Using Tech in Your Congregation
It's Easier Than You Think! 3 Different Levels of Entry, Plus Examples
by Daniel D. Maurer, RCL Worship Resources
Given the massive amount of technological change we've seen in the past decade, you'd think that church leaders would know that smartphones, the internet, visual and audio media, as well as online social networking sites have made significant inroads into peoples' lives.
In fact, most do realize this. Pastors and other congregational leaders aren't dumb! And they certainly don't live in a cave . . .
However, many congregations have failed to take advantage of technology to connect with the Body of Christ and apply the resources that are already out there.
You don't have to be a genius to realize that the church is notoriously slow to adapt to changes many people simply take for granted in their "secular" life. Sometimes, worship calls for less technology—not more—to allow people a screen-free safe space to connect with God and each other. Still, there are many instances when a creative use of tech would enhance a worship experience. Since people have come to expect the convenience that tech can potentially offer, progressive faith communities would definitely benefit from a forward-thinking leader who incorporates high-tech knowhow into an overall mission strategy.
Often, the fear-of-the-new gets in the way. Just as powerfully limiting are the convictions that "we've always done it that way" and "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." Face it, many would rather feel comfortable with any church activity rather than stirred to action by doing something differently, because action often requires an experience of discomfort—the acknowledgement of the belief that the world isn't quite right, but should be.
However, the use of technology goes beyond furthering the mission of your congregation. Simply put, the human brain is changing the way it processes information. In order to meet the learning needs for a new generation, it may be more a necessity to begin employing a technology strategy than we realize.
And let's face it, technology has always met resistance with the church at large. Want an example? Read the history behind the pipe organ (definitely "high-tech" in its day and age). It took hundreds of years before pipe organs were generally accepted within the church. (And that was after the super-liberal monks had been using them for centuries.)
So what are some ways you might fit technology into your ministry? More importantly perhaps: how should you go about inserting tech into your congregation's overarching strategy?
What Most Congregations Are Already Doing
Most congregations have their own church website. However, most of them are done WRONG. Really wrong. I'm not going to start listing off all the poorly-constructed, awful church websites I've seen, but if you've got a free moment, look at what different congregations have to offer in your community. I'm willing to bet that at least one of them is simply ghastly (if you know what to look for). The thing is that simply creating a website is easy-peasy. Doing it right, though, is another whole ball game.
For one, a website should be easy to navigate. The #1 reason why people visit a particular church's website is to find out simple information, quickly: phone number, address, worship times, what groups are available and when do they meet, and so forth.
Far too often, I find that church websites are like drinking from a fire hydrant—all the information is scrambled all over the page and you can hardly make heads or tails of anything. Photos aren't optimized or render as blurry and visitors leave your site with a bad taste in their mouths. The writing is poor, or the font sizes and uses of headers is inappropriate.
The second main complaint I have with many church websites is the lack of upkeep. Often, congregations want to save money. That means that they scrimp with a simple Wordpress template, which is fine, except that, suddenly, the member who put together the site or had been updating it is no longer available. Maybe they went to college, or who knows. What ends up happening is the site becomes dated with empty, out-of-date information floating around on it.
The third (and perhaps most important) difficulty I often see on church websites is that they don't realize how quickly the internet has changed in the way that search engines crawl a site. The SEO (search engine optimization) is all off, and many sites are insecure or are not mobile-ready. This problem leads to poor results in Google or other search engines. Especially in areas of higher-density populations, people look for congregations through 1) word of mouth, and 2) Google. That's just the way it is!
The solution for these problems is easier than you might believe. Every congregation—no matter their size—should adopt a communications team, or at the very least a strategy. Whether we want to believe it or not, churches function like businesses. And churches that engender a vision to appropriate resources to communicating well will inevitably have an edge over others who do not.
Consider hiring someone (at least initially) for a website audit. If you're going to rebuild your church's website, do it well!
2. A Simple Social-Media Presence
Setting up a Facebook page, an Instagram account, or a Twitter account is easy. Using them consistently and connecting with your members is easy, too, but it takes effort! Similar to a webpage strategy, leaders need to keep up the accounts with fresh information and images, especially. Of course not everyone will connect with a particular service, and in fact many members may not even know they exist. That doesn't mean you shouldn't use them to your advantage. The key is communication. Which leads to my next point.
