Don’t Get A Church App In 2023

Brady Shearer
Brady Shearer
Feb 4, 2023
·
8
min read

Almost every day I see a church ask this question: “Should we build a church app?” Maybe this question gets asked in a public forum. Or maybe they send me a DM or email directly.

It’s a fair question. Here’s my response:

For 99% of churches, a mobile app will be a net negative. Invest in your website instead.

Let’s talk about why…

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Reason #1: Containers

Here are some terrifying numbers on the cost of developing custom mobile apps:

  • A VDC survey of enterprise app developers found mobile apps to cost an average of $140,000 each1
  • A Clutch survey of app development companies indicated a median price of $171,450 per app2
  • A Kinvey survey of CIOs found the average price to be $270,000 per app3

Simply stated, if you’re in the market for building a custom app – like the Churchome app – at the very least you should expect to spend $100,000. Plus, ongoing support and maintenance costs.

Now, it goes without saying that most churches cannot afford a six-figure custom app. So you might be wondering, how are churches creating apps at all then? Answer: Templates.

Here’s the bottom line: If you see a church with an app, that app was almost certainly created using a pre-made template.

Now don’t get me wrong here, I’m not saying templates are bad. Not at all! Not everything needs to be original and built from scratch.

But in the world of mobile apps, this is a problem.

How Apple’s Guideline 4.2.6 Changed Apps Forever

Late in 2017, Apple made the following announcement:

Going forward, according to Guideline 4.2.6, apps created using a “commercialized template or app generation service” would be banned from the app store.4

Not surprisingly, this generated a ton of backlash. Press releases were published. Church app companies scrambled to find solutions. The forums went crazy. People were freaking out – and rightfully so.

Thankfully, Apple heard the cries of its users and amended the rule. Guideline 4.2.6 now reads: “Apps created from a commercialized template or app generation service will be rejected unless they are submitted directly by the provider of the app’s content.”5

Still not great. But much, much better.

Text highlighted in yellow.

You might be wondering, how could Apple have the power to simply reject template-based apps?

Simply put: their house; their rules.

This is one of the paramount weaknesses of church apps: you don’t own the distribution, Apple does. So you’re on rented space.

You can’t go somewhere else to get apps on iOS devices. You must go through Apple. And they can change the rules on a whim.

Here’s the good news though – there is a solution (kind of)…

Introducing Church App Containers

So how do churches get around this rule by Apple? Most church apps now live inside app containers – here’s how they work:

  1. Download the app container
  2. Search for your church name inside the app container alongside every other church in the directory
  3. Find your church name and launch your church app within the app container

This means your church app will not live in the App Store directly, but rather, within one of these app containers:

Here’s the bottom line:

The novelty of having your church app live directly in the App Store is no longer a reality for most churches – instead, your app will only be accessible through a container app.

Reason #2: Features

What kind of features might you expect to gain with your church app? Here’s a list of the most prominent features of church apps:

  • Prayer wall
  • Sermons and podcast
  • Giving
  • Groups
  • Sermon notes
  • Calendar
  • Personalized user profiles
  • Social media integration
  • Blog
  • Photos and videos
  • Push notifications

Every one of these features is also supported by your church’s website. So there’s some redundancy.

But what about push notifications?

Granted, there is one feature that church apps have going for them that websites do not – push notifications.

Sure, desktop notifications are commonplace nowadays. But you and I aren’t carrying around our desktops in our pockets. It’s just not the same. And I’ll gladly concede that.

What I find more relevant is how people feel about push notifications.

Spoiler alert: it’s not great.

Less than 1 in 5 people say that they always agree to an app’s request to allow push notifications. In the 35+ age demographic, this number drops all the way to 1 in 20 people.6

Perhaps more importantly, 71% of Millennials say they get annoyed when they get too many app notifications. And more than 50% of those older than 35 years old agree.7

Bottom line: Push notifications are rarely enabled and the majority of people find them annoying when they receive too many.

