Adapting To The Times: Sandals Church’s Commitment To Digital Evolution

Change is difficult to accept in any aspect of our lives—and churches usually feel that doubt twice as strongly.

Morgan Teruel, online campus manager at Sandals Church in Riverside, California, is quick to admit her hesitancy when their ministry first leaned into hybrid worship services during the pandemic. But today, she’s part of a nimble digital team that’s created innovative methods for gauging online engagement, and their results in building discipleship have been nothing short of amazing.

Finding Sandals

Morgan’s journey began when moving to California in 2010 for her studies, where she first met her husband. She recalls, “My husband actually started going to Sandals before they even had their own building.” Morgan joined the church in 2014, initially getting involved through volunteer work before transitioning to a leadership role in 2018.

The COVID pandemic struck just two years later, testing him as he struggled to transition “over from the worship world into the digital world.”

Morgan describes that shift as a “mourning process,” but today acknowledges it’s been a blessing. “God’s been really good to me, because he’s given me the opportunity to still serve in a way in which I feel like I’m supposed to, while also [developing] digital strategies.”

Refining The Approach

Like many church leaders, Morgan was forced to grapple with the question, “Can discipleship happen digitally? And if so, how do we measure it?”

“We care about what’s behind the number,” she continues, “more than the number itself. I’m sure many churches can resonate with that.”

After years of experimentation and refinement, Sandals Church landed on a clever method for measuring digital discipleship in a way that truly informs their church. The team focused on a “funnel” concept, splitting their online audience into three categories: the crowd, the congregation, and the core.

The crowd are those who casually consume Sandals content. The congregation are committed enough to watch a full sermon online, and the core are those devoted members taking active steps to enrich their life within the church.

“We decided to be very strategic in the content that we released and the experiences we provided for each of [those segments],” shares Morgan. She also explains how they track activity in each of their categories and watch for change over time, so they can better understand how their content strategies are impacting each group.

Morgan says that their goal isn’t to grow just one segment of their church, but to grow connection and engagement across all sections. “If our congregation doesn’t move and our core doesn’t move, we are not discipling people.” In that spirit, their efforts to measure online discipleship are still evolving—highlighting the fluidity of their new hybrid model.

Content For Everyone

Sandals Church quickly realized the importance of an intentional strategy tailored to different content types; the medium must match the audience’s needs for it to be effective.

On one end of the spectrum, there are the simulated live services, which occur at the same time each weekend and provide a more traditional worship experience. “You know exactly what time you’re going,” Morgan explains, and points to the interactive possibilities with your peers. “You typically know a couple of people that are going to be there.”

On the other hand, some individuals may find their church’s content serendipitously. To accommodate those online viewers, Sandals’s YouTube sermons strip down the traditional format of a full worship service and focus on delivering a message in a compact format. The strategy has been a success–even leading to surprise connections Morgan could never have imagined. “One time we met somebody actually, he was in Italy… and popping up on the suggested videos was our pastor Matt Brown preaching. That was how he found Sandals.”

Thinking Outside The Box

During their early forays into digital content during the pandemic, Morgan and her team launched “Sandals Church Anywhere.” The initiative was developed to maintain connections and foster community while social distancing.

Their house church model—or “micro-gathering,” as Morgan describes it—was conceived out of necessity. “[People were] obviously lonely, didn’t have community, and most people couldn’t meet in a new church building.”

Today, Sandals Church Anywhere involves curating, interviewing, and aligning the right individuals to host church gatherings in their own homes. Morgan describes the program as reminiscent of, “going back to the basics of house church, like we read about in Acts.”

While each gathering follows the same spiritual roadmap, they’re inherently unique in their execution of discipleship. There’s a Sandals Church Anywhere in South Carolina, where the leaders have been performing baptisms and are raising their children within the life of their new church community. They’ve even sent individuals on mission trips.

“They’re doing it!” Morgan shares with enthusiasm. “We are honored to just support and resource them… they’re self starters, they are taking initiative, and they love the Lord and they are looking for any opportunity to lead other people to Him.”

Vigilant Tech Adoption

“The pace of change is accelerated,” Morgan points out regarding technology. “Even something like our Sandals Church Anywhere model over the last three years, we’re seeing the need for it to change even now… We’re realizing, okay, well, this isn’t 2020 anymore!”

To keep up with the times, Morgan and her team employ a variety of strategies. They actively immerse themselves in cultural trends; Morgan cites the 2022 YouTube Culture and Trends Report and the Google Year-End Summary. These insights actively affect their approach to online discipleship. “How can we capitalize on the things that are trendy? The methods that might work for other people, in other areas, [may have a place in] the Church.”

Morgan stresses the importance of a fluid mindset, of being willing to evolve and adapt—even if it means letting old methods fade away. “Every time we learn something new, we kind of look introspectively and go, might we need to change something?”.

And by being open to change, Morgan’s confident that Sandals will effectively lead and drive discipleship in the new, fast-paced era of hybrid church.

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