"Sometimes we miss the simplicity of the Gospel for all of the hoopla that surrounds it," Aimee Shank, an administrator at the church and the pastor's wife, says. "However, technology can definitely be beneficial to communication, particularly with a generation that speaks the language of media."
The program, which Shank chose and helped install, is an audience response system called TurningPoint 2006, from Turning Technologies (turningtechnologies.com). It's an anonymous system, so Shank says there has been little or no negative feedback from parishioners about an invasion of privacy.
"It's a great message starter," she says, explaining how they currently use the system during services. "Pastor Shank will ask personal questions to get the audience engaged. For example, a message on prayer might begin by asking the audience whether they believe that prayer actually works. It gets people to be honest since they are anonymous, and real issues can be addressed. The congregation is excited every time we use it."
The TurningPoint system consists of a Microsoft PowerPoint add-on module and Turning Technology ResponseCard IR (infrared) keypads, which worshippers use to type in their responses to questions. Youngstown Metro has 75 cards for their 80-member congregation.
The PowerPoint add-on is essentially a quiz program that lets ministries create interactive slides with questions for the audience. Setting up the quiz is a simple matter of selecting a template and typing in questions, and then using the interface to select responses that the audience will type in.
Joshua Shank will typically create simple questions to gauge congregation interest or level of experience with the subject matter. The goal might be to help his congregation see that they are not alone in their view on his sermon subject.
For example, during one service (which he called "Porn Sunday"), Shank used the system as an aid in explaining ways that the congregation could guard against pornography addiction. The system is completely anonymous, so Shank was able to ask very personal questions and show that there is a real struggle. Then he could speak openly about addiction after demonstrating that people are not alone in the battle.
This system addresses a common issue that many leaders have: not knowing where their audience stands on things. It allows ministries to customize the topic at hand for their audience. Interaction is also a key ingredient in gauging whether the congregation is paying attention. Ask them a question, and they will start thinking more about the subject at hand.
In addition to the TurningPoint add-on for PowerPoint, the system also uses wireless response keypads. The keypads use infrared technology (similar to that used in TV remotes) for up to 90 feet of coverage in the worship center. There's a USB receiver that connects to a PC for collecting responses from the audience. Each keypad weighs one ounce, lasts about a year on one battery and comes with a durable case.
Of course, like any new technical innovation, there are some challenges, not only in using the system during a service (introducing anything new to an audience will lead to some initial confusion over how it works), but also in integrating with other systems. Youngstown Metro uses Media Shout software (mediashout.com) for slides that use animation or video. TurningPoint does not work directly with Media Shout, so the church has to run both programs at the same time, which can lead to confusion in the sound booth. For Joshua Shank, it's an important point because it can interrupt the service and cause problems with the flow.
"We would use the system more often if it integrated with Media Shout," he says.
Aimee Shank, who is responsible for the business, financial, and technical side of the church, explained that they won't use a new technology if it causes confusion or interrupts the service. For the most part, TurningPoint works fine and enhances their services.
Sermons aren't the only venue in which the device comes in handy.
"We used it once to plan for when to offer Lifegroups," Shank notes. "We had people vote to tell us what day of the week and what time slot was most convenient for them."
In the end, TurningPoint is a sign of the times: Christians are using more technology in their everyday lives. Ministries that take advantage of their technical know-how, introduce innovative approaches to a worship service and yet avoid the trap of making technology the main attraction, will see hearts changed in big ways.