Reflections on Church Technology and Communications
Is Your Use of Technology Indigenous?
Twenty-three years ago this June, I moved to Dayton, Ohio to start classes at United Theological Seminary, where I ultimately did two degrees. At the time, the MARC (Master of Arts in Religious Communications) program was fairly new and was the only program of its kind at a United Methodist Seminary. Churches across the country were just beginning to experiment with using screens in worship (websites were not on our radar), and we spent a great deal of time considering the challenges of digital technologies, the skills needed to communicate electronically, the theological questions all technologies present, and the ways pastors and others can most effectively communicate our faith. (By the way, not all of the program was focused on technology. My primary professor was the world’s expert in oral biblical storytelling.)
I tell you all of this as a way of introducing this reality, one I want to explore with you in this lengthier-than-typical post: churches have wrestled for a long time (far longer than 23 years!) with effective communication, and digital forms of communication have added to the opportunities and challenges we face in our congregations. Pastors, Christian Educators, volunteer Sunday School teachers, parents who hope to pass on their faith to their children, and others are essentially biblical storytellers. That is, we seek to bring the stories of the Bible to life in a manner that is indigenous to our culture.
By indigenous, I mean that we try to use the communications systems of our time and place in order to communicate a message effectively. Here’s the briefest of overviews of the ways church communications have changed over two millennia.
Jesus’ Time (and earlier): Oral Culture
Most people could not read in Jesus’ time. Indigenous meant telling stories to one another, frequently around the evening’s campfire or a shared meal.
Early Church thru late 1800s: Manuscript Culture
Indigenous meant reading stories, letters, books, and other printed materials. For example, the letters of Paul circulated and were widely read; parents read Bible story books to their children. (Anyone still have some of those Little Golden books which related biblical tales?)
Late 1800s to 1950s: Document Culture
Indigenous meant making sense of the biblical documents as history and theology. This is the time when there was an explosion of interest in, for example, research into biblical archaeology and ancient cultures and of serious biblical scholarship.
Indigenous means making stories come alive both orally and visually. The many “Bible movies” of the past 70 years are but one example of this. Increasingly, our digital culture is putting the emphasis on visual communication (think infographics, memes, and Facebook algorithms that give a higher priority to posts with images.)
It’s important to understand that each new communication system “re-synthesizes” those that have come before it. Digital culture, for example, does not eliminate document culture. Those who tell the biblical story in any time and age must discover the indigenous ways of biblical storytelling that connect with the culture.
Here’s an example from my own context. Days after the second large earthquake in Nepal, I was fortunate to visit via Skype with Katherine Parker, the United Methodist missionary my congregation supports in Nepal. Her ministry had already been scheduled to be the focus of our mission offering on the next Sunday, and I wanted to record a video of her telling us about her life and ministry to show in worship. There were other options…
- We could have waited until the spring of 2016 when she could have been with us in person (oral culture).
- I could have read to the congregation from an encyclopedia entry about the history of Christianity in Nepal (manuscript culture).
- We could have shared with those in worship arguments for and against missions in countries like Nepal and let those in the pew determine if supporting her is a worthy endeavor (document culture).
However, the video I recorded gave worshippers a chance to briefly connect with her, to know her as a person, and to hear from Katherine in her own words. This indigenous form of communications is entirely appropriate for worship, the place where we come together to hear afresh God’s call upon our own lives to go into the world as witnesses, to take bold risks for our faith, and to live as a transformed community.
Incidentally, I fully realize showing videos like this in worship is nothing new to many congregations, but it is to mine. In part because our sanctuary is nearly 100 years old–a reality that brings a host of logistical and aesthetic challenges–we haven’t yet installed screens in our Sanctuary. That will finally be changing in the near future, since changes in technology have made it much easier to do so. As it turns out we had to be out of our Sanctuary for several weeks while some painting and repairs were taking place. We’re fortunate to have a second Sanctuary in an adjacent building, and it has screens. Our short-term pilgrimage gave us an opportunity as biblical storytellers to tell stories in fresh ways.
Responding to Challenges Like Mobilegeddon
At Aboundant, every website we help churches to create has a responsive design. This is basically geek speak for “looks great on any device,” and it’s a way of designing a website so that it automatically adapts to different types of screen sizes. Responsive design has slowly been coming into popularity for about four years now.
In the past few weeks, businesses everywhere have had to learn about responsive design thanks to a change in Google’s search algorithm, the mathematical formula that determines search result rankings. The popular name for Google’s change—which was announced a few months in advance of its rollout a few weeks ago—is “Mobilegeddon,” a term definitely intended to strike fear into the hearts of website owners. (If you’d like a good laugh, take a look at some of these images created to raise awareness–or fear–about the change.) In a nutshell, Google is essentially expecting businesses (including churches) to make their websites mobile-friendly, or their search rankings will take a significant hit. Indeed, that has definitely proven true for a great many companies who hadn’t been paying attention to their web developers’ warnings.
Of course, while Google’s algorithm change is perhaps inconvenient for many businesses, it’s also an opportunity. In the first quarter of this year, 45 percent of all web page visits came from mobile devices, a number that keeps rising each year. (Source: statista.com) Clearly, an organization’s well-being now depends on being mobile-friendly, and churches are no different. Websites which quickly adapt stand to benefit from better website rankings, which in turn leads to greater website traffic.
