Let us bow our heads and text in unison

April 27, 2009
A friend of mine is a minister and an expert on church management and growth. During one of our discussions, it struck me how much starting and running a church is very like running a business. There are the same problems with morale, with retention, with site selection, finance, marketing and growth pains. And with technology.

I don't know if you've been to one of the new "megachurches" lately, but it's quite an experience. General Motors could hold its shareholder meetings in some of the megachurch sanctuaries I've visited. They come equipped with massive sound systems that deliver crystalline notes into every corner and crevice. Multimedia presentations ripple across huge screens. They remind me of conventions I've attended.

There's likely much more technology behind the scenes, too. Fellowship Technology, for example, offers Web-based church management (www.fellowshiptech.com). It's essentially a contact database for keeping track of members' vitals, including attendance and participation in various church groups. Church Metrics (www.churchmetrics.com) is a free online database that not only tracks attendance, giving, salvations and baptisms, but delivers reports on those numbers, complete with charts and graphs. And the Web site says it's mobile-ready.

But these are mundane next to how many churches are using the Web to attract and communicate with members. Technophile ministers have published their own Facebook and MySpace pages for years now. Some have run into problems with scatological messages, however. Even church members can get too frisky at times, posting questionable messages.

The same problem arises when ministers blog. Blogging is becoming more common, but the demands of time and the continual threat of embarrassing comments have slowed the pace of uptake. However, there are lots of blogs about church technology itself. Churchtechblogs (www.churchtechblogs.com) is an aggregator that collects posts from other blogs about technology applications in churches, such as those from Church Marketing Sucks (www.churchmarketingsucks.com), a blog with several entries on the subject of technology. Technology "evangelists" such as Anthony Coppedge blog, too (www.anthonycoppedge.com).

Churches have also had their own Web sites for many years, but frankly most of them have a long way to go to match their commercial counterparts, despite their importance for growth. Consultant Drew Goodmanson (www.goodmanson. com) has conducted research that shows visitors rely heavily on sites when deciding whether to visit. Some churches have attempted to move entirely online, but most sites that call themselves "cyber-churches" seem to be throwbacks to the late '90s. Sermons can be downloaded as podcasts from many sites, but it's generally acknowledged that these vary widely in quality, with some being skillfully recorded and edited and others sounding like a street-corner harangue in noisy traffic.

Some churches have pushed past the audio feeds and offer full streaming video of the proceedings, in real time, as well as recorded footage. As might be expected, this tends to be the province of the largest churches, such as Saddleback in California (www.saddleback.com). Here you can find a very up-to-date site, with high-quality live video feed from each of seven services during the weekend, a set of videos of their current series, and an archive of some 40 sermons from nearly a dozen series.

But even Saddleback can't say that it's a virtual, 3-D church. Others, like the aptly named Virtual Church, make just that claim (www.thevirtualchurch.com). By today's standards, the 3-D experience in most virtual churches is somewhat primitive. St. Pixels in Ship of Fools is more advanced, reminding you of the realism of Second Life (www.shipoffools.com). It's sponsored by the Methodist Church. And speaking of Second Life, there's an Anglican cathedral in that space, with regular services you can attend by avatar. Ship of Fools discovered early on that full, unfettered participation has its hazards, when interlopers began wandering onto the altar and shouting at attendees. They've since trimmed back their permissions.

But perhaps the most audacious use of new gadgetry is the incorporation of Twitter into actual church services. Twitter has come into use by ministers and churches the same way it's been used by the rest of us, as announcements and thought-followers. They send Bible verses to members, for example. But some churches have brought Twitter right into their sanctuaries. Westwinds church in Jackson, Mich., (www.westwinds.org) tried a kind of cyber-Sunday, when texting in the pews wasn't hidden, but encouraged. The church already had a wireless router, so it could accommodate laptops as well as cell phones with Twitter applications. Throughout the service, everyone was free to tweet their thoughts about the proceedings.

As might be expected, in the evaluation afterward it turned out that some attendees had liked it, while some hated it. Proponents found it interesting to get real-time impressions from their peers, while opponents found it distracting. Westwinds continues to experiment with it. As do we all.


Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at timaltom@sbcglobal.net. Find his blog at usabilitynome.blogspot.com.
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