Christian Steffensen has built a highly successful tech company that helps churches to flourish. Tim Gibson meets an entrepreneur with a difference.
Growing up as the son or daughter of a cleric can go in one of two directions. Either you develop a deep antipathy towards all things church, and spend your life ploughing a professional and personal furrow that is resolutely non-ecclesial.
Or you nurture an affinity with the church and all it stands for, and a desire to serve it in some way yourself.
For Christian Steffensen, whose mother is a priest in the Church of Denmark, the life of a pastor’s son has proved uniquely generative. Christian is a businessman through and through, whose desire to establish his own tech start-up was forged during a high school exchange in the US, where the father of his host family was an entrepreneur.
But the focus of the company Christian founded in 2012, ChurchDesk, is squarely on enabling worshipping communities to thrive.
“I didn’t necessarily set out to establish a business that helped churches,” Christian admits with characteristic candour. “ChurchDesk grew from the requests of my mum and her colleagues to help build websites for their churches.”
It wasn’t long before Christian realised that these websites could be more than just shop windows for churches. With the right technology behind them, they could be the means by which churches organised events, managed communications and ensured they kept in touch with members and visitors alike.
“ChurchDesk is an all-inclusive church-management and communication solution,” he explains. “It has the capacity to power a church’s existence, with features including database management, a website, an event-booking facility, a shared calendar, and a church intranet. But at a fundamental level, its significance is less about how it works, and more about what it enables churches to achieve.”
It’s clear when you talk to Christian that this is what really drives him. Yes, he’s used his technical know-how and entrepreneurial instinct to develop a winning product. But his heart’s desire is to help churches flourish, making connections between people and establishing vibrant communities.
“In Denmark, roughly 75pc of people are baptised into the state church,” he explains. “But the level of attendance in churches week by week doesn’t reflect that. So there are swathes of the population who have various touchpoints with their local church, but no regular commitment.”
ChurchDesk provides a way of building on these moments of contact to establish deeper relationships. In that sense, it’s a missional tool, because it enables church communities to show an interest in people and their lives, and invite them to receive fellowship, to get involved in special activities, or to join in worship.
Of course, it is also a way of helping regular congregations to organise themselves, by simplifying back-office procedures, easing administration, and streamlining time-consuming activities like managing rotas, event planning and the running of meetings.
Small wonder, then, that ChurchDesk is now being used by 47pc of Denmark’s churches and has received a £2.5m investment to continue expanding in new territories.
What is more, given Christian’s vision, it is equally unsurprising that he’s turned his attention to the UK. After all, he reasons, many of the issues facing Denmark’s churches are just as pertinent over here, and any tool that can help fashion a response is sure to prove popular.
If the first 18 months of ChurchDesk’s London-based operation are anything to go by, Christian’s instincts are spot on. “Our software has been taken on by more than 100 UK churches so far,” he states. “That’s a similar growth rate to our first year of trading in Denmark, and I would anticipate a more rapid uptake as we become better established.”
Key to that is spreading the word, and here Christian has faith that ChurchDesk speaks for itself. “It’s consistently the case that when people use the software, they experience a real difference. They have more time for mission and evangelism, and to serve local communities, because they aren’t so absorbed in the routines of running a church, like paperwork, admin and finance.”
Talk to church organisers and leaders who use ChurchDesk and it’s clear that Christian’s confidence in his product is not unfounded. They attest to the software’s ease of use, and the opportunity it affords to focus more energy on the outward-facing activities that are the beating heart of any church, regardless of denomination.
“I firmly believe that the success of ChurchDesk won’t be measured in purely commercial terms,” Christian asserts. “The ultimate test is whether or not churches that use our software are more vibrant, better-placed to make connections with people, and more engaged with their communities. If they are, then I believe ChurchDesk will have proved its worth.”
That’s certainly a refreshing attitude from the founder of a tech start-up. And it just goes to show: clergy offspring may have an unusual upbringing. But when the stars align, the results of their unique formation can yield profound benefits, for the church and the world.