Is This the End of Email as We Know It?
I remember the first time I encountered Planning Center—the platform revolutionized how churches planned their Sunday worship services. Being able to schedule musicians, upload chord sheets, and even provide a link for musicians to listen to a song while rehearsing proved incredibly beneficial.
I still love Planning Center, and use it weekly in my church. But after using the software for almost 20 years, I have become aware of its glaring flaw: relying on email.
Utilizing email was not a flaw ten years ago; it was an asset. But our relationship with email is changing, and with it, a myriad of systems built upon this aging communication tool must also change.
It might be helpful to consider how we got here.
Email is simply shorthand for “electronic mail.” Electronic because it takes place from computer to computer—it’s not physical. And it’s called mail because mail is easy to understand. We all understand sending and receiving letters or packages—and how those parcels can go anywhere in the world. Aptly named, “electronic” was quickly shortened to an “e” before the word mail, forming e-mail. And today, the word is so commonplace that the dash has also been left behind.
Prophetically, the fate of email has followed the fate of terrestrial mail.
Opening the mailbox used to be something we all looked forward to. Would the mailman bring us a birthday card, a letter from afar, or a Christmas update from our cousins in Texas?
Nowadays, our mailbox is overwhelmingly an avenue for advertising. I easily receive five pieces of mail from companies to every one piece that is for me personally. Shoot, some days, I am even happy to get a bill amid all those flyers.
As goes mail, so goes email.
Our inboxes are full of advertising. Over 50% of all emails sent are considered “spam.” Even with junk mail filters, the ads get through. Our inboxes are bursting at the seams.
Second to spam, work-related issues are the next most common email if you work in any kind of office situation. Even students get emails daily about campus life, new rules, or class announcements. It is all very formal and necessary. We have become inundated by all this information—and it’s nonstop. Recognizing the always-connected issues raised by email and technology, France passed a law several years ago that bars businesses and bosses from sending emails to employees after work hours, in part to promote rest and positive mental health practices.
The fullness of our inboxes and the formality of email has led to a loss in engagement. When people are home, they aim to avoid work, not look for more of it. With this in mind, email engagement is down across the board. In recent years, average email open rates have declined across industries—and with new privacy protections available, people are taking more steps to protect their privacy, making it harder to rely on once-standard statistics like open rates.
Over the last several months, the introduction (and vast, quick improvements) of generative artificial intelligence has made it much easier for people and businesses to quickly send more emails, lowering the overall quality of the content in our inboxes and introducing an even larger flood of emails. It’s harder to get noticed in a person’s inbox. And the truth is, it’s more difficult for your church’s emails to catch someone’s attention, too.
In the early 2000s, the problem with email was getting the Greatest Generation to turn on a computer. In 2023, the problem is now with the old and the young. Gen Z and younger Millennials do not have the same affinity to email as Gen Xers.
This new generation communicates in different ways. Social media platforms rise and fall with the seasons. There are walled-off discussion boards like Reddit and other apps that can create small segments of community.
As an aging minister, I now receive lines of communication on at least four differing fronts. Once upon a time, email was the front line of my communication workflow. Nowadays, I have trouble finding which avenue a particular message came through.
Even in business, some companies have abandoned email for in-house messaging apps. Behemoths like Microsoft and Google are trying to step into this moment of indecision and provide a new solution. But there is yet to be a clear winner. The internet and the hipness of younger generations promise that there will be no single alternative to email. Instead, there will be many choices with slightly different strengths and weaknesses.
As church leaders, we need to pay attention because if the church ignores this generational trend, it will be ineffective at reaching both the old and the young.
The email solution
I don’t mean for all this to be doom and gloom—this is not a call to abandon email as a valid form of communication. Though the centrality of email in your church’s communication might be waning, email is still one of the most effective forms of direct marketing. A wise communication strategy considers the changing landscape and the particular preferences and needs of the people you’re connecting with. Email should now be viewed as one avenue among many to communicate with the church body.
Consider the following example: Our church has a monthly newsletter to inform and engage the congregation with what’s happening in the church. This monthly newsletter is really the central hub of our church’s communication strategy. We use several methods to connect people with the newsletter:
Printed version: A physical copy is available in the lobby all month long. Some people prefer to have something physical in their hands.
Email version: Instead of waiting for people to come to us to receive the newsletter on Sunday, we also meet them where they’re at. We optimize the newsletter for email, and send it to every email address in our system. Every. Single. One. We do not discriminate. Any person who has given us their email address (and permission to email them) receives one monthly email from us. NOTE: Do not bury your people in emails—less can be more!
Web version: A web version of the monthly newsletter is posted to Facebook. For our community, Facebook is still relevant. You may have people on TikTok, Instagram, or Twitter. Put it where your people interact with your church.
Highlights: The aspects of the newsletter highlighting major events are included as slides before and after the gathering. Along with the request to silence your cell phones is also a slide reminding people that camp is only three weeks away. Throughout the month, we also highlight these major elements in various ways that connect directly to the intended audience, too.
We are a relatively small church, yet we have learned that we, too, must communicate in many places to get through all the noise, grab the attention of our church members, and connect with them. And with all this work, people still say, “I didn’t know we were doing this!” We have widened the net much as we have observed communication trends and will continue learning as technology and habits change.