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YouTube is one of the great technological inventions of the past 15 years. It is the worlds second most popular search engine after google (who also own YouTube) and the second most popular social media platform in the world, with an incredible 2.3 billion users!
It’s influence continues to grow with 2020 being one its fastest growing years, no doubt helped by a global pandemic. The content produced is reaching billions all over the world, so what can it’s content creators teach us in the church?
The World of YouTubers
For many YouTube content creators it has fast moved beyond a hobby of posting videos about their interests or passions, it has become a way of making a full time living. The term YouTuber has become a part of our every day vocabulary.
On the surface it sounds like a really simple way for people to make some money but behind the scenes a lot is involved. The biggest YouTubers have entire teams involved in production and research for their videos and relentlessly post multiple videos per week – each taking days of work to film, edit and produce.
Until recently I was an occasionally user of YouTube. I would turn to YouTube for the occasional “How To Video” or to listen to worship music.
Recently however I thought I would take a deeper dive to try and understand what is involved in being a YouTuber. And where should I find such content? Well on YouTube of course?!
Church On YouTube
What has particularly drawn my attention is what can we, as church and ministry leaders, learn from this established content platform that can help us be more effective in ministry. Many churches have perhaps only begun to make use of YouTube this past year as they have embracing church online. (I shared by reflections on Church Online here).
In many ways the YouTubers of today are our modern day equivalents of the preacher. They share messages, build community and amass huge followings. They face into the challenges of sharing fresh content regularly and thinking about growing and supporting a community online.
So I have a hunch, and that is that as the church we can learn from this relatively new world of YouTubers as we wrestle with a hybrid church future (I explain this term in this post on Hybrid Church). But what can we learn from YouTubers?
1. How to Build Community
The best YouTubers create a sense of family amongst their followers. I suspect that many people perhaps facing into the potential loneliness of our world find connection in these sort of social media gatherings. YouTubers know that ultimately their success is based on their ability to turn passive viewers into engaged subscribers.
The heart beat of any YouTube channel is the returning viewers. Those who have watched a video and yet come back for more. The best at this now have users waiting for their regularly scheduled content to appear. Within minutes of their video appearing they can have 10s of thousands watching as they get notified of the latest content.
This is incredible! Cheap tricks to attract people to watch videos have a limited shelf life and often result in people voting with their feet with a firm click of the unsubscribe button. Content creators that can engender a real personal connection with their thousands and sometimes millions of followers have found themselves a loyal following.
As I look at the best YouTubers out there I see some commonality in their approach to this that I think we as the church can also benefit from.
The church is a community, a family if you like and one of our primary missions is to draw people into that community.
So what do these content creators do to build community that we might learn from?
Despite the huge amount of time and energy most content creators put into looking great and using the right expensive gear in their videos, the thing that seems to connect the most with people is being real.
It is quite common for YouTubers to share about their fears, their anxieties and their break downs. Whilst the more cynical viewers might accuse them of playing to the crowd, the results are clear. The most open and honest, even raw at times, videos tend to trend better. I think the thing that makes this work is that we all long to connect with another human who faces the same sort of challenges we do.
By being real, the faces behind those expensive cameras and vast lighting setups become more real to us, more human if you like. In a digital online world this skill, the ability to be fully human behind a camera is a super power. Anyone forced to speak to camera can understand how challenging this can be.
Even more surprising is how much youtube videos which are about making money from youtube, shamelessly ask people to like and subscribe so that they can earn more. It might not be the most tactful, yet at least we can say it is real.
So what can the church learn? Well I’m challenged again to make my content, which in the church world is mostly sermons, as real and honest as is appropriate. It’s important I share my failures as much as my successes. It is important that I don’t become an isolated leader but that people remain connected to me as a person.
If we are not careful, our desire to speak hope and faith can create a leadership persona that is untouchable. Yes inspiring perhaps, but not community building. Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t bring hope and faith, just that we need to be careful we also share our real journey. We need to share our workings as well as our answer.
From studying a number of YouTube channels one of the most common pieces of advice I hear is to just keep posting videos. For many channels it takes 6 months to 2 years of consistently posting 1 or 2 videos every week to start gaining traction. Whilst there can be good money to be made eventually for many there is a long period where they make nothing and are simply committed to posting reguarly.
In fact I might go as far as saying that the YouTubers that really build a large following tend to be those who have maintained a consistent pace of posting new content. On good weeks, on bad weeks, hitting that video deadline every time. I’m sure the glamour of creating videos for the internet fades very quickly when you are giving up so many hours every week and only a handful of people are watching. Yet for those who persist the rewards of building a community will come.
There is another side effect to this process. Most who start this journey have no experience of what they are doing at the start. By committing to consistently produce content they actually improve as they go. In other words Quantity leads to Quality. Trial and error leads to a more informed approach that meets the needs of the community they are building.
