The Future of the Church is Digital: Part 1

The Future of the Church is Digital: Part 1
 
Instead of vilifying the technology that can create community, we must instead redeem it.

I recently read an article in a national publication about the future of the church being analog, not digital. I respect the author, and his intention was good.  Therefore, I don’t want to link to the article or author because my goal is not to write a public refutation. While I agreed with many of his thoughts, I took issue with some major points and illustrations that were used. However, it did inspire me to publish some of my thoughts to why I believe the future of the church is digital.

Throughout the history of the church, we have welcomed innovation and technology with excitement. Every development in communication technology is an opportunity to leverage that technology for gospel purposes.

In recent years, I’ve noticed many church leaders that have started to either push back from technology or be purposefully late adopters. There is a fear of actually becoming less connected as a church in an attempt to do the opposite.

I believe the fear is healthy and it stems from being cultural bystanders and watching a generation that has grown up with iPhones in their hand. We observe a generation of young people sit in the same room as one another with faces buried in their devices. They text and snap away at friends who aren’t present, ignoring the opportunity for conversation with actual humans right in front of them.

We fear the same thing might happen in our church culture if we make the church “experience” too digital.

Why we are the first generation of church leaders in history to be fearful of technology, I’m not sure. I do know that those who have gone before us took advantage of the tools, resources, and communication channels that were available to them and we should strive to do the same.

Technology, as it relates to communication, is viewed with a digital perspective because of the age in which we live. I’d like us to remember that technology can look very different depending on the century. In Matthew 5, Jesus saw the crowds and went up on the mountain to preach to them. Did he go on the mountain because that’s where the people were or did Jesus strategically choose a place on the mountain to be seen and heard better?

We can’t say because the Bible doesn’t tell us that. What we do know is that in Matthew 14 when Jesus feeds the 5,000, baskets were used to gather the leftover pieces of bread. Guess what. A basket is a piece of technology! We see countless examples in scriptures of Jesus being the original "bootstrapper" and using the technology and tools available to Him to accomplish His purposes.

Scholars write that the Apostle Paul most likely used a pen made from a carved reed with ink made from ash on paper made from papyrus. Paul leveraged every technology to spread the gospel and fulfill God’s calling for him. It’s unfathomable that Paul would say, “well Jesus was an oral communicator, so I don’t need this pen and paper!” The very thought of that makes us laugh.

History tells us that the Protestant Reformation probably wouldn't happen as we know it without Martin Luther being able to use the incredible Gutenberg printing press to distribute his thoughts.

The great missionaries and martyrs Jim Elliot and Nate Saint used an airplane to reach the Auca people with the gospel. They gave their life in the process, but it resulted in the salvation of many.  

Billy Graham used incredibly expensive sound systems to tell millions about a man named Jesus.

But all of a sudden we wake up in a digital age and the church is gun-shy about using Facebook Live or Snapchat. I talked to a church recently who didn't want to use Facebook because they couldn't control the ads that might display beside their videos. Others don’t want to use certain social media channels because many of those platforms can be used for sinful purposes. We know that this type of logic is a fallacy and just doesn’t work.

The printing press used by Martin Luther was undoubtedly also used for evil purposes. Those same little airplanes used by Jim Elliot have been used for years to run drugs around the world. The same smartphones pastors use to send an encouraging text message to a hurting church member are used by terrorists to organize evil plots.

I shouldn’t have to drive this point home, but it seems necessary. Technology is neither secular nor sacred. I believe every development in technology is a gift and every generation of Christians and church leaders will be accountable for how we stewarded these gifts.

Methods Change But Our Message Does Not

Obviously, this isn’t a blanket stereotype, it only describes certain churches. There are many churches I see leading the charge with brilliant social content strategies, beautiful branding that creates excitement about learning God’s Word, and a good balance of technology in worship. There are others that use technology to create exciting environments that pack out a room while being devoid and bankrupt of gospel truth.

I don’t go around calling out churches, but I know that overuse of tech is just as unhelpful as an anti-technology approach. The anti-technology attitude of some churches is hurting their ability to fulfill the great commission and minister to their communities. Every church has a unique strategy to minister to a unique body of believers. I want to encourage those churches who might have a negative attitude towards embracing new technologies and methodologies.

"The anti-technology attitude of some churches is hurting their ability to fulfill the great commission and minister to their communities."

An example of being anti-technology is a pastor who encouraged his congregation not to take pictures of baptism because "the holy moment cannot be captured on film.” I don’t know about you, but when it comes to a public profession of faith, the more “public” you can make it the better. Photos of baptisms on Facebook and Instagram are a beautiful picture of salvation to share with the world.

Another example of this anti-technology sentiment is that sharing sermon MP3s online can take the humanity out of ministry. The author writes, "Sending out your sermons may help the sick, invalid, elderly, and infirm, but wouldn’t those folks much prefer an in-person visit than a website with slick graphics?”