3. Email List
Ah . . . the dreaded email list. Today, you can hardly find a person who delights in opening up their account only to find dozens of e-updates they have yet to read (or throw in the trash)! But the fact is that electronic communication has become the norm. Besides, starting an email list to send out notifications and church newsletters is extremely easy with APIs like MailChimp® or Constant Contact™. I would argue that it's also the more environmentally-responsible choice as well—I shudder to think of the amount of paper that goes to waste because 75% of your congregation isn't even opening up the newsletter or the package containing their giving envelopes.
What's nice with these three, simple steps you can make to improve your outreach is that they're simple to implement. They also don't require you to completely change from the more "analog" forms of communication, either. I do realize that some people (especially some older members) still prefer to receive real mail. You can add a simple step along the way while you still do what you've always been doing.
How About the Really Super-Duper Progressively Tech Churches?
1. Post Videos Online
Okay. "Posting videos online" isn't super high-tech, but it shocks me how few congregations have elected to video their services. With today's technology, it's really quite simple (and inexpensive) to set up and broadcast a worship service. You can post snippets on social media and have the full service online on your website. For as little as $400 churches can purchase fairly decent equipment. Sound is key; make sure that people can hear the message!
The fact of the matter is that, especially during the summer, people are mobile on weekends. Now, no one should should have to miss the message of the good news. If you record it, you can broadcast it, and with little editing, too.
2. Blogging/Online Interactive Newsletters
Got an event you want to build interest (and perhaps a bit of mystery) about? Why not use social media and your website to your advantage? Not every church leader is a writer. Like building a website, writing a message online is easy, but doing it well is more difficult. However, I believe it's high time that congregational leaders see themselves for who they are: communicators. Blogging can be one avenue through which you can really connect with a segment of your laity.
The bonus to blogging is appeasing the Google gods (hey . . . I used a small 'g'). Search engines like content; if you don't have it, or content is simply static, it's more difficult to get on that coveted page one of search results. With blogging, you can pick a topic, write high-quality content and add contextual images and . . . voilá, you have just placed your congregation in another search result based on a specific topic. Who knows—maybe there is a person living in your community who suddenly discovers about your faith community because of a search they did online.
Interactive newsletters are far superior to their long-lost, paper cousins. It's mostly because you can place videos, audio, color photos, and add clickable hyperlinks within the newsletters themselves. The point is that, online, people can interact with the content that you give them. What's more, you can evaluate whether people are reading or clicking on specific content to ascertain whether your ministry strategy is effective or not.
3. Worship Considerations
Oh my. Now I've really opened up a can of worms, haven't I? Everyone has an opinion what worship should or shouldn't include. But, like the point I made above about church pipe organs, leaders need to consider the context in which they function to meet a wide range of tastes, while still honoring the well-loved traditions within your denomination.
Of course, we've all seen projection screens, heard "modern" instruments used in worship (I mean, really, is an electric guitar considered modern anymore?), and we know about newer tech within sound systems. You'll have to make a decision how you incorporate these "contemporary" items into a worship service.
But, have you considered . . . ?
Instead of people putting away their smartphones in worship, develop an alternate plan: invite congregants to bring out their smartphones and start snapping photos! The congregation our family attends in Saint Paul, Minnesota did this exact thing once during worship. Then, that week's preacher invited people to post on social media how the message of Jesus is relevant today! Not only was it well received, but it allowed people to express themselves online while still being engaged with worship and the message proclaimed.
4. Didactic Versus Proclamation
You can overhear rather interesting (and sometimes heated) conversations regarding the purpose of preaching. Is preaching supposed to be proclamation or more teaching? Well, why not both? With technology, and especially the use of projected images and accompanying music, a message can become both an emotional and spiritual experience, as well as a didactic lesson where people use their minds. The denominational tradition I belong to, the ELCA, often seems to have an allergic reaction concerning such things—but the point I'm making is that human beings are both emotional and rational creatures. There is no reason why we cannot use technology to reach both strata of the human experience.
What Other Ideas or Resources for Technology Can We Consider?