But that’s just part of the story…

Here’s where things get really aggravating…

I tested the Subplash app, the Tithely app, the Pushpay app, and the Planning Center app – and guess what? When I would go to give or signup for an event…the church app would just send me to the church’s website!

Take a look for yourself:

A GIF of a church app.

So let’s go through the order of operations here:

  1. I pay for a “custom” church app
  2. My app gets put into a container in the app store
  3. I promote the container app to my church
  4. People in my church search for the container app in the app store
  5. They download the container app to their mobile device
  6. They search my church name in the container app
  7. They find it and select my church as their ‘favorite’ in the container app
  8. They now go to give or sign up for an event and get immediately directed to the church’s website
  9. Later that month the church gets a bill for the app

Why am I paying money for a church app that simply redirects my congregation to our website?

Now an app company might tell you that the reason that they take you to the website to give is because if you give in the app itself, Apple will take a big cut of that gift.

This is ironic. Because these church app companies are also taking a cut of that gift.

But here Apple is rearing its head again and reminding you that, functionally, you do not own your app, because you do not own the distribution.

And if we need to send people to our website because we can’t let them do something on the app – is that not a reason to not have the app?

And why then are we sending people to signup for events on our website that are free events? Why not do that in the app?

Let’s imagine you’re having a similar problem with your church’s website and for whatever reason your web host has introduced new rules that are unfriendly to churches. Alright. Move to another web host. There are literally thousands.

So with your website, you own the distribution because you have the autonomy to choose your distribution partner.

But the app store is a monopoly. Which means we’re all subject to Apple’s decisions.

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Reason #3: Promotion Budget

Now, to be fair, at this point you might be saying, “Okay, Brady, I get your point, but like, what’s the harm? We have the app. It’s not costing us much. We might as well use it, right? What’s the harm?

This brings me to my third criticism of church apps and it’s something I call Promotion Budget.

It’s the same idea as a money budget – you only have so much of the resource to spend.

And in your church you have to make a decision: either your website or your app will be the center of your digital universe.

Every promotion, every event, every ministry opportunity is going to come down to either your church app or your church website. At least it should! The paradox of choice would instruct us here – fewer options equals more action.

For many churches, we still might offer offline options for next steps and online options. Which makes sense. They’re two different worlds.

But what we don’t need are two digital options that facilitate the same thing.

Churches will commonly say in their promos, “Signup on our website or the church app.” But when I go to the church app to signup it just redirects me to the website.

And then what about you? The staff? Maintaining and supporting multiple platforms that accomplish the same thing.

We so frequently say in our churches:

  • Resources are scarce!
  • Time!
  • Money!
  • Creative energy!

Understood.

Then let’s not burden ourselves with twice the work by getting sucked into the allure of an app just to now have to maintain two platforms that do the same thing.

And now as you promote them, your website matters, but your app matters as well? But what can the app do that the website cannot? And why when I use the app am I redirected to the website if the app is the important platform?

Your promotion budget is not unlimited.

We want people in our church taking next steps. Getting involved. Fewer options equals more action. And it’s easier for your staff as well.

You might say, “When we update our website it also updates the app.” Which gets to my point – what is the app doing that the website is not already?

My bias

Surely there are some of you thinking, “Brady, you’re just saying this because you don’t build church apps. You have an incentive because you build church websites with Nucleus.”

It’s a fair criticism.

Here’s my response:

The reason Nucleus doesn’t offer mobile apps is because they don’t align with our principles and beliefs about digital media.

We’re not incapable of building church apps. We’re unwilling.

Why invest resources and bill churches for a container app that redirects to their website when we can just build better websites instead?

Moreover, the first public video I made being critical of church apps in 2016 predates Nucleus.

Could my position ever change? Anything could change in the world of digital! And we should all be in the habit of continually reevaluating our own positions. Perhaps there comes a day where church apps offer ministries innovative features that websites simply cannot.

Consider me skeptical.

Which is why my thesis in 2023 is the same as it was in 2016:

For 99% of churches, an app will be a net negative. Invest in your website instead.

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Download The Perfect Church Homepage Infographic – a complete visual breakdown of the essential elements that every church website homepage needs.

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