The Battle for the Church (Market)

The Battle for the Church (Market) January 10, 2011

There’s a battle brewing in the church in America.  It’s not over gay marriage or abortion or whether to do away with ordination (much to my chagrin).  No, it’s over who will capture the church market with their church community software.  There are three contenders, as far as I can tell, and a whole lot of money at stake — both money that’s already been spent on development, and money to be made on future sales.  The three are:

The Table Project – developed and owned by YouthWorks, a non-profit mission organization;

The City – developed by Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church and now owned by Zondervan, a subsidiary of HarperCollins, a subsidiary of Newscorp;

SoChurch – developed and owned, as far as I can tell, by the SoChurch team.

Full disclosure: I used to work for YouthWorks and I have published books with Zondervan.  But no one has asked me to blog about this, nor has any of these groups offered me a look at their system.

I don’t have a dog in this fight, but it seems that others do.  Last week on the SoChurch blog, Ben Forsberg wrote a quite aggressive post, replete with fighting rhetoric, in which he accused The City of “buying our Google AdWords and following our Twitter followers.”  He writes,

To be fair, we are only continuing a battle that had already been started. When our competition began buying our Google AdWords and following our Twitter followers, we weren’t offended. On the contrary, we discovered a worthy competitor. One who seemed ready to battle head-to-head and see who would come out on top. While a winner is yet to be determined, the journey to victory is laced with excitement, endearment, and clarity.

Our goal with the direct approach we have chosen is not to condemn nor criticize our competition, but to go head-to-head, toe-to-toe, in an arena we have all entered willingly. Just as a prize fighter respects their opponent and hugs them after the bout is finished, so too we embrace our rivals and welcome them into the arena of ideas.

I admit, I had to read the post a couple times, for it’s rare to find such honest talk in the church world.  Indeed, Ben ends his post asking, rhetorically,

Do you think that some healthy competition is a good thing?  Or would you rather we all played nice and masked our messages in euphemism?”

What’s odd is that his blog post is, in fact, full of euphemisms.  It’s just that they’re euphemisms of fighting and such and not the usual churchy euphemisms.  In fact, their site is jampacked with hipster lingo and funny, snarky headers.  That, I admit, I appreciate.

There are big differences between the three services mentioned above, beyond their rhetoric.  The Table Project, for instance, is free, but it hasn’t yet been released widely.  The City and SoChurch are social tools but also church management software, which The Table is not.  In another post, SoChurch accuses The City of hiding its pricing.

In that same post, SoChurch says that The City builds walls around church communication, but The City’s site says it offers full integration with Twitter and Facebook.  And full integration with other social media servies seems to be a hallmark of The Table, though that’s still somewhat unclear since the product is in beta and the website doesn’t say much — even their video doesn’t give a tour of the product (and don’t get me started on the historical inaccuracies in it).

So, I’ve got some questions: Do any of you, dear readers, use one of these three services? If so, what do you think about it?

And, for the rest of us, my big question about these third-party church apps is, Who, Why, and How?  That is:

  • Who will use these?  What churches will really see the benefit of them?
  • Why would you opt for a new social networking app for your church when everyone is already on Facebook?
  • How will you get people in the church to use it? From my experience of running Social Phonics Boot Camps for church leaders, this seems like the single greatest hurdle.  I would think that, as a church leader, it would be very hard to convince a run-of-the-mill parishioner to add another social media log-in to their lives.
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  • I don’t use any of these services.
    I am wondering why we have to christianize everything? My Christian TV, movies, music, clothing, books, kids school, plumber, cruise and art might be enough ‘Christian’ already? I do understand the need for tools churches/non-profits can use. The Christian vs secular contrast is a concern because it sets up a false view that one is good and the other…bad.

  • Don’t forget Church Community Builder:

  • George Burks

    I don’t use any of these services. What bothers me about things like this other than “mega Churches” Big money and everyone in this caliber of business is thinking that they are putting “Christ” first in every venture. I wouldn’t use it, don’t need it. My Face Book friends all talk to me about my Post Modern ideas anyway. I am not a church leader so I may be off base, but as I see it, most people want a little privacy away from being “pastor ed” and edited online.

  • Ircel Harrison

    Another effort to put the “Christian label” on something–the Christian Yellow Pages, Christian contemporary music, Christian coffee houses. Wouldn’t we be more like Jesus if we just were Christian in our culture?

    • I find the idea of the church site very useful. It would be a place the youth of our church could post their availability for babysitting, yard work or housecleaning jobs. Upcoming events and projects could be displayed, along with phone numbers or email addresses to respond to. A prayer request page would be useful to share requests and answers to prayer. Our church uses facebook to get info out, but the info doesn’t stay out there in one place that i can go back to. We are currently looking into using one of these apps for our church.