Well yes, they would prefer that visit, but we can't preach a sermon to every home-bound person every week. How about we use the powerful storytelling ability of video and Facebook to share with our congregation the need of our shut-ins. Then use the power of branding and design to inspire a movement where church members are motivated to meet that need?

I believe that every argument for using less technology in the church can pivot to a better argument that we can use technology to expand the reach of our message, shepherd our people better, and create a more connected faith family.

For the last decade, I have helped businesses experience growth through better marketing. Companies are forced to keep up with marketing trends. If they don’t, they die. Even though the church today has more consumerism than it did just a few years ago, the fact remains that we are still the church and we are more loyal to our churches than we are to brands. The sad commentary on this very good thing is that the church doesn’t necessarily have to adapt as fast as the corporate world. Our bottom line won’t be affected if our latest ad campaign didn’t connect with our audience. I thank God that this isn’t the case.

Maintaining Our Institutions

When I was in seminary, I had a professor who made a great observation. His name was Dr. Alvin Reid. He is a professor of evangelism and student ministry at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and the author of many great books. You can find him here: http://alvinreid.com/.

His observation was the following.

Dying churches seek to maintain an institution, while healthy churches seek to advance a movement.

Wow.

This is why so many eager young pastors are planting churches instead of pastoring existing churches. These millennial church leaders have grown up watching pastors walk into leadership roles with great excitement, only to get caught in the maintenance mode of trying to keep up the 37 existing programs that the church can’t let go.

A question that maintains an institution: How can we make the Christmas production better than last year?

A question that advances a movement: What should we do for Christmas this year? How can we leverage every talent, resource, and communication channel to engage our members and community in awe of Immanuel, the Creator God who became like one of the created? And we have no agenda for how that happens.

A question that maintains an institution: How can we do VBS better?

A question that advances a movement: While children are out of school this summer, how can we engage them to love Jesus and be excited to learn about Him? And we have no agenda for how that happens.

That's a better question. We need to start asking better questions in our planning sessions with focus on the technology-centric strategies that will be required for successful ministry.

The Future of our Churches is Digital

The future of our churches is digital because the future of the world is digital. We can be frustrated that our world and our own people are addicted to their devices. That’s a valid frustration, but these devices and technology are here to stay, and we’ve known that for 15 years. There is no reversing that trend. We can be frustrated as church leaders that the digital world is moving faster than our ability to understand it. That's a valid frustration too, but apathy isn't valid.

What we must do is decide how we want to respond. We can be anti-technology with our heels in the sand while we maintain our institutions or we can embrace the incredible age in which we live. Pastors have something that churches for centuries would weep over: 24/7 access to their people. That’s an incredible gift.

"Okay, I get it, I just don’t know where to start." 

The hard part for churches and ministry staff with technology or digital marketing is that it changes incredibly fast. I honestly cannot think of another industry that is changing as fast as marketing. Doctors who went to medical school 30 years ago have to keep up with the changing trends of the healthcare industry, but human anatomy is the same as it was 30 years ago. The pastor who went to seminary 30 years ago and learned how to prepare an expositional sermon can still use those skills today. Technology, software, and marketing strategy for churches evolves and changes every month.

Even industry experts who have been leaders in their field for decades are struggling to keep up. I hear fundraising consultants at conferences speak about strategies that are dead or dying. They have been thought leaders for their entire career and are facing a digital age that is crushing every tool in their toolbox. 

My suggestion?

Many churches are doing it already. I believe the best investment a church can make either now or in next year’s budget is a Pastor of Communication. This is different than a communications director or creative director who is deeply involved in the worship experience. A Pastor of Communication, or connections, or strategic ministry, or innovation, or any other title you want to give it is unique. A corporate comparison would be a Chief Marketing Officer, although in the church we don’t really like the word marketing.

If I were a Senior Pastor or Administrative Pastor in 2017, I would adjust my budget to make that happen. I would get creative in finding the money for that. 

I’m not here to talk about worship production tech. However, I do have to ask the question of whether your worship service needs $100k worth of intelligent lights? I don’t know. That’s not for me to answer. I only want to make the case that I do think some budgets could be more wisely allocated towards making a position like the one I described above.

There has been a lot of negative talk about the past year, but I refuse to be anything but insanely optimistic. I sincerely believe that the Church has more resources than any other time in the history of the Church to fulfill the purposes of the Church. I wake up excited about that fact. I am passionate about helping churches realize their potential to reach their communities through new technology and strategies. I have both been on staff at churches and spent a decade working in marketing. I do have a unique perspective. Most of all though, I have a ton of enthusiasm at what churches will do in the next few years with all these new technologies and platforms at their disposal.

As I said in the title, this post is Part 1. I wanted to set the stage and diagnose the problem.

In Part 2, I will offer some actionable content and strategies.

Stay Tuned!

Daniel Hicks