A Christmas Disrupted Conversation with Jon Pyle
How does understanding your audience(s) impact plans for this Christmas? In this Christmas Disrupted Conversation, Jon Pyle, Associate Pastor for CityChurch talks about how they are creating unique digital content to connect with the core audiences they will serve this Christmas.
Tim Nations: So I'm excited to have Jon Pyle with me. Jon is with City Church down in the San Antonio area. I've had the privilege of knowing Jon for several years. Their team's been involved in some of the experiences that I got to put together with the Leadership Network Team, and so I got to connect with Jon many times and we've just stayed in touch over the last few years, so it's fun to get to reconnect and spend some time together even if it's virtually. But Jon, I thank you for making some time to connect with church leaders and to share what you guys are doing. Just to start things off, give us a little bit of context about you and City Church. What was Christmas like in the past?
Jon Pyle: Yeah. So Christmas Eve here at City Church - by the way, thank you, Tim. I love you, and it's so good to see you. Christmas Eve at City Church is always our second biggest attended service after Easter. And I think that's fairly standard. Previously before coronavirus when we were doing services, we had four in-person services. Though we didn't call them "in-person" because that wasn't a thing, right? We had four services on a Sunday. And typically on Christmas Eve, we would have had at least two services if not three services to be able to accommodate the rush of people. We have a highly Catholic context, and so going to church on Christmas Eve is a thing that even the most ardent, anti-church people do. It's just tradition. And so we would have people show up in pajamas, in whatever. But it's like, okay, I'm coming because it's Christmas Eve, and that's what you do. That's what you do. And so we would have to add services and run them - you know, we had a Christmas Eve Eve service and sometimes a Christmas Eve Eve Eve service depending on the day that it landed to try and spread people out. So yeah, from four services to about six or seven services in the last few years.
Tim Nations: And so just as context, about how many people would you guys see for each of those services.
Jon Pyle: On an average weekend right before the pandemic, we were probably averaging between 2,800-3,200 people over the course of those four services. And so for Christmas we would have upwards of 5,000 or even 6000 people in those services. That's why the seven services or the six services were really important. And our venue, we have a very large venue here. Our main auditorium seats over 900 people, and we have a video venue that's on the same campus that can seat 200-250. Some Christmas Eve services it would be absolutely packed everywhere. There are some epic stories we have about having to bring TVs out onto the plaza because of the overflow of people that were coming.
Tim Nations: Yeah, alright. So this year, very different experience, obviously very different circumstances that we find ourselves in. Talk a little bit about what you guys are planning for this year. We understand that - we've had several of these conversations. We always preface by saying, there's still some things up in the air. There's contingency plans to be made, but if everything goes your way with what you know now, what are you guys planning for Christmas?
Jon Pyle: If everything goes our way, we are now going to do three services for Christmas Eve. We've been back in person for, I guess it's 4-5 weeks now. This might be our 6th week in person coming up at the time of this recording. So we've had two services on Sunday. We've stuck with two services, and we're going to continue to stick with two. So we're only adding one, which is a pretty significant jump, but we believe that we can get all the people that we want to get in those three services. So that's the plan. Three services on Christmas Eve. The times are kind of up in the air. Traditionally we do something close to 5, 6:30 and then an 11 kind of a midnight mass kind of thing. Again going back to our Catholic context. And for a while the 11 was one of our more popular things. No childcare. You just kind of come in. And again, that's where kids are like asleep and their parents brought them in their pj's to church, but that’s always a fun service to do.
Tim Nations: Yeah, so what has been your percentage. Where are you guys at with in-person, and so what are you expecting there when it comes to attendance for the in-person services?
Jon Pyle: Well to follow the social distancing protocol that we feel comfortable with, and so our space it's set seats, so there's really only so much that we can do. So with our current capacity, we can probably only do about 40% of let's say 1,000. We can probably do about 400 seats in our auditorium, and that's if enough families come and it breaks right because we're doing one seat between each party and we're spacing out the rows in between. So every other row and then one space between every family household gets their own bubble. So the max we could do would be about 40% capacity. We’ve had probably, in terms of adults, it would be interesting to count the kids, the last 4-5 weeks we've had between 780 and 850 people total. That's including kids and everything. So probably close to 30-33% in our auditorium and then very few in our overflow video venue. A whole other story that we could probably do a whole other interview about is that our video venue was at one point a coffee cafe. It served pastries, drinks, food. And because of the coronavirus we stopped that, and that completely changed the environment. It's become a true overflow kind of venue instead of a place that people have chosen.
Tim Nations: So talk about the digital piece to this Christmas. What do you have in mind?
