4 million views.

But for those of us who don’t have a million-dollar marketing budget, here’s some more inspiration: sleep streams — yes, people watching other people sleep — is a trend on TikTok. “With me” videos have surged in popularity during the pandemic (“study with me” is particularly popular with students).

This “Study With Me” video has 6.8 million views

As weird as these trends may be, they’re authentic, engaging, and they satisfy a craving for connection. Can you use the same words to describe your Sunday worship service?

Fortunately, shared experiences can also happen outside of a livestream on Sunday. Whether it’s helping people learn new skills, grow in their faith, or just have fun, life is #bettertogether.

Shared Experiences Campfire Ideas:

  • Use Poll Everywhere to host a Family Bible Trivia Night on Zoom, YouTube, or Facebook Live.
  • Start a multi-day fasting or prayer challenge with a downloadable journal or mail your congregation a devotional.
  • Host a virtual cooking or baking class with donations going toward a food bank or local shelter.
  • Host a virtual Small Groups retreat with worship music, guest speakers, games, videos/testimonials, and prayer.
  • Host a virtual “Prayer & Praise Night” and partner with 2–3 other churches in your city to livestream a night of worship and prayer for your city. Could you invite a city councillor or local MP to participate?

Shared Experiences in action:

  • HTB Church recently started a Twitch account for youth.
  • Epic Church hosts a monthly Welcome Party for new members where they can meet other new people and the Epic Church staff.
  • Church of the Nativity offers a “Watch Party Guide” to help people host online church in their own homes.

Shared Experiences Tip: Many people use social media on a mobile device while watching other types of media (usually TV or movies). Is there a way you can make your shared experiences more interactive by incorporating this second-screen trend?

In a 2019 report from Global Web Index, 95% of Gen Zers said they used another device while watching TV. They used this second screen to scroll on social media and chat with friends. Source: Global Web Index via Hootsuite

Being the light = meeting a need

Whether you’re a pastor, communicator, or creative, my hope is that you’re inspired, and not exhausted by these possibilities.

I’m not suggesting you launch all these campfires, or that you need to have each type of campfire as part of your digital strategy. Which campfires you invest in depends on prayer, your church demographics, and both your human and financial resources.

But I invite you to pretend your online worship service doesn’t exist for a minute.

What digital environments would you provide to connect people to Jesus, and to each other? How would you ensure these online experiences are authentic, engaging, and effective at helping people grow spiritually? How does the answers to those two questions compare to what you’re doing now?

I’ll end with this — you know what struck me the most about the concept of digital campfires? These spaces arise out of a need to be heard, seen, valued, and known. Brands, businesses, even social media influencers have found ways to answer and meet this need.

So what’s the best way the church can be the light of the online world?

Ensure that whatever you do points people towards the One who meets all our needs, according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.

Digital Communications Strategist. Always craving adventure and M&M’s. | Toronto, Canada | clivane.com