Churches today have three primary methodologies to connect with and grow their congregants. First, churches today, by default, employ a “pipeline” strategy as their methodology to grow congregants into disciples. So, what is a pipeline? For our answer we turn to the world of business. “[A] pipeline is a business that employs a step-by-step arrangement for creating and transferring value, with the producers on one end and consumers at the other.”[i] Pipelines are designed for one-directional flow of product, service or information—from producer to consumer. So the pastor studies the Bible for 10 to 20 hours a week, crafts a message and “delivers” the message to (hopefully) eager ears at the end of the pipeline on the weekend.
Here’s a second example of how churches act like pipelines. The leadership team designs the weekend service (commonly referred to in megachurches as “the show”) to stimulate, challenge, educate and amuse those who attend on the weekend with the hope to “bring ‘em back next week.” “Success” is measured by how many people show up and hear the message. This is not dissimilar to the way major networks produce our favorite programs (Think The Voice, Modern Family, Monday Night Football, etc.) and deliver these programs to us on our varied screens.
In church, our very language—“Delivering” a sermon…”producing the show” are the clues that we are using a pipeline model. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Manufacturing is built around pipes and supply chains. Authors, speakers, educators and content creators all produce something at one end of the pipe hoping to deliver it to hungry consumers at the other end of the pipeline. But pipelines aren’t particularly effective in producing life change. Pipelines are good for “transfer of information” but not necessarily for transformation.
The church as a portal
Churches have a second delivery system commonly understood as a “portal.” In the Internet world a portal is a Web site that acts as the entry point for browsing or searching the Web. So sites like Google, Yahoo!, and Kayak are the doors we enter first to discover our myriad of options. Think of your last Ministry Fair or Missions Fair you hosted in your gymnasium. Each ministry or nonprofit had their own candy-laden table or booth and congregants were encouraged to grab a donut and a cup of coffee and explore the plethora of opportunities. The Ministry / Missions Fair serves as a portal to opportunity. “Success” was probably measured by the number of ministry partners who showed up and the number of congregants who walked through the exhibits. Your church bulletin and weekly announcements also serve as a portal. The phrase, “We trust that you’ll find your place of service” or “We encourage all the men to be there” are characteristics of portal thinking. Like pipes, portals don’t usually bring about action or life change.
Could the church be a platform?
What if there were insights we could gain by looking past pipelines and portals to platforms. Platforms could very well be the most revolutionary business model the world has ever seen and it is platforms that are breaking the traditional rules of how value is created and how customers are being served. Think about this: “The world’s largest taxi company, Uber, owns no vehicles. The world’s largest accommodation provider, Airbnb, owns no real estate. The world’s most popular media owner, Facebook, creates no content. The most valuable retailer, Alibaba (the Amazon.com of China) has no inventory.” [ii] Each of these enterprises has discovered the power of platforms.
So what exactly is a platform?
Platform guru Sangeet Paul Choudary tells us
“A platform acts as the infrastructure that enables users to interact with each other and exchange some type of value with greater efficiency than users trying to interact on their own.”[iii]
A platform has three entities—producers, consumers and the platform infrastructure itself. It is the platform, like your local Farmer’s Market, that links producers with consumers, buyers with sellers, etc.
Platforms convert passive energy into active energy
The genius of platforms is that they get people off the sidelines and into the game (Matthew 20:6). For millennia rivers flowed with tremendous force but it wasn’t until the water wheel was invented that passive energy was transformed into active energy. For eons of time the wind blew but it is the windmill and movable sail that converted latent energy into active energy. Since the world began the sun has been emitting energy but it is the solar panel that converted that latent energy into active energy. Platforms are adept at converting passive longing into powerful actions.
Platforms help that which wants to happen
Whoever thought 200,000 people wanted to use their own vehicle to be taxi drivers? Whoever thought over two million people had a penchant for renting rooms in their home to strangers? Whoever thought that 1.8b people would want to be content creators through Facebook? Every day…80 million photos / videos are shared on Instagram. Every day…500 million tweets are shared on Twitter. Every minute…300 hours of video uploaded on YouTube. Every second…9,000 photos shared on Snapchat. Each of these enterprises has discovered what people have wanted to do all along and then enabled them to do that very thing. Platforms don’t make things happen…they help things happen. All of the above examples are around the supply / production side. To work effectively, there also needs to be a commensurate side—people who want to ride in a private vehicle…people who want stay in a stranger’s house…people who want to watch funny cat videos or read the latest tweets coming out of a sporting event. It is the platform that connects these two energies.