  • It seems countereffective in terms of evangelization–why preach only to the choir about church events, etc.?

  • We recently did a lot of research on two of these products as well as a bunch of other church management software packages due the death of our old system. What we discovered is that a small congregation such as our simply cannot afford these products, which involve monthly fees that would consume many dollars. Yes, they all based their pricing on a sliding scale, but I think none have any sense of how tight the dollars are in a typical small membership (less than 100 on Sunday) congregation for their products at the base level cost more than we could swing. We ended stumbling on a stand alone (non-cloud) product called PowerChurch Plus which was very reasonable priced and has been a great solution for us.

    I recognize that companies like Zondervan are businesses designed to maximize profits (not ministries in any sense of the word) so I am not surprised at the pricing . . . it’s simply too expensive for most congregations which are not located in upscale economic areas.

  • Korey

    I’d say using some open source software in conjunction with existing social media would be more effective and practical for most churches. Software like drupal (looks like is using it), wordpress, openatrium (a drupal distribution), and of course there are so many other tools.

    I love this line from “enterprise-level, web-based church management software solution”. Or this: “The City unifies communication for your whole church, and all the communities and individuals within it.” And I’m glad there’s an app for this from “The “Serve App” is coming along nicely and is really built to do this exact thing.” Lastly, this strikes me as vital to a healthy peaceful congregation: “Killer features are one thing—and SoChurch’s are nothing less than magic in the making—but ensuring they mesh seamlessly for the common goal of simplifying, expanding, and controlling your church communication is quite another.”

    All this sounds like enterprise resource planning software (aka SAP) for churches. The first church I encounter that uses this crap is off my list or at least I want an explicit exemption of my tithe going to fund it in any manner whatsoever.

  • Dan Hauge

    I haven’t even heard of any of these until today (and I spend a fair amount of time on the web), so yeah–why would I want to join another, church only social network? I would not, not at all. And now we have the added bonus of internecine church/network warfare– while the rest of world goes on, using Facebook, and trying to address substantive problems.

  • toddh

    I heard about the City a while ago, and was intrigued by it, but also had a hard time finding the pricing. I ended up assuming that it probably priced my church out of the market for whatever it is they do. Haven’t heard of the other options. So far we are just sticking to good-old Church Windows (standard database program) and Facebook. I’m with you on the whole “why-go-to-another-online-thing-when-I’m-already-on-so-many.” Better to go where the people are than to create something new they need to adopt.

  • trandyrandy

    I’ve found that “The City” is a pretty legit program. It is very inexpensive (most churches would spend more on a single phone line every month than on “the city”) and it integrates all the aspects of the church quite nicely. Everything from detailing your childrens ministry to helping the musicians get their music to connecting people with hosuechurches. Hell, it even creates dialouge between the pastor and the congregation about the sermons, almost as if it was created with Paggitts “Preaching reimagined” in mind. Everyone contributes their thoughts on the text as the pastor writes the sermon.
    Just because it came from Mark Driscoll’s fields doesn’t mean you can just write it off. It really is quite intuitive.
    The Prices are right there on the site, and it is designed for churches under 300.

  • Tony Arens

    Another Social Network? Oh man… I can’t take anymore! But hey, if you want one for your church, no need to glob on to one of these templates – there’s dozens of open source platforms out there – free free free as well as SN templates, stylesheets, etc – everything you need to set one up free free free.

  • Never heard of these sites.

    I have an idea, let’s create Christian MTV. That’d be really awesome!

    • Nick

      It’s already here, check out the band called “Family Force Five”, they act like they should be on MTV but they call themselves a Christian band, even with the song “jiggy” or something like that, where they say something like “girl just jiggy for me from your hips to your toes” or whatever, I can’t remember but they piss me off trying to be all MTVish.

      • Nick

        OH I remember the song now, it’s called “wobble”, and here’s the lyrics I misquoted, JUST LIKE MTV!! WOOOO!!!… idiot band:

        Get get like jell-o jell-o.
        Dip dip make it ghetto ghetto.
        Work w-work w-work work it like a model.
        Look at’cha now.
        Let me see ya wobble!

        Wobble yer legs.
        Wobble yer head.
        Throw your arms back and forth like yer huggin’ yourself.
        Wobble, wobble, wa-wobble, wobble, wa-wobble, wobble, wobble, wobble, wobble.

        Let me see you wobble!

