Ministry Today magazine cover

The Geek Shall Inherit the Church





From blogs to BlackBerrys, how the church’s love affair with technology is enhancing—and sometimes distracting us from—authentic ministry.
Sure, to the outside observer, the church may be the last bastion of traditionalism in society—what with the "smells and bells," pancake breakfasts and penchant for a Book written 2,000 years ago. But we insiders know better. From the printing press to the radio broadcast, believers have often been first in line to utilize a new technology.

"Christians own and use technologies in ways that are virtually indistinguishable from the rest of the culture," notes the Barna Group's David Kinnaman in a recent article in the United Methodist Church's Interpreter magazine. This means that people in your church are very likely to be actively participating in these broader tech trends [and that] your ability to minister with relevance will be affected by how you and your church embrace technology."

In his book Wired for Ministry, seminary professor John Jewell suggests that no one can seriously challenge the fact that technology has changed our world in every area. Everyone is affected by technology whether we use it or not. But, Jewell contends, there are cautions. Technology provides new tools, but not new theology; it can enable connectivity, but it does not guarantee community.

So, having issued this caution, what are some of the ways technology—both new and old—is being integrated into ministry. And what does the future hold for a new generation of "ministry geeks" who are pursuing new ways to spread an old message.

iHELP WANTED

Perhaps one of the most surprising correlatives of the "wired church" is the new staff position that it has created in many congregations: the media pastor. Take, for example, Eric Partin, who launched Shoreline Church (shorelinechurch.net) in the Destin, Florida, area in August 2004.

After a fast start (200 on the first Sunday) and a long slow turn back toward "normal" (average 65 in attendance), the new fellowship moved out of their temporary digs in a hotel lobby and into a 400-seat, state-of-the-art theatre auditorium at the Rave, Destin's hot spot. In less than a year, attendance swelled to more than 350.

Of course, that kind of rapid expansion requires additional staff. So who was the first associate to come on staff at Shoreline? Secretary? Music pastor? Youth pastor? Nope. It was Sam Blowes, aka, pastor of technology. Blowes' primary duties are all tech-related—computer networking, Web design and management, and creative development.

Five hours away, Aaron Maners planted Canvas Church (can vaschurch.net), in Orange Park, Florida, in the eighth busiest AMC theatre in America and already has more than 150 in weekly attendance. Although he doesn't consider himself "tech-savvy," Maners is certainly tech-aware, having served on staff at two different megachurches.

"Technology is important," Maners advises. "But hiring the right people to manage the technology is even more important."

Ken Hudson, veteran pastor of Landmark Church of God in Statesville, N.C. (landmarkcog.com), concurs. After spending the past year in a huge building project to produce a technologically sophisticated facility, the church is now in need of someone to help leverage the technology—a job much too time-consuming and specialized for his current staff. Obviously, he's not alone.

ChurchStaffing.com serves the entire United States and Canada as a leading source of information for churches and church staff members in the area of personnel and staff relations. Non-existent less than six years ago, the media/technology section of ChurchStaffing.com now maintains a monthly list of between 30 and 50 openings at various congregations across America.

"We're very pleased to see the continued growth in the media/technology section of ChurchStaffing," notes the Web site's manager, Andrew Pino. "It just goes to show that as technology has advanced over that last several years, so too have the needs of churches."

EYE CANDY

One of the most popular approaches for controlled integration of technology with ministry is in the area of visual enhancements, such as video clips and cool, bigger-than-life graphics on screen. According to a September 2005 study from The Barna Group, "More than six out of every 10 Protestant churches (62 percent) presently use a large-screen projection system in their communications. That is up 59 percent since 2000, when just 39 percent used this technology."

Shoreline Church in Destin is waist-deep in big-screen technology.

"My first instructions to Sam Blowes," Shoreline's Partin says, "were that we would not be investing in technology just for the sake of technology. It's essential that we get the biggest bang for the buck."

