Cyberchurches: Using technology to share good
By Liz Applegate
Sending text messages during worship service? Watching a sermon on an iPad? Using Facebook to help a church event go “viral”? How about paying a tithe through a wireless kiosk?
These are no longer glimpses into the future or practices found in trendy emergent churches, or heaven forbid, simply disrespectful church behavior. They are becoming accepted practices on any given Sunday in United Methodist churches across the country.
For new church start Grace Adventure United Methodist Church in upper state New York, social media has been a way to reach the community.
The church has a Facebook page, and local pastor Annette Snedaker uses her own Facebook profile to help members and potential visitors get to know her.
When Grace Adventure invited people to a gathering for free bubble tea (a beverage that combines fruit syrup, black tea and tapioca pearls), the church’s launch team hoped to draw 30 people to help celebrate the church’s first anniversary.
Then the invitation went “viral” on Facebook.
“The way Facebook works, if you say you are going to [attend] an event, your friends can see you are going. That is how we ended up with 365 people [attending],” said Ms. Snedaker. “We now have people involved in the church that came.”
As a “church without walls” and no church building, Grace Adventure meets in public places such as restaurants and coffee shops, where the community is already present. Facebook gives them the same presence with an online community.
“People are still a little resistant about putting up their business on Facebook,” said Ms. Snedaker, “but it works. That’s where people are and it really got us out in the community.”
Social media should be viewed as a conversation, says Phil Cooke, church media consultant and author of several books including Branding Faith: Why Some Churches and Nonprofits Impact Culture and Others Don’t (Regal). He advises pastors to go beyond sharing last week’s sermon on a social media platform and become more transparent in sharing what it’s like to be a pastor.
“People want to know you,” said Mr. Cooke, whose father was a United Methodist pastor in Oklahoma. “They want to hear what you are wrestling with, what God is showing you—that’s why they are following you on social media.”
Some churches are bringing social media into the sanctuary. First United Methodist Church in Rowlett, Texas, recently used a free technology called Wiffiti during a sermon titled “Get the Message?” Instead of asking the congregation to turn off their cell phones, worshippers were asked to text in God’s personal message for them. The text messages were broadcast on screens and became part of the sermon.
“I was a little nervous about it,” admits senior pastor, the Rev. Jan Davis. “But it really enhanced worship and fit in with what we were trying to say.”
The success of using Wiffiti has senior associate pastor, the Rev. Wes Magruder, looking to incorporate it into First Rowlett’s contemporary service.
“I learned that sermons are a dialogue between the preacher and the congregation. This is taking that concept to a new level,” said Mr. Magruder.
Pastors have to show some flexibility with new technology, he added. “You have to be willing to answer those questions that are not planned for and go off-script.”
Impact, a United Methodist Church in Atlanta, advertises that it is “doing church differently”—from having video resumes of the pastors on YouTube to accepting offerings through a wireless kiosk.
“Since we first started, technology has been important to us,” said the Rev. Olu Brown, founding pastor and co-author of Zero to 80: Innovative Ideas for Planting and Accelerating Church Growth (Impact Press).
The church recently launched online applications that allow viewers to watch live streaming worship services on smart phones and other mobile devices.
Reaching the community through online technology has also been an intentional goal for United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, a 17,000 membership megachurch in Leawood, Kan. Resurrection Online was developed in 2008 as a first step in making connections with non-religious and nominally religious people. It now draws more than 1,300 visitors each week.
The website (www.rezonline.org) includes links for attendance, online giving, online Bible study and small group interaction through chat and video Skype sessions. It also includes ways participants can serve the online community by becoming a moderator, technical administrator or prayer partner.
“We have found we can connect with those who do not have a church or who have had a bad experience with the church in their past, and use it as a tool to get them connected in the Christian community,” said the Rev. Andrew Conard, pastor of Resurrection Online (and a UMR Communications board member).
Not everyone agrees, however, that spiritual community can take place in cyberspace. The Rev. Steve Manskar, director of Wesleyan leadership with the United Methodist General Board of Discipleship (GBOD), says having online worship is an “oxymoron.”
“Worship is the body of Christ assembling together—offering themselves to God in service,” he said. “You can’t do that with people spread out, sitting in their own living rooms in front of a computer screen.”
Since sacraments such as Communion cannot and should not be administered online, he added, online worship distorts the very character of Christian worship.
“You need to be present, touch and hear the people around you,” said Mr. Manskar. “That’s how God came to us in Christ—as a present, embodied human—and that’s what is essential for Christian worship.”
Mr. Conard acknowledges concern over administering Communion through Resurrection Online, and says the church is considering possibilities, including the formation of a micro-church of Resurrection. Residents at an independent living facility gather together each week to watch the streaming online sermons together, which would allow for a local pastor to be present for sacraments.
Even though no-cost strategies like social media can help connect with more people, some churches are still hesitant to embrace the new technology.
Mr. Cooke finds that’s due to the fear of losing older congregation members and fear of change.
“[Churches] are convinced that if they make the sermon more contemporary through technology, they will turn off the older congregation,” he said. “We spend so much time worried about our audience—we should focus more on the story we have to tell.
“The Bible said, ‘The word of God never changes’ and that’s what ministry leaders want to focus on. But everything else does: Culture changes, people change, times change, technology changes. And if we don’t understand that, we are going to totally get lost in the shuffle out there.”
And while some United Methodist churches may see technology as a quick fix to stem denominational decline, it still takes planning to use it well, says Jack Ewing, executive director of the Foundation for Evangelism, an affiliate of GBOD. On the surface, he says, new technology may seem like a good idea, but it often only solves a short-term problem.
“It’s like everything else in the church,” said Dr. Ewing. “Even if it’s a good idea, if there is not enough structure or direction or forethought behind it, it won’t be successful.”
Dr. Ewing believes that technology should be viewed as a tool that can help invite others into the church by creating a welcoming environment.
“Projecting songs on screens is a perfect example,” he said. “Ten to 15 years ago it would have been unusual to see. Now I would have to guess that 50 percent of churches have some sort of worship service that uses projection.”
While its appeal caters to a younger generation, projected hymns also help the elderly who have a hard time reading the font in a hymnal, he added.
Mr. Cooke’s message is stronger: Using newer technology is not just convenient, it’s essential. People are bombarded by some 5,000 media messages a day, he said, so churches must be in the game if their message is going to get through.
“We live in this hyper-distracted world,” Mr. Cooke said. “And in that world, who is going to win that battle of influence?
“We are telling the greatest story ever told. If you take seriously reaching the world with the gospel, there is no question that anybody can have an impact now. Technology allows anybody to get that message heard.”
Mr. Brown of Impact agreed: “It’s about using technology to advance the message, to tell our story to bring people into the faith.”
Published originally United Methodist Reporter.