The pastor had committed a faux pas… that much was clear. The Board met immediately following the service and after a few brief minutes they made their pronouncement.

“The pastor may no longer refer to Twitter or texting during worship.”

True story. And unless something seriously changes in that church I can draw the timeline to the moment they’ll join Lyle Schaller’s statistical prediction of 150,000 closed US churches within a decade.

It’s not that tweets and texts can save a church. But so long as worship is restricted to the era of radio communication, the church’s future is grim.

Radio communication has its roots in the “Radio Generation,” the generation that is still in the driver’s seat in many, if not most, smaller churches (and many medium and even some larger churches). It’s not that these folks are necessarily opposed to technology in worship, it’s that they don’t understand (on any meaningful level) why it’s important or why anyone would dream of texting or tweeting in a worship service.

Before we solve the problem, let’s take a quick tour of the three generations present in most churches today.

The Radio Generation: These folks were raised on radio entertainment. They learned to hang on every nuanced word the Shadow and Little Orphan Annie said. The spoken and written word were their chief learning tools… radio shows, lectures, sermons, and so on. Sure, they were exposed to movies, but their primary learning input was the written word and verbalizations. These are mostly the Silent and the Builder generations.

Think about it for a moment. If you close your eyes at most worship services you would miss very little and you could walk away with pretty much everything that was offered. That’s the radio generation at work in worship.

The TV Generation: Sometimes these folks are called the MTV Generation, but not all of us were raised on MTV. This generation was raised with television, or should I say raised “in front of the” television. The verbalizations of the past were largely replaced by images. Although it was the Radio Generation that made famous the phrase “A picture is worth a thousand words,” it was the TV Generation that made image-driven media their primary learning tool. And though there have been paraments in churches for hundreds of years, note that it was the TV Generation that got busy sprucing up the worship space with banners… and when they really got their way, they outfitted the sanctuary with an LCD projector (hoping for more than just words on the screen). These are mostly Boomers and early Gen-Xers.

In an image-driven worship service (there actually aren’t very many of them yet – even in megachurches), if you close your eyes for more than a few seconds you’ll miss something important.

The Digital Generation: These are the folks who have never not had the Internet. Many, if not most, of them have very talented thumbs that can text at 60wpm (words per minute, for those of you more familiar with LOL, OMG, and OTP) while carrying on an intelligent conversation with a group of friends in almost any setting. Their learning style isn’t looking at a screen, as one might expect of a generation raised looking at a computer monitor. Instead, they learn best through interactivity. These are the late Gen-Xers, the Millennials, and Digital Natives.

So now, let’s consider today’s typical worship service. Well, for starters the primary communication mode is oral – the songs, the sermon, and most of the other worship components pretty much depend on words. Many churches have added screen technology to their services, but most of them still use that technology as if it’s an overhead projector: they project the words of the songs, the responsive reading, unison prayers, and the points to the sermon.

It’s funny that even churches that “get it” when it comes to learning styles have defaulted to an enhanced radio generation service. The words of the songs make it up to the screen and there may even be a graphic or video background, but the “image” rarely carries significant (or any) meaning. If you close your eyes, you would still miss very little. These churches generally use cameras to project the pastor (and other up-front guests) up on the big screen. But projecting the speaker on a JumboTron hardly qualifies as an image-driven teaching tool – you could get the same effect sitting in the front row. On the other hand, some churches have taken the next step towards image-driven worship. They use video clips, create video commercials, and develop video illustrations to enhance the sermon (which is still largely an oral delivery). Although this is movement in the right direction, to be sure, I’ve yet to encounter a church that has effectively adapted worship to move, touch, and inspire an image-driven generation (I suspect this may be another reason why so few Boomers have returned to church).

Although strides have been made in the image-driven venue, few churches have even broached the Digital Generation’s needs. Remember that being “digital” isn’t so much the issue with this generation. Interactivity is their preferred learning style. That doesn’t mean they’re the generation that embraces the “Turn to the person sitting next to you and say ‘Jesus loves you’” style of sermon interactivity … far from it. Though it’s true they respond and learn best in an interactive environment, a need for interactivity does not presume inter-relational-ism.

Here’s a reality check though. A Radio-Generation worship service can add digital interactivity without disrupting the worship service. In fact, an enterprising church could do so without adding screen technology! The one technological tool a church must have for this to work effectively is an open-access broadband Internet connection. But with that in place, even a small church can create an interactive worship service that can keep the most avid Digital Native content – it takes work and a little cooperation from a member or two, but it’s well worth it.

Creating a Digital Native Friendly Worship Service

Rather than creating a long how-to narrative, the following bulleted list offers a jumping-off point… add what’s possible now and add more as technology changes and opportunities arise.

  • Provide a phone number or a Twitter feed in the bulletin (or on-screen) where participants can text or post questions or comments while the service is going on.
    • The recipient should be someone in the service whose ministry is to field these questions and respond to comments.
    • To take this to the next level, put the recipient on the platform with the pastor. As pertinent questions and clarification-needs are received, the recipient should jot them down on a 3X5 card. These cards should be slipped to the pastor as he or she preaches so they can be woven into the sermon.
  • Create a webpage that has resources that augment the prayers, hymns, scripture readings, and sermon.
    • Add hymn stories, histories, etc. that help the worshipper better connect with the hymn.
    • Provide definitions of unfamiliar terms in the hymns, such as ebenezer, zephyr, seraphim, etc.
    • Provide links to prayer sites such as the labyrinth site
    • Add links to scripture tools such as and Bible helps such as Don’t just offer those base URL links, but direct links to the Bible passages, commentaries, articles, and so on.
    • Provide the sermon outline, reflection questions, alternative interpretations, etc.
  • Create a “chat room” for the service, perhaps embedded on the above webpage, that is staffed by one or more church volunteers who can field questions and comments with ease. (Keep in mind that “I don’t know” may be the most authentic and honest answer to some questions.)
  • If you live stream your service online, make sure that all of the above options are clearly available on the streaming site. (I recommend as one of the least expensive streaming services.)
  • If you record video of your service, consider offering the worship service or the sermon at an additional time (and/or day) and streaming it via “live tape.” When you do, provide the same level of digital interactivity as you do for the live service.

I presented the above materials at a tech seminar for pastors and church leaders the other day and one of the pastors exclaimed, “You’ve just redefined ministry!” I’m not convinced that offering digital enhancements as a redefinition of ministry, but I agree that it’s a brand-new ministry opportunity that few churches are offering.

Is it more work?
But tomorrow’s church demands it today.

Question: How have you seen churches include digital interaction in services? What are some other ways to appeal to the Digital Generation’s needs? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below.