Jon Pyle: Yes. So one of the things that we're going to do is we're going to stream all services. Live stream all three so that people who do not feel comfortable going back or do not feel comfortable on the holidays. We anticipate in talking to our people - this isn't scientific, this is just anecdotal gut, pastoral kind of feel - is that when people come into town, people feel more likely to be cautious and less likely to go out. So we want to make sure that we provide a good experience so that people can choose to participate in Christmas Eve from home, and we want to live stream that. That's not the cutting-edge kind of different thing. The second thing that we’re trying to do - or two more things - is create some additional content that are not service-driven elements to be available for people to consume the other 167 hours of the week. And so we've had a creative team kind of working on some concepts. Because we want the videos to be evergreen, we're going to take a concept that we feel like people are wrestling with, something like "home" or "homesickness" or "belonging," and kind of explore that through some different ways in telling some of our story. So that's for YouTube specifically. We want it to be evergreen so someone could discover it in Christmas 2023 and it would still work or the summer of 2021. But at the same time targeting some of the needs that we're hearing from people and feeling from people as it relates not only to just the season. The holidays give rise to the blues, depression, and anxiety for many people. But with the coronavirus, some people can't go home. We talk to some of our older folks who would usually go and travel to be with family and they're not going to be able to do that. And we talked to some of our younger folks, and it's the same thing. We want to create this kind of experience that people can, "consume" is the wrong word, but interact with and participate with throughout this holiday season and not based on the, hey show up at Christmas Eve at 11 o'clock.
Tim Nations: Yeah, well, and I know you guys are also in a military city, and so my guess is and from knowing some people that are in the military that a lot of their typical plans and things have changed, especially for those that are in training of some kind. So having some additional content that people can experience and encounter would be very useful, very meaningful to people during this particular season. So do you have some of those concepts, some of those ideas that you guys are kicking around that you could share?
Jon Pyle: Yeah, absolutely. To your point about the military, every airman that's enlisted comes through San Antonio. And there are many programs in our city around Thanksgiving and Christmas time to give airman a home. They're in training and they can't just go home. They have to stay, and so you kind of adopt an airman, and it's a common thing in our city to be able to do. What does that look like with coronavirus? We don't know, right? We don't know, but we know the military is being pretty careful. So in terms of concept, we've been thinking through, if we want to reach people who wouldn't usually come to church, if we want to reach people who aren't necessarily going to respond to an invite of, "Hey, come to church" with people that don't have that thing within them that pulls them into church on Christmas Eve but are still feeling that yearning, a hole, a void that we feel might be filled by God and not know it. But to compete in that marketplace of ideas of "well the Bible says this is where you belong, you're the body of Christ," and this and that. "Well the Bible says" - I don't know why I did an accent there. We want to start with personal stories, and so we're kind of talking to our team. And many of our people are people who didn't grow up in church or had a lot of church hurt and were very alienated by the church in some form or fashion. And so we all in this five-person creative team as we were talking through this, we all had things as it relates to home. Right? How we always had this longing for a home that we didn't experience. Some of us had parents that loved us. Some of us grew up in a bubble, too sheltered. But we all have this feeling of not belonging where we were. Part of our story and why we're here at City Church is because we found that not only in believing in Jesus but in becoming part of a community. And so we want to lead with our story because experiential, what we call "peer referral based" wisdom and knowledge seems to have a higher priority for most people who don't believe in Jesus than "the Bible says," So by telling our stories of finding home in Jesus and in his body, we hope to connect with people who are looking for something else. They might not even believe it at first. They might just say, well, let me try this, nothing else has worked, right? And in our post-modern context where truth is relative to each person, I think there's a crack in the door for Jesus as we can tell our own stories effectively and tell it well. The main metaphor, I'll give away the main metaphor for, and now I'm like, Lord please let us pull this off. The main metaphor is the table. A table represents belonging. A table represents home. And so we want to use table as the contact of how we didn't feel like we belonged in other environments and how we feel like we're at a new table now with a whole new group of people, with a different family, our messy church. Because of some of our theology, we talk about "messy grace" a lot. Not just free grace soteriology and free grace theology but this idea of a messy church and combining that with messy grace where anybody no matter where they are in their spiritual journey can sit down at this table and encounter Jesus.
Tim Nations: Oh, that's great. That's great. I would assume that the content you create that becomes very sharable so that your community can send that to people that know, like, and trust them and then that creates a great opportunity for them to hear those stories, connect with those stories, and begin a story of their own. That's fantastic. So the last thing I want to hear you talk through, and I think you've alluded to some of this as you've described some of what you guys are planning, but talk to us about how you came to the decision that you came to about what you're doing for Christmas. What are the key factors, the key values, the things that helped you decide what you did? Because I've talked to a lot of different churches, a lot of different leaders, some in similar situations, some in very different situations, and they all arrive at a little bit different plan. But it's because of the key influencing factors or the key values that they brought to the decision-making process that guided where they landed. So talk to us a little bit about what those things are for you.