I can think of a number of parallels for the church here. If we want to build a community that has an impact then consistency is huge. We need to engage with people regularly. The advantage for churches is that the goal is not to lead all people to the pastor or the main leader. It shouldn’t all rest on the one person. Church engagement can come through lots of ways. Small groups, social gatherings as well as Sunday services. Consistency is key though, but also a willingness to learn as we go.
If we view our presence in our local communities as a marathon not a sprint we will keep doing the important work of showing up, knowing it will take time for people to know and trust us.
Another word we could use for consistency is being faithful. Do we show up for people regularly, helping them in their lives, supporting them in the good times and bad. Are we faithfully walking through life with people. The key is to keep on keeping going, adjusting and learning as we go.
Most YouTubers are not overnight successes and neither are most churches. The illusion of overnight success is just that, an illusion.
2. How to Create Engagement
The way that YouTube works is to encourage content creators to produce videos that keep people on the platform as long as possible. So the system is designed to promote content that people enjoy and engage with.
So experienced YouTubers have become the cultural experts when it comes to creating and holding engagement. In particular YouTube is a platform that seems to engage the younger age groups. This is very much something the church is hoping to learn. 44% of YouTube users in the UK are aged 25-44 (YouTube Stats). For many churches this is the very age range they are looking to reach.
So how are YouTubers creating engagement?
Connect With A Need
Fundamentally most people come to YouTube with a need. Perhaps it is a question, perhaps it is simply to be entertained, or perhaps it is to relax. Whatever the reason, there is an underlying need they are hoping that is met.
So the best videos answer this need specifically and directly. You will notice that the start of the best videos usually tells you what the need is and how they will answer that. That first 30 seconds is key to keeping you from clicking off to somewhere else, so being up front about how they will help you is vital.
Put simply if your videos actually provide a real value to people, they help them do something, then they will do well. The YouTube algorithm will do its thing and people will flock to your content over time.
There is much I could say here as a church leader. It raises for me questions about how we look to reach others and engage those outside the church. What genuine needs do people in our culture have that we can meet through the gospel?
It is so easy to fall into the trap of answering the questions we think people should be asking, rather than the questions they are actually asking.
I suspect if we want to be successful in reaching people we will need to get better at answering the questions people are actually asking before we can begin to answer the questions we think they should be asking.
Put simply if people find the church is actually relevant to their lives and their problems then they will want to connect. The good news for us is that the message we have touches many of the core needs we have as humans and so in theory this should be simple. In practice it takes the ability to listen to people, to understand what is really going on for them. Then we can connect with a real need and make a difference in people lives.
Keep Things Moving
Some research has apparently shown that goldfish have a longer attention span than most people now! YouTubers understand the audience well and know that a few seconds of boring will be enough to see people leave. Behind the scenes they can see a graph of where people skip or leave when watching a video. Most creators expect there to be a tail off throughout a video but the goal is try and keep people engaged for the full video length.
They use loads of techniques for this. They chop out all the silences and stumbles in their content, they add music underneath that fits the mood. They cut to additional footage that build a story (B-roll) or different angles. They add sound effects, they add unexpected moments. They build tension and they cut out all the fluff.
They are effectively trying to take many of the skills that feature film editors use but on a much more intense and shorter scale. The things that keep people engaged are well known. We can tell when a film is slow or the story is dragging. If you ever hear an edit of a film scene without the music it sounds strange and stale.
Thinking about a church context, keeping people engaged with church online has been a challenge for most churches. A lot of preachers immediately cut their sermon length to accommodate the church online world. A recognition that keeping people engaged is important.
Whilst I think perhaps these tips apply primarily to the video format, with many churches now streaming or making their content available afterwards as videos the lines are blurring. I’m not suggesting every church service must be some slick video production, just that we should think about how we might be losing people through the content we produce. YouTube reveals to the creators exactly when people disengage, but it is often less obvious when you are in a room with them!
The answer isn’t necessarily go shorter with our sermons – but it does mean if we are trying to create content that is for those outside the church – we need to think carefully about how we engage them.
I believe we have a message that will reshape people’s temporal and eternal destiny. If we can just engage them long enough to share that message. Keeping people engaged in our fast paced culture is more challenging than ever. So perhaps by looking to some of the experts we can learn a thing or two?
Content designed for those with no experience of church should take this challenge the most seriously. Perhaps there is a role for Christian content creators to make an impact?
Once we can engage them we can invite them into a community. Just like the best YouTubers out there.
What Do You Think?
I’m not saying that there is a direct correlation with being a YouTuber and being a church but I do think if we are humble there are probably a number of things we should pay attention to and learn.
I for one will be reviewing what we do in the future through the lens of a platform that is engaging more than a quarter of the world at the moment.
What have you observed? Do you think what I am saying is fair? Let me know in comments below or send me an email.
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