When I am preaching in different churches around the country I often begin my sermon by saying, “Who wants to change the world…please raise your hand.” And almost every hand goes up. This is the latent energy that is present all around us. No one wants to live in futility. Everybody wants to make a difference. What “wants to happen” in your church?
Platforms are super-adept at changing lives
All churches share the same four “core processes” they continually employ to help people grow and change. Identified and named first by Scott Beck every producer has the same basic core interactions:
- Connect with a user
- Know the user
- Match the user to a product / service
- Catalyze the user to action
Isn’t this what you do on a Sunday? You connect with someone in the lobby for the first time. Now you want to get to know that person. “Are you new to the church?” “Are you here with your family?” “Oh, you’re a college student.” When you have sufficient knowledge you look to match that person to another person or growth opportunity. “Let me introduce you to Tory who runs our college ministry. I hear the youth have a pretty good time there.” And if the newbie starts attending the college class then “Bingo” you have catalyzed to action. Isn’t that what you do?
Platform design 101
So, what’s the secret sauce behind the platform? Every platform needs three things to be viable—design principles, tools and rules.
- Every successful platform is built around one value-creating core interaction between participants. The goal of platforms is to optimize and scale that one core interaction. If that one core action does not happen or does not scale there is no platform…no matter what you might call it. A core interaction is defined as “a set of actions that producers and consumers on your platform perform repeatedly to gain value out of the platform.”[iv] Every successful platform eventually is able to identify their one core interaction that creates value. So for instance…
- YouTubeis a platform for the hosting (production) and viewing (consumption) of videos
- Kickstarteris a platform for the hosting (production) and backing (consumption) of projects
- Twitteris a platform for the creation (production) and consumption of tweets
- Uberis a platform for booking a car, leveraging information (car availability) to match producers (taxi drivers) with consumers (taxi seekers)[v]
The most important question to answer is “What is your one core interaction that you are trying to repeat and scale?” Identifying your core interaction will determine what you measure. Try to think beyond increasing the number of people who listen to your weekend message. That is a good pipe action but not a good platform interaction.
When I talk about city transformation as a platform the clearest repeatable, value-creating core action seems to be “one Christ-follower helping another person experience life more as God created it—spiritually, physically, emotionally, economically, vocationally, etc.” This would include, sharing the gospel, discipling, mentoring, job creation, etc. I believe that’s what city movements are trying to scale. Another thing to think about is your church being a “platform of platforms” with each of your ministries serving as a separate “app.” So each ministry would need to define what one core interaction they are trying to scale and multiply.
At the end of the day platform design is about turning passive hearers into active doers (James 1:22-25) who can quickly become influencers and teachers (Ezra 7:10). So Airbnb doesn’t have “page-views” as their measure of success but rather “room nights rented.” They keep fine-tuning the platform to convert more and more of the lookie-loos into actual users. That is the core interaction they are scaling. There is no scaling without conversion from hearing to doing. You are probably not trying to multiply hearers but doers. (Interestingly “conversion” is the term techies use to describe the action of the switch between watching and doing.) Was there a core interaction that Jesus was trying to scale (Matthew 4:19, Luke 10:37, John 13:34, John 20:21, etc.)? What’s your core interaction you are trying to multiply and scale? This is the most important action to define, without which there is no platform. Sangeet Choudary says, “The goal of the platform is to amplify the effectiveness and the outcomes of every single participant. When that happens there is a free path because every participant wants to participate further on the platform and when it happens equally for all participants, that’s how the platform thrives.”
- Platforms must be architected so that consumers can easily and with the least amount of friction, become producers. In platforms producers and consumers are not people but roles. And it is very easy to shift between roles. So those who ride with Uber can easily start driving for Uber…those who rent a room through Airbnb can easily rent out a room through Airbnb. Those who read something on Facebook can effortlessly produce something on Facebook. Can those who received the gospel, easily share the gospel? Can those who are taught easily teach others? Can those who receive easily “pay it forward?” Can those who participate in service easily include others in service?
