95 Network Interview with Altar CEO Stephanie Leathe

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Our friends and advisors Dale Summers and Austin Savage of 95 Network invited Altar Live CEO Stephanie Leathe to their podcast to share her story and insights after one year of equipping churches with online engagement tools. Some highlights here, and the full podcast at 95 Network.

Here are some of the highlights.

Embracing innovation in the church

Stephanie: We just really began tinkering. It was late night calls after work, calling all of my pastor friends, and really just start digging this. As you can imagine -- and you guys lived through this too -- the world changed in March last year. The biggest innovation that has ever happened in churches, probably since the printing press arrived -- maybe the printing press and the overhead projector... maybe also the smoke machine.

Austin: Just keep going...

Dale: ...and moving lights, electric guitars...

Stephanie: We haven't really had a wave of innovation like this in the church. I remember thinking last April, telling my students, "You all should be on the lookout! I am on the lookout. This is a once in a lifetime thing that is happening to us and our world. There are going to be opportunities for innovation coming out of this." 

I walked into it last year having learned the entrepreneurial mindset: you don't fall in love with your solution, you fall in love with the problem. You fall in love with the actual problem, and the need of the people you're trying to solve this for. The solution will evolve and change. That mindset allows you to pivot, it gives you humility when you go into situations not knowing quite where it's going. And I think it ends up being a better win both for the people you are serving, as well as for you as a team.

Online church: catered affair, or potluck?

Dale: When we had to embrace the smoke machine and the electric guitar, we chose to do that. Even the printing press, they chose to do that. In this situation, we were forced to do it.... We saw some incredible shifts that took place in a very short period of time. Did you discover a lot of push back? What was the vibe like when you got your feet on the ground? What's it been like working with churches? 

Stephanie: As somebody who did not grow up in the American church, I went to house churches most of my life. The way churches function in U.S. culture was a different experience for me. There is an emphasis on church experience. There is a lot of time spent thinking about how to cultivate this church experience. Having come from a house church background, which is more organic... There is a church experience that is more like a catered event, where you show up and everything is laid out perfectly for you. Then there's the church that is like the potluck, where everybody brings a little of something -- and you might not like half the food that's there! -- but everybody feels a sense of ownership. I come from that potluck church style.

I have learned to see what is good about that catered style, the striving for excellence. What does it mean to have an excellent website? What does it mean to have an excellent first experience? excellent music and lights? I see the value in that.

When we started Altar Live, we didn't go into it thinking we were going to change the way churches do church. I am excited by the potential that online has to turn church more into a potluck experience for people online as opposed to a catered affair, one in which our tool democratizes, decentralizes a bit of the experience. There’s a sense that you can show up, and it is as much about the other people as it is about the livestream content.

Why do small churches think online church is not real church?

Austin: It’s interesting. You feel that the biggest opportunity online is to build community, to create that potluck feel. And I feel that has been the consistent critique from smaller churches towards online ministry in general. That when you are doing anything online, that’s what is consumeristic. 

Dale: That it’s not real church. 

Austin: How is your perspective different from that? 

Stephanie: Two ways. You can run a thread through my story that you’ve heard here, and it is that I really love helping build communities. Community-building has some fundamental ingredients no matter what you’re doing, whether it’s planning an evening dinner party, to a wedding, to an actual church service. How people engage and have meaningful experiences together is something I am passionate about. 

So when we started designing Altar, we thought about how do you help people have a meaningful connection with each other as with the content they are experiencing. That’s why we chose to lean heavily into the medium of videoconferencing. Videoconferencing allows people to actually see and be seen by others, to be heard, and to be known. 

I think a lot of people, especially in my generation, are frustrated with church. When we think about people leaving the church, there’s a few reasons. One is relevancy. Tools and technology are not going to solve a relevancy problem. Second is shared ownership. Church is not something you just show up to and experience, but something you are a part of, that you have shared ownership in as a community. That’s a place where you want to bring hard questions, a place you want to bring both your successes and failures in life. It’s a place where you feel a deep sense of being known. 

At least in my experience, that is where I have experienced church being a really powerful and amazing part of my life and of my spiritual journey. What I saw happening online was the algorithms that we currently have for how you post services online -- it comes down to Likes, Shares and Comments. In and of itself those are not bad. But if you measure that against the picture of what I just painted, where you feel known and can ask hard questions, and can have personal conversations -- it’s just the tools were at a mismatch. 