1. Hey! Where's Your WiFi?!
Are you connected? Congregational leaders will increasingly find that people will demand connectivity. And yes, even in worship or during other events you hold at your church. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with that. But I can't tell you how many congregations I've visited who STILL don't have a public WiFi connection! And yes, I get it that sometimes our constant-and-pernicious addiction to screens can be more a distraction than a help.
However, I think we need to weigh the pros and cons of whatever technology we elect to use and ask ourselves the question:
Is my congregation doing everything it possibly can to translate the message of the Gospel into a language the people understand?
Well, are you?
2. It's About Creativity, Not Just the Tech
Creativity is central to the message of Jesus. Jesus recognized that human beings are "storied creatures" and respond to stories. That's why he so often taught through parables.
Since the beginning of film, inventive storytellers have used makeshift means to create other times and places. In the early 60s, the teenage Steven Spielberg created a feature-length film using amazing special effects tools such as two-by-fours and mounds of dirt.
Even as studios now spend incredible amounts of money on computerized special effects, digital media is becoming more disseminated. At local churches, I have seen incredible storytelling from youth groups who were using nothing more than a cheap digital video camera and free editing software. Then, they posted it on social media or the church's website!
So jump in. Don’t wait for the prices to come down or the technology to get easier. These are excuses that short-circuit the world from hearing the gospel in the indigenous language.
3. But . . . the COST!
One of the constant complaints you hear from faith communities contemplating digital media is the cost. Professional videographers in the congregation sometimes compound this perception by referring to the equipment professional studios are purchasing.
Two principles apply: 1) advancements in technology are always initially expensive, and 2) as more users purchase the technology and it mutates through various revisions, the cost of production drops dramatically.
So, yes, it costs money. Sometimes lots of money. But those costs are relative to where media has been, and to the costs of other ministries your church is doing. Plus, much of it, like social media and a simple WiFi connection is either free or low cost!
This is one of the greatest benefits of pursuing ministry in the language of the culture. It does not take rocket scientists to produce media, and they don’t need NASA’s budget, either. The dissemination of knowledge and the use of new and creative expressions is ultimately for the good of communicating the message . . . and making it stick.
How Quickly Should We Implement Tech? It Depends!
There are basically three levels a congregation needs to place themselves within.
The first level is the entry-level, low-tech, and high resistance to tech. Churches like these perhaps are completely disconnected to the online world. It's important in churches like these to start slow, introducing a new technology that the people are already using in their lives. Create a website and place high-quality content on it. Update that content. Have some of the younger members enact a dramatic production for a special worship service, say, during lent. Include smartphones during the production. The point is to allow this tech-level to see what possibilities are already out there, then apply the changes.
The next level is a church that already is using some technology and is more receptive to changes. Places like this can be exciting, because you can add in the social media idea I suggested above where people snap photos and post them on social media during a service. It's important to acknowledge, though, that leaders do not ostracize other members who may not respond in a positive way to these changes. The point is to keep the communication mixed, introduce new tech to show that it can be a beneficial addition to the church's wider outreach.
Then there is the congregation who is going all out. Surprisingly (or perhaps not), there are few churches at this level . . . at least when you compare them to other secular organizations or businesses. Still, some especially progressive and forward-leaning faith communities will see further advantages to adopting even more technology to enhance their ministry and support the overall mission to the wider community.
Any church can grow—it won’t happen just by opening the doors on Sunday and welcoming whomever shows up. Growth isn’t that easy or passive. But growth can happen if leaders are willing to work at it, to use best practices and best tools, and to change whatever gets in their way. Technology and its use is only one aspect, one tool, in the wider toolbox leaders have available to them.
Communications technology is critical to growth these days. Leaders need to move beyond their magical-thinking fear-based approach to technology. You need more than an improved website and nominal presence on Facebook. As I mentioned above, I encourage every church to invite tech-savvy members to participate in communication teams. Allow them to dream and create. Be the permission-giving church that uses what tools we have available in the wider culture.
You just might find that technology is more helpful than you ever realized to attaining the mission God has set you to find.
Daniel D. Maurer is a published, award-winning author and tech guru at RCL Worship Resources. He lives with his family in Saint Paul, Minnesota.