        W-O-double B-L-E (that’s right)
        Can you wobble? Can you wobble like me? (OK)
        W-O-double B-L-E (yeah)
        Can you wobble? Can you wobble for me?

        Crack a half smile like you was Mona Lisa.
        Wild animal, bite off your leash-a.
        Loosen up your neck, get your bobble head right.
        Wobble it all night. Wobble it aaaall night.
        You gon’ get in, you gon’ get in trouble.
        You gon’ get in trouble if I don’t don’t see you wobble.
        Yeah, make make a fuss with your body.
        It’s a bum rush to the floor, it’s a party.

        Work w-work w-work work it like a model.
        Look at’cha now.
        Let me see ya wobble!

  • trandyrandy

    yeah! ***insert critical meme to show disdain for institutional church and my own enlightenment***

  • Upfront disclosure: I work for Fellowship Technologies, the provider of Fellowship One church management software. The Table has completed initial integration with Fellowship One and SoChurch has announced plans to do so.

    I’d like to say that I appreciate the dialogue that’s going on, competition can be healthy and spur innovation, when done properly. I documented my thoughts about it back in August,

    As to the value of these community tools… Perhaps they’re not for everyone but many churches are finding them incredibly helpful. There are a number of instances where church members wish to communicate within a smaller forum (like a community group, prayer group, church community, etc.) than what Facebook provides. However, that doesn’t mean you abandon Facebook. I view these tools as another piece of the social toolset for serving the church and it’s congregation. There are now as many as 10 different solutions in the “community” space and the competition will cause the cream to rise to the top. If enough churches find value in these solutions then they are likely filling an unfulfilled need.

    However, community tools do not address all the needs of the church, a church management system (ChMS) is often necessary to assimilation, donations, attendance, volunteers, child check-in, events, etc.

    As for church management software solutions, someone referred to them as an ERP system. The analogy is partially correct because churches are required to track information on their congregation such donations and other records for purposes such as tax statements. The analogy to a CRM/ERP system breaks down when you consider that many of the top ChMS systems include customized tools/processes to help a church identify trends, follow-up with people in need, volunteer scheduling, etc. Much of this additional information is a must-have to understand your congregations needs and to serve them in a timely manner. I had Sr. Pastor in my office today reiterating how incredibly helpful our software was in helping to just keep track of first-time visitors. I am pleased to see many great ChMS providers in the market as it helps to increase innovation, encourages competitive pricing, etc. and in the end the winner is the Church.

    Coupled with the right processes, community tools and church management software can be invaluable for a church seeking to serve their congregation well and make sure no one falls through the cracks.

    God bless,

    Curtis Simmons

  • I am a part of a couple of Networks (Gospel Coalition, Mosaix Global Network) which use some form of this. GC uses the city, not sure what Mosaix is using… They both work well. Not really an attempt to “Christianize” but rather i think to manage social interaction in member only networking (which FB can’t do)…

  • Tony, thanks for writing this blog post. It is obviously an issue that people care enough to comment about. However, based on some of the comments I am reading, it would seem that there is still some confusion about the problem we are trying to address and how we want to do it. Namely, we want to close the communication gaps that exist in so many churches around the country so that church leaders can more effectively relay their messages to church members and so that church members have a way to respond and participate in the conversations and activities in the church.

    To be clear, we are not a ChMS, nor do we ever care to be. We let the pros (like Curtis Simmons) handle the heavy lifting of church management software. We are also NOT trying to be a “Christianized” social network.

    What we are providing is a valuable communication tool designed with our customers (who, in this case, happen to be churches) in mind. We do this by integrating with Facebook and Twitter, facilitating only group-centric communication, and by creating a simple and elegant application with a structure based on our insights about the Church and how it communicates.

    We have made some hard decisions to differentiate ourselves from our competitors, not because we think they are bad, but because we want to serve churches in the way that we think is best. An example of this, is that we don’t allow church members to have personal walls or status updates. We think this decision will facilitate more genuine group communication and move towards producing healthy church-wide conversations rather than personal dialogs. If church members want to talk to each other one-on-one online, they have Facebook for that.

    SoChurch is the place where church leaders can consolidate and disseminate all the online communication that happens in the church so that their members are apprised of church activity and can receive valuable communication wherever they may be; whether on Facebook, Twitter, email, or the SoChurch application itself.

    You have correctly identified that we have some “snarky” language on our site. Our goal, in everything we do, is to be honest, have fun, and to get to the bottom of things. For iron to sharpen iron, it takes some sparks. But we don’t want to burn anyone, just refine everyone, including ourselves. Hence, the honest and open dialogue.