Digital platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, make it easy and likely for consumers to become producers through “co-creation.” Every time I hit the “Like” button on Facebook or write a comment I make the original post, picture, video or link a little more valuable and the “message” goes out to an increasingly wider audience (“Eric recently liked this”). Is there something congregants could do to co-create, and spread to a wider audience what happens on a weekend…through their Life Group…after a day of service, an action they took, etc.? How could other platforms like Twitter, Instagram or Facebook help you multiply and scale what you are doing and who you are reaching? What if all co-created social media was not built around the awesome preaching of the senior leader but what the church did to motivate, equip, inspire or celebrate my next steps in growth and impact? Churches divide around this question: “Are we here to get people to help us fulfill our mission as a church?” or “Are we here to help people discover and become effective in their God-given mission (Ephesians 2:10, Ephesians 4:11)?”
- A well-architected platform scales to benefit a greater number of people without significantly increasing marginalized costs to the platform. Instagramhad a paltry 14 employees when it was bought by Facebook for $1b. WhatsApp had a mere 40 employees but was growing at a million users a day when it was acquired by Facebook for $19b. Is all of your growth a product of additional staffing or can you grow and scale because your consumers can easily become producers and help others become producers and consumers?
Tools—Every platform has a set of tools that simplify the value-creating interactions among users. Ideally platforms don’t do any “work” per se but create tools for people to do the great work themselves. The reason you have such an awesome Facebook page is not because you know HTML programing but because Facebook has created tools for you to easily write your thoughts, post a picture or video, link to a Website, like a post, comment on a post, etc. Platform value is created as the users do the work. Twitter and Facebook are worthless unless users are doing the work of posting. What “tools” could you create that make it easy for congregants to impact their neighbors and city…to live on mission? What if you saw your main job is not to do all the work, or motivate your staff to do all the work but made it easy and likely for people to missionally engage and have gospel conversations with those around them. Remember, the world’s largest media company produces no content. They simply think about creating the tools so others (like you) can easily and frequently produce great content. You’ve done this in the past. When you had your last Serve Day or ShareFest, that was a “tool” you created for people to do great work that converted listeners to doers. When you established your online giving, you implemented a technology that helped people do something they really wanted to do—to give regularly to your church.
Dave Runyon and Jay Pathak (Art of Neighboring) created a great refrigerator magnet (now posted on over 80,000 refrigerators) to help congregants identify the names of their closest eight neighbors to convert hearers into doers. What other “tools” can you and your team create that make it easy for them to accomplish your core interaction? Energy should not be put into hiring more staff but architecting the platform and creating the tools to maximize the creative and redemptive energy that is already present your church.
Platforms work because they are not hierarchical. Platforms democratize the opportunity for anyone to contribute and anyone to benefit. If the platform is well-architected, growth and change can be initiated and championed by anyone, in any place, at any time—through small groups, Sunday School, a conversation at the church’s Higher Grounds Café, etc. Fortunately for churches, the only gatekeeping rule you need would be to keep out those who might want to game the platform for their own self-centered purposes. So if the platform is architected correctly, anyone can champion the growth of another—at any place…at any time
Role of platform owner
What if you or someone in your church took on the role as Chief Platform Architect? That person would become an expert in platform architecture, tools and rules. He or she would know everything there is to know about platforms and would be tasked with:
Over the coming months what you measure and celebrate will change. You will look for bottlenecks and barriers to growth. Working the best and brightest from every age group you would
- Identify the core interaction that your church as a platform enables
- Remove all bottlenecks in the core interaction to ensure that it gets completed
- Ensure that the core interaction is simple, likely, repeatable, scalable and common.
That’s it. That’s the call to action. It hasn’t been done yet but you can do it. Someone will figure this out. Why not you?
I want to acknowledge Sangeet Paul Choudary’s thoughts and fingerprints all over this document. I believe he has the clearest understanding of the purpose, power and design of platforms. Check out his Website here and his first book Platform Scale and his latest Gem Platform Revolution.
[i] Chaudary, Sangeet Paul. Platform Revolution: How Networked Markets are Transforming the Economy and How to Them Work for You. Kindle edition (location 194)
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