So, creating a potluck experience, for us, was really leaning into the videoconferencing aspect where you can allow people to freely communicate with one another on a one-on-one or small group basis.

Online has been a blessing to introverts

Dale: Are you an introvert or an extravert? One of the great things I’ve heard about what you guys have created is that it has been a breath of fresh air for introverts. Can you dive into that a bit? Why is that the case? 

Stephanie: Oh, good question. We like to tell the story of this one church where there was a woman in their congregation who is very much an introvert, she’s very quiet. Not a lot of people knew her. During the pandemic, she just really thrived online. She was in the comments section all the time, greeting people, welcoming people, sending people direct messages.  

There came time to do an Elder nomination, and her name got submitted to the Elders by quite a few people just simply because they saw her in the comments online so often. You would never in a million years guess this person would want to be an Elder. 

She can feel like she has a role and contribute to the community a bit more on her own terms. She doesn’t have to walk into a room full of people to do small talk and chit-chat. But she can still relationally connect with people from her couch at home, and have deep and meaningful relationships with people online.

Online, you move into purposeful conversations faster

Stephanie: The other thing about online is that it can feel very consumer content based, and it is hard to move past just the social. With videoconferencing, you immediately dive into something more purposeful. I notice that even as I get onto calls now. You really move into purposeful conversation a lot faster. That's been an unexpected part.

Alpha has been a great example of this. They have seen a huge increase in attendance. Alpha has always been traditionally in-person over dinner. You know, Nicky Gumbel, their founder, was like, “never online!” The pandemic gave them no option. They moved online, and they saw a four-fold increase in the number of people who participated in Alpha this year... 

They saw people going deeper, faster because they could be on their own couch, intentionally -- again, that purposeful interaction -- like, “we’re here to talk about some hard questions. We’re gonna dive in!” You know, chit chat and things happen along the way, but people just felt like they could be more vulnerable faster. 

It’s amazing! Alpha has totally changed its model now. They totally lean into online groups now, and that’s a preferred way for many people. It’s crazy. I also would have said I didn’t think relationships and thriving community can happen online equally, or sometimes better, than in person. But I have become a convert to that. 

Dale: Well, that's good, since it's what you do for a living!

What is the church for? 

Austin: How can the church become more entrepreneurial? 

Stephanie: First, for entrepreneurs of any kind, is learning that skill of falling in love with your problem more than your solution. The equivalent for churches is, what does it mean to be a church? What is church for?... What are your people’s needs? 

Sometimes it means changing things that have always been done the same way. Other times it does mean letting people bring their potluck dishes to the table that don’t necessarily fit as easily or nicely as everything else. 

Dale: This is such a great word picture! I think of how awkward it would be to go to a 5-star restaurant and somebody comes walking in with their banana pudding or a tray of fried chicken, and somebody else has a mac and cheese. 

That, in a sense, is what’s happening today. The churches are so upset. I mean, we’re all upset. Nobody wanted a pandemic. You can sit and complain about it all you want, but it happened. But now the big push is to get it back to the way it was. All these pastors are so locked into how they did things in the past. 

I love the in-person experience!... But, the entrepreneurial person goes, “there’s a group of people who are not being reached…." An apostolic person sees people groups who are not being reached and figures out a way to reach them. 

Jesus didn’t say have a sign out in front of your church that says ‘come and see.’ He told us to go and tell. And I think you’re doing that in a wonderful way.

"We only value rear ends in seats"

Stephanie: It's exciting to see how this can be used to make spiritual community more accessible to more people. A church we were working with said, "you know what we were really convicted of during the pandemic? Here we are online now, and all of our people in nursing homes, other people who are sick at home or have kids with disabilities... coming to church on Sundays is a big chore. It's not easy. It takes energy. All these people are engaging online with us now, and we suddenly had the thought, 'what were we doing for these people prior to the pandemic?'"

Dale: Nothing.

Stephanie: "We raised money for wheelchair ramps and things like that. Why didn't we think about just doing things online?"

Dale: Because we only value rear ends in seats. The culture has been this way as long as I've been alive. What makes something valid is a person being there because we are a counting culture. And now Jesus is redeeming what took place.

Stephanie: Yeah, again, when you fall in love with the problem, the solution can look so different for different people. It doesn't have to look like what we've always done. [This pastor] said, 'Yeah, we are never going back to not having an online option. It is more important for us that these people have a way to feel connected than to push in-person only as a way to allow people to come to church."