    In fairness, only a couple of posts and one page on our site talk about the competition. The vast majority of our efforts is spent on developing a great application that our customers find valuable, to market it effectively in a convoluted space, and to provide resources to our followers, friends, and fans. And we aim to do this while at the same time keeping costs low so that churches of any size can afford our solution.

    In the interest of an honest and clear discussion, we would love to offer you (Tony) the opportunity to take a demo of our product and then feel free to write a post with your honest and unfiltered opinion.

  • Pingback: Social Networking and Churches « Superhua()

  • Kathy

    I have been searching for a CMS for over a month to find one that meets our Church’s most basic needs, which is a member database, volunteer scheduling and communication, and a central place for members to keep connected. At this point, I am just disappointed that the things that are available are simply unaffordable for the average church. While reading through the comments in this blog one that stood out to me was when the person said specifically that they would not want their tithe to go toward one such product. I am the secretary of my church and everything passes my desk, which is the reason why I am searching for the perfect product. My goal is to provide the best solution to our ministry needs for the best price possible (in my estimation that would be at most $25/month)

    Can anybody give suggestions on a web-based CMS that would meet my Church’s basic needs for an affordable price?

  • Tony

    Table project is free, couple this with easy tithe and kidcheck and you have a very affordable and complete communication and ChMS

  • I came to this very ‘ye olde’ blog post trying to see any comparisons between The City and Table Project.

    I would love to hear endusers and admins reviews from all three systems and come back here to give their reviews. For those who actually care about these things, perhaps we could all work together to reach out to those who have actual real-life experience with each system and give us reviews (complete with screenshots and the like).

    I would love to submit a review for The City as an Admin and/or Enduser and I am dying to hear about SoChurch and Table Project.


  • Tony,

    I come at this conversation from a slightly different perspective. I work with individuals and organizations to tell better stories to create deeper levels of engagement and create maximum impact.

    I have a process that I use (also the title of my blog) that I call “The Content Matrix.” This is a process where we define what we are going to do (strategy), put that strategy into action (implementation), and measure what happened (analysis).

    I sense the purpose of your post was not to name the existing ChMS options available to churches but to ask a deeper question of the role and function of the ChMS in a postmodern church and a post-Christian culture.

    I think those of us responsible for facilitating opportunities for spiritual experiences and growth for people must be sure that our efforts and investments are creating life change, or a “ministry ROI” if you will. Without this assurance, we are left with our best intentions. And “almost” just isn’t good enough anymore. There is too much at stake.

    Humans are bound by their perceptions, assumptions, and worldviews. If there is never an objective voice that is integrated into our decision making, how can we be sure we are doing the most with the people and opportunities we have been given?

    Technology is not the end. Rather, technology is the means to the end. The ChMS is not about showing off your cool new “car” because you are a “big” [sic] church. Instead, your ChMS is the objective voice that challenges or validates the assumptions of the senior leadership to ensure the decisions and investments being made are producing the intended results.

    I think the better conversation is how can we understand the systems that support the organizations we lead and how can technology help us measure and manage those systems to create maximum impact.

    I hope this adds a new twist to a very appropriate conversation.

    Blessings, Ben.

  • bil_

    We currently use FellowshipOne have played with The Table, and are looking into other ChMS. I just wanted to post a thought on Facebook. We have been slow to jump in (some would say missed it), but not because of a lack of understanding. I was on FB when it was college only (I was on staff at a college at the time).

    My concern pastorally with simply using the cultural tool is you are endorsing a medium that may or may not be good for the congregation in the long run. The argument can be made that folks are there anyway, and I believe we have a responsibility to be there too, but to make it your de-facto tool for church communication is a risky endorsement given privacy concerns let alone the titillating temptation to overuse the medium or unhealthy gawking.

    I’m convinced that in the name of “speed” and “engagement” we swallow whole too many hooks without examination. It’s for this reason that I think a more privatized ChMS to serve the church with connectors into other mediums may be a far better approach.

  • Hey don’t forget about

    Completely online, all the features of a more high-end database for a fraction of the price! Check em out!

    BTW is SoChurch out of business….their organization looks a little bit thin on content!

    B. Dee

  • Daniel Nichols

    I use facebook to stay in touch with all friends but I find it difficult to post a prayer request on fb so I use the Table Project to connect and be reminded to pray for special needs in my church and other churches. I also connect with as fb replacement for all ministers in the body of Christ, again free and 15,000 members strong.

  • Daniel Nichols

    I have to add that I really enjoy the Table interface, content, and ease of use. The church that relies on a website alone and fb is really missing out considering how many people seem to hate fb.