So, unable to invest the $3,000 necessary to purchase a high-end video camera for creating live Internet feeds during services, Shoreline went with a $600 Sony DV. So far, it's worked flawlessly and both Partin and Blowes are pleased. As a matter or fact, someone recently loaned Shoreline a high-end camera to try out for a week.

"No one could even tell the difference. It didn't look any better than normal," Partin says.

And after paying a recent visit to a congregation that had invested $250,000 in sound and video equipment, Partin was even more impressed with his equipment.

"Honestly," he says, "our system works better and has less lag time" …and all for one-fifth the cost!

Canvas' Maners is equally unimpressed with price tags.

"Technology is more about a thought process than a purchase," Maners says. In other words, don't look at the price tag, look at the goal of the technology. And then figure out the best way to do it for the least amount of financial investment. Still, Maners confesses that his "visual imagery system" is the one piece of the technology puzzle Canvas could not live without.

"Everything these days is so visual, so we try to keep the eye busy even during worship and prayer times."

For example, when Maners welcomes visitors and invites them to fill out the "Blue Card," he always has a visual on display of some famous or interesting character holding a copy of the Canvas visitor card.'

Many others are embracing the power of video like never before. Jim Munson, who planted Christ Church (christchurchmn.org) in suburban Minneapolis in 1984, recently transitioned to being the "pastor-at-large" in order to create a video production company. As with Jewell, Partin and Maners, Munson believes the goal of technology is to help make connections, not just connectivity.

"Having pastored for so many years, I've learned how to communicate with a congregation in a way that makes sense and moves people," Munson says. "I've taken that knowledge into video production, an art which I perfected while pastoring at Christ Church."

E-MANAGEMENT

The visible, public, Sunday-morning aspects of ministry aren't the only areas in which technology is making a difference. Churches such as Shoreline have integrated technology into every aspect of ministry—even the immensely time-consuming process of church management.

In addition to the usual (sermon preparation, PowerPoint, Media-Shout, video clips), Shoreline uses Ezra, an Internet-based church management solution which offers "audio and video streaming, easy access communication with your congregation and straightforward tools to manage your members, volunteers, contributions and all other aspects of church business" (ezraonline.net).

Partin says that the Shoreline congregation (average age: 31) loves the software and finds it much less daunting than traditional paperwork.

"Technology has to make the job easier," Partin insists. "Man was not made for technology; technology was made for man."

That's worth remembering, especially with the choices of technological tools available. Ministry Today conducted an informal survey among some leaders and readers of the magazine, asking the question, "What technology do you use in ministry that you would not want to be without?"

The answers were as diverse as the people themselves: e-mail, iPods, BlackBerrys, cell phones, GPS systems, blogs, instant messaging (IM) tools, Bible software and PocketPCs—to name a few.

Not surprisingly, the tech boom continues to be powered by the youngest Americans, The Barna Group notes in its 2005 study on technology in the church: "The reason has much to do with familiarity. Mosaics have grown up with technology already integrated into their lives, while the rest of us have had to 'make the switch' after a number of years without this or that new 'life-saving' device. In general, the older we are, the more 'reprogramming' required to adapt to new ways of doing things."

But though the gadgets listed above are often assumed to be the exclusive domain of the goateed, gelled-hair crowd, the stereotype that young people are the only ones interested in technology is one that should probably be discarded.

Earl Creps, a baby boomer, blogger and director of the D.Min. program at the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, notes, "The point is not to reduce a person to a number on my speed dial, but to be able to Skype a friend in Europe, text a church planter in Boulder, IM a youth pastor friend, post to an e-group and blog to the planet. I have friends whom I've never seen face-to-face who actually are helping me with important projects based on a completely electronic relationship. If you had asked me five years ago, I would have told you this was impossible, but my younger friends have taught me a lesson."

