How To Make a (really great) Church App
One of the questions I have been asked the most by other creative ministries goes something like, "How do we build a church app?" or even "Is it a good idea to make an app for a church?" Maybe those are the kinds of questions you're asking. The last thing a church wants to be called is "irrelevant," which really strikes at the heart of this church app issue. Ultimately, I believe a love of Jesus and genuine (and selfless) relationships with people make a church relevant - Paul said it best, without love, nothing we do will matter (1 Corinthians 13). Before I answer this question, we need to get at the heart of what a good church app is.
A good Church app is a resource.
It is not a marketing tool, believe it or not. We need to think of our app as a valuable, ongoing resource for the people in our church who want to stay connected. It will likely cost quite a bit of money and time. Is that something you can make and maintain?
To app or not to app?
I'm not going to go into demographics or "look how many people have a smart phone" statistics, let's just say that almost everyone has a smartphone at this point. Almost everyone has a car, but it wouldn't make sense for a church to begin manufacturing tires. No, let's start with the actual primary question - Why should your church create an app? Take a look at this list below. Does your church:
- Record/publish the audio and video of sermons every week?
- Have changing small group material online?
- Have online giving?
- Have a blog?
- Make story/promo videos?
- Have audio recordings of the band?
- Have a strong social media presence?
- Have a calendar of church events?
- Have a person to manage an app every week?
If the answer to most of those questions is yes, then it's a great idea to make an app!
If the answer to most of those questions is no, then an app is likely not a valuable resources for your church. Remember, that's what a church app is about - making a valuable resource for your people. Creating a church app is about accessibility to content. I can't emphasize the last point on that list enough. You need someone dependable who is responsible for managing the content on the app every single week. If content or a person responsible for it is an issue - do not make an app.
It is important to remember that an app is an extension of your ministry - very rarely (and I mean RARELY) is an app a ministry in itself.
A great church app engages the existing community within the church.
It's not enough for someone to download your app - your goal is to make an app people want to use again and again. In a world where mega churches and celebrity pastors are accessible at the touch of a screen, who are the people that will continue to visit your app? People who know and love your church.
Focus your app toward an audience that loves and is engaged with (or at least knows) your church. There will be others, sure, but your church body should be the primary audience. Think of them first when building and managing your app.
Let's Make An App
You're ready to do this! I've broken down the app building process into five steps that I'll get into. Don't skip ahead!
Choose a platform
Fill with content
1. Set Goals
Before anything else, jot down a few things you want your app to focus on. Download other apps from churches your size and explore them. Are there features you see in these apps you know you can implement as well? What do you like, what don't you like? Grab a yellowpad and begin to research and plan - you'll be glad you did.
2. Choose a Platform
The next thing is to decide which platform(s) you want your app to run on. Android, iPhone, Windows, Kindle, iPad? Apple TV? All of them? If your budget is willing, you should almost certainly develop for all of them.
But if you have to choose, a good approach is to get a feel for what your church uses. For us, our church overwhelming uses iOS, Apple's mobile platform. In 2015, around 70% of our church's smartphone users had iPhones (we learned this from our website analytics). It is always good to know your audience as much as possible before you start developing. But the more platforms you can afford, the better.
3. Develop App
Next, is time to get to work. Below are some popular options for app development, each with pros and cons. You'll need to choose one of these (or something else) to actually make an app.
Use a paid service
This paid service route is the easiest way to build an excellent app on multiple platforms. At our church, we use a paid service called Subsplash, which we really really love. It uses the same, straight forward template for everybody that will work well for most churches. North Point, Elevation, Newspring, and hundreds of other churches use Subsplash. All you need is to choose which features you want in the app, set up a few images and links, and you're ready to go.
Of course, you still need someone to upload new content every week (sermons for example). This is usually (by far) the easiest and fastest way to make a really great app. My experience is that you get what you pay for, so just be sure that you don't miss out on features you were expecting.
To make an app for all major phone and tablet platforms, Subsplash has a flat $999 setup fee and a monthly fee of $149. All that is variable depending on what you want, and they are good about working with churches to find something within their budget.
Shop around! Get quotes. Talk to companies. Compare.
Note: Even if you use one of these services, you will still need a person to maintain it each week who has some basic graphic design skills.
Pros - Really easy to setup and maintain.
Cons - Can be expensive. May have limited options.
Code an app yourself
Of course, you might want to save a few hundred dollars and build the app yourself, just like the pros. This is where choosing a platform can be especially important. To make an iPhone app, you need to use Xcode, a free and Mac only software made by Apple for coding apps.
This option might be the most difficult, but it also means you can (theoretically) build anything you could imagine.
As someone who didn't know a single command in any programming code, I can tell you that with time and determination, you can build your own app like this. YouTube and Google are filled with ingenious people who have shared their knowledge for your app building resource. Your only cost will be time and an app store membership fee. Apple's yearly membership fee is $99.
If you're not the one building the app, do not assume your media guy/gal knows this stuff. They might, but if they don't, it is very time consuming to learn. Consider signing up for an online coding course.
Pros - Extremely versatile. The sky is the limit. Most affordable option (if you don't hire someone).
Cons - Very difficult and time consuming to build and maintain if you don't know how.
4. Fill with Content
You've built an app. Now it's time to put in all the connected accounts, text, pictures, videos, and audio. This process is going to vary wildly depending on how you've built the app, but I wanted to reinforce the importance of the content. This step will determine if your app is worth using.
For us, this step took a solid 10 hours of work up front just to get it ready to launch, and we already had all our sermons and videos ready to go beforehand. Spend a lot of time on this step. Don't skimp on accomplishing the goals you set in step 1 just so you can get something out there. It'll be worth the work!
Now for the moment you've been waiting for. Keep in mind that no matter how you make your app, there is an approval process with each app store and you may have to make some changes before they will publish it. This process takes anywhere from a week to a month. Updates are much faster.
A person may download your app, use it once, and then forget about it until that Sunday when they miss a Sunday and want to watch the sermon on their tablet. Be sure that no matter which Sunday this happens, they get what they expect. If people stop using your app because it's not useful, find out why, and fix it!
If maintained, a church app can be an amazing resource for your church. In our church of 700 regular attenders, our app is opened an average of 1200 times a month.
It is truly amazing that the local churches of our time can push teaching to every one of their congregation members 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
These are the things I've learned from building church apps for the last 7 years. What advice or questions do you have about building a church app? Comment below!