This Mobilegeddon reality provides us with an interesting case study for thinking about technology changes in the church, such as the project underway in my own congregation to install and use screens in the sanctuary, or the difficulty many churches have in keeping a website fresh and updated.
To some in my congregation, the announcement about the screen installation came as a surprise, perhaps even an unwelcome one. Some hadn’t paid attention to previous newsletter articles indicating that the project was being studied and worked on for years by various teams. Others were fearful that the screens would be disruptive or would distract from the sanctuary’s beauty. For those who would rather not see screens in the sanctuary, the project can seem unnecessary. These concerns are of course important and have been repeatedly taken into consideration by the team that has been working on the project.
On the other hand, there are also many in my congregation who are looking forward to the presence of screens. Some have experienced them in other churches or at our alternative service (in the other building I mentioned earlier) and find that screens enhance their time of worship. Others simply can’t understand why we haven’t added them a long time ago, are used to screens being a part of every aspect of life, or understand the fact that adding a visual component to worship can be a powerful communication tool.
Change is not always easy, nor is it simple. My congregation will no doubt experience various challenges with the screens (as we did one week when the laptop suddenly crashed mid-service). We’ll certainly have a learning curve as we train volunteers to do a wide variety of tasks. Yet despite the challenges, I get very excited as I ponder the possibilities that come with having several new volunteers engaged in creating a more dynamic, creative worship service.
Perhaps in your congregation, the challenges that come with figuring out a new website and a new process for getting your message out via the web will be like climbing a steep mountain. However, the result will surely be worth it if you involve many people in the congregation in the process.
Here’s the critical theological question, though: Regardless of our feelings about change, do we believe that God can, does, and will work through technology to bring about deeper levels of faith, love, and action among our members, friends and guests? I’m positive we already clearly know the answer to that question.
The Many Forms of Worship Technology
In my own experience, when people talk about technology in a Sanctuary, they are almost universally talking about screens. This is probably because, in the past two decades, we have come to see technology as a special category of life, a whole subsection of digital products (computers, cell phones, software and so on) that we might purchase from a tech store or website.
I think this is not a very useful way to think about technology (though admittedly I certainly use the term in this way at times.) Consider these definitions of technology from merriam-webster.com:
- a : the practical application of knowledge especially in a particular area : engineering 2 <medical technology>
b : a capability given by the practical application of knowledge <a car’s fuel-saving technology>
- a manner of accomplishing a task especially using technical processes, methods, or knowledge <new technologies for information storage>
- the specialized aspects of a particular field of endeavor <educational technology>
So let’s think for a moment about the term “worship technology,” a phrase that frequently is equated with screens, computers, and equipment that records sound or video. There’s nothing inherently wrong with understanding the phrase this way, but it misses an important point: there are numerous worship technologies that have been used for decades or even centuries. The graphic below contains some examples.
A stained glass window is a technology. So is a church bulletin, a microphone, a hymnal, a banner, or a pipe organ. Each of these technologies was at one time new and even controversial in many settings. All of these technologies are now so commonplace that we forget their purpose: to help communicate a biblical and theological message to a large number of people simultaneously.
The red United Methodist Hymnal was published in 1989. If you have been part of a United Methodist Church that long, you very well may recall the fact that the “new hymnal” (as many church goers around the country STILL call it) was very controversial for a long time. Favorite songs from the previous red hymnal were nowhere to be found. Many lyrics were revised so that they would use inclusive language. New hymns like, “Here I Am, Lord” (a song previously printed primarily in Roman Catholic song books) were included and eventually became almost universally loved. Good grief…churches could even order it in colors other than red! (Heresy!) In short, everyone found something to hate…and love…in the new hymnal.
Let’s be honest…is this love/hate relationship with worship any less true today? There are persons in my congregation (I’d count myself among them) who are not particularly moved by classical music in the context of worship. Others cringe at the thought of having a band present. There are people in the congregation who will avoid coming to worship if the senior pastor or their favorite pastor isn’t preaching. Too easily we close our ears, refusing to open ourselves to a new message from God.
Pick any element of worship, and surely you could find someone who doesn’t like it, just as surely as you could find someone who values it. Worship technology in its many forms draws people closer to God, connects individuals to one another, gives us a shared and common experience, and enables us to utilize more of our senses during a worship service. Worship technology hopefully helps us to grow as disciples.
Similarly, the same thing could be said about your church website. If you start to put significantly more staff time into developing your website than to producing a church newsletter, there are bound to be people who are upset. Many others, though, will recognize that the newer technology enables a richer experience, an opportunity for reader measurement, and a way to unify all of your church communications. Your church website should help your congregation to grow as disciples.
So the next time you hear someone complaining about screens in your Sanctuary or the cost of your congregation’s web-based ministry, gently remind them that God used a burning bush, a donkey, plagues, and an instrument of torture (i.e. the cross) to communicate in surprising, visual ways. Surely, God can do so through video and mobile screens too–even in a nearly 100 year-old Sanctuary like the one I’ll worship in this Sunday.