TECH'S DARK SIDE

Of course, technology isn't guaranteed to make things easier. Everyone who's ever turned on a piece of equipment can attest to the havoc technical glitches can cause.

"Malfunctions and freezes never leave a warm, positive feeling," quips Sam Fisher of New Covenant Church in Tyler, Texas (newcovenanttyler.org). (Just ask CNN anchor Kyra Phillips, who left her mic on in a CNN bathroom where she inadvertently revealed how she feels about her sister-in-law, calling her a "control-freak" on national TV. Ouch.)

But when Ministry Today asked leaders which technologies are a constant distraction and time-waster, one beauty stood head and shoulders above the crowd: e-mail.

"E-mail is one of the greatest time wasters ever invented," Creps says. "I know people who almost believe that God will not love them if their inbox has more than two or three unreplied items on board."

"E-mail can be all-consuming," adds Mark Batterson of National Community Church in Washington, D.C. "If I'm not careful, I can check e-mail all day long and get nothing accomplished."

Then, there's the unhealthy "dependency issues" that technology can create—but which only come to our attention when the power goes out or the network goes down. New Covenant's Fisher admits to being so dependent on common technologies, such as cell phones and e-mail, that he worries about becoming "a bit lazy."

"For me," Fisher says, "staff meetings and pastoral care is done largely (though not entirely) via cell phone," as opposed to the traditional face-to-face model. "Nowadays I have to make a determined effort to meet in person."

But for Fisher, and for most pastors, relationships and community are nonnegotiable, which is why he is cautious about too much technology. Nevertheless, he admits that even this issue has 256 shades of grey.

"The effectiveness of technology is really generational. With some people, you send them an e-mail and it's like you've just had dinner with them. With others, they may only check their e-mail once a month so it has little value," he muses. "And even though phone calls in general are perceived as very personal, I'm not convinced that you can truly connect using only electronic means. It's too easy to hide behind the technology. Body language communicates a lot."

'KOMMUNITY'

Fisher is poking around a rather sensitive issue with that statement—the question as to whether new modes of online communication are really creating community, or rather some fake version: aka "kommunity."

In his book Design for Community: The Art of Connecting Real People in Virtual Places, Web designer and consultant Derek Powazek asks, "I talk with a group of people on a Web site for a few years and then we all get together in real life? Are we a community after the meeting but not before?"

Powazek's conclusion is that Web-based communities and real-life communities are different. But one is no more valid than the other. Why? Because "they're both emotional, intimate and real," he explains.

Whether we agree or not is irrelevant, because millions around the globe have adopted this axiom as both true and right.

Kirk L. Kroeker, staff writer at TechNews World notes that "in discussions about technology, ethical questions about technology's role are often sidelined or folded into questions about technology's benefits from the perspective of efficiency, information handling or processing power."

Perhaps that ethical "hole" is a great place for the church to step in and provide some healthy input.

"In the church, the only real measure of the success of technology is its ability to enhance the quality of community. Community, or the quality of the life of the body of Christ, is a critically and biblically mandated foundation for ministry," Jewell notes in Wired for Ministry.

"I remain evangelical in my pursuit of ways to enhance ministry, build community and strengthen the church with the aid of technology. This is territory into which we must continue to venture. The spies have gone in to examine the technology landscape, and it is a good land. There are indeed giants … but it is still a good land."

So perhaps technology isn't really the "invader" we thought. Maybe it's the church that is invading. When you put it that way, the questions of which technologies we should be utilizing and to what extent become less arguable. Every one is the only logical answer.

The gospel must peacefully and thoroughly invade all aspects of this "technology landscape" in order to advance the kingdom of God and bring hope to millions who live in the land. The danger lies not in the church using technology, but in technology sedating the church, causing us to forget our mission and mandate just as the Israelites did so many years ago after entering the Promised Land.


Eric Wilbanks is a freelance writer living in the Orlando, Fla., area. He also serves as media director at Wekiva Assembly in Longwood, Florida.

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