Jon Pyle: Yeah, it's a great question. When we began to regather, the highest priority is people's safety, right? One, we care about our people. We love them, we don't want them to get sick or contribute to catching the coronavirus or exacerbating other health issues. So the care of our people started, but even if we're just being cynical, we don't want to be the church where there was a coronavirus outbreak. We had that in our city, and that really alienated a lot of our city and population going, "Those selfish Christians, they just need to get together and sing, and because of that I have to stay in my house longer," or, "Because of that, I have to wear a mask." And so we don't want to be that church that makes the news because we have an outbreak. That was a big priority, but within that our senior pastor really articulated a great value about giving people a choice. We've seen other church contexts where you reopened and you move all of your resources away from digital. So if you're going to experience our church, you have to come in person. And we've seen other churches do the opposite of going, "Nope, we're not gathering at all in person. We're throwing it all into digital, so this is the only way that you can come to our church." And we wanted to offer a choice and trying to offer equal choice so that if you don't feel comfortable coming yet, you can still receive a good experience digitally. If you really want to come and you show up, you're going to experience something good in person, a quality service that isn't lacking because we've invested it all in digital. So by creating equal options, some equity, some equality there, that's one of the priorities of creating our Christmas experience. And so we wanted to make sure that for the people that wanted to show up that are fired up, people that are excited, people that feel comfortable with whatever their view of their health is, that they can come and they can do it safely. But at the same time, we're not leaving out the people at home who long to gather with their community. And so we've got to create something for them that doesn't feel like a second-class experience. So that's been the big value of how we talk about what we're going to do. So why do we livestream all the services? Why do we only have three? Right? So you take those big chunks, and I think those are the big values that brought us to the "how." The "how" we made the decision around what we are going to do.
Tim Nations: And I know from previous conversations with you and some of the things that you guys have been really thinking deeply through over the last six or seven months that coming to a really clear understanding of your audiences plays a big factor into this as well. My guess is as you think through those concepts and you talk about stories that that's a big part of, you guys might have approached that content development differently a year ago than you would now because you've invested a lot in understanding your audience. Can you talk to that just a little bit?
Jon Pyle: Absolutely, absolutely. It's funny, we've actually called them heroes, right, because they're on their own journey. And we've had two in our digital experience, and we were doing all digital. We have what we call an in-person hero, which is someone who primarily experiences City Church in person, has, is, and will and is sticking with us digitally because that's the only option. And then we have a digital hero who is someone who may never come to our campus, may never experience us, may never have context, but we're reaching totally in a digitally-needed way. All they know is what we put out digitally. So by having these two heroes and understanding who the audiences are and who we're shooting for, that makes a huge difference. And so our livestream for example is for our in-person hero. It's for people who can't make it that week. It's for people who don't feel comfortable coming back, but are just waiting for the time when they can come back in person. The only barrier between them and sitting in these seats is the coronavirus right now. That's the biggest barrier. That's our in-person hero. And then we have this digital hero, which is why we're talking about doing this YouTube series. It's why we're talking about building a Facebook campus. It's why we're doing it because this is a person who may only experience things as digitally. And a livestream requires context typically. It's not that they won't like it or get anything from it. It just might not be the way that they would engage to start. And so by having these clear audiences and trying to serve both audiences well, that's been great. And keeping those audiences in mind, Tim, has actually caused us to kill some projects that were really cool. Stuff that we thought of and were like, "Man, this will be really cool," and then we get 20% down the road and go, "This is for our in-person hero, and most of those people are going to be coming back. Is this really who we want to reach on YouTube, is this really who we want to reach with this." And it's like [sigh], back to the drawing board. This was a cool project idea, but it's not going to serve the audience that we're shooting for.
Tim Nations: And in a season where everyone is already kind of maxed out, being able to preserve some of that energy and put it toward things that you really fell are going to land for those audiences makes a big difference. And so being able to know what to say no to is just as important as what you end up saying yes to. Last thing, any tips, any advice that you would give to churches that haven't figured out what they're doing yet and they're trying to find out how to make those decisions for Christmas?
Jon Pyle: Yeah, absolutely. One, I think it is, think through who your audience is. I mean, really think through who you are trying to reach with it, and that will figure out what you want to do. I think that's a biggie. And don't be aspirational about your audience. Don't get too aspirational around, "Well I'm going to reach people in the Sudan." Have you ever reached people in the Sudan? No? Well, you're probably not going to reach people in the Sudan now. You know, a principle I've seen with the coronavirus is that it's just exacerbated what was there. Anything that's there, it's just put under a microscope and kind of multiplied. So if you are good at home visits and hospital visits, this season has just revealed how good you are at that, right? If you're good at putting forth this and you have this kind of relationship with your people, it's revealing that you're good at that. So stay in your lane as well as you're thinking about your audience. Don't try to do something that's beyond what you're going to do because the people that you're going to reach, you might be the only person that's going to reach them. If you're a church of 20, if you're a church of 20,000, there're people that need your unique presentation of values, DNA, and what you do, the way you see Jesus. And so as you're planning for the holidays, don't go crazy. The thing that drives me - I ran into a pastor at a coffee shop a couple of days ago. The thing that gets me crazy is people investing thousands and thousands of dollars in streaming equipment and going, dude, you're not going to be better than Elevation. I love you, but you're not going to compete there. What your people need is something different. And you don't need to spend $20,000 on gear to give them that different piece. Don't just keep up with the Jones' because you think it is what you're supposed to do.
Tim Nations: That's great. That's great. Well, Jon, thanks so much. I love hearing what you guys are doing at City Church and appreciate you, especially over the last several weeks, giving me a sneak peak of the journey that you've been on. But thanks for jumping on today and sharing with other leaders as well.
Jon Pyle: Hey, thanks man. Always a pleasure. Love to do it.