I visit a lot of churches. A lot. And because of who I am and what I do, I just can’t help it – I wear my consultant’s hat, at least a little bit. Over the past year, I’ve taken a particular interest in checking out how the church uses technology. I’ve visited a number of mega-churches, a number of soon-to-be mega-churches, middle sized churches, and small churches and one thing I’ve found in each one … none of them are using current technology in worship effectively, if at all.
In general terms of cutting-edge technology, let me quickly dispel some current misconceptions. Just because you have a website, even an attractive website, doesn’t mean you’re cutting edge technologically. Although a website with a memorable and easily found URL (and thus search-engine optimized) is no longer an option, most church websites are hopelessly outmoded and outdated. Web 2.0 is the new standard, not the next-best-thing of the future – and if you don’t know what Web 2.0 is, then my point is proved. If your site doesn’t support or include discussion groups, wikis, social networking opportunities, blogs, RSS feeds, and other user interactive opportunities, then your site is emphatically not Web 2.0.
Another serious misconception is that if you’re using an email list to notify members of what’s going on, then you’re communicating in the most effective way to the younger generations. Not so. Turns out that Baby Boomers are pretty tuned in to email still, but get younger than fifty and in general you just as well be sending your email to the black-hole of cyberspace. None of my adult children (the youngest is twenty-two and the oldest is thirty) even check email anymore. That’s so retro … except they don’t use that word anymore, making me so retro! (My son said the correct term is “Old school” … I knew that.)
But this article is about technology in worship, not just communications. So, here are three areas you need to shore up technologically if you’re going to reach those under forty and/or your neighborhood in worship.
The Digital Video Projector
First, if you aren’t using a digital video projector in your worship services, get with it. After the initial whining and complaining by the seventy year-olds, most will discover they love it because it’s so BIG – no need for large print hymnals and Bibles anymore.
However, for the rest of you who proudly show off your cutting-edge technological wizardry, let me share an observation. In at least 70 percent of the churches I visit, the digital projector they paid several thousand dollars for had just as well been a $100 overhead projector. Most churches still use PowerPoint or some similar version of a slideshow software … and they use it like a slideshow (or as a color photocopied acetate sheet). Words to the songs. Points to the sermon. Rotating static slides with the week’s current events on them. Even rotating images of VBS or church camp. All very nice … but which one of those couldn’t have been printed on acetate?
Now, some of you are smiling smugly because you use MediaShout and your static music slides have clouds floating or ocean waves crashing behind the words. In the words of Sgt. Carter, “Wipe that smile off your face, Pyle” … you’re missing the point (and if you recognize the reference, congratulations – you’re officially a Nick-At-Night candidate). The digital video projector was designed to project video … moving images that carry a story, communicate a message, or illuminate a thought. Static slides just don’t do that.
Here’s a “Try This” assignment if you’re not using video throughout your weekly worship services. Find a comedic video clip that seamlessly illustrates a point in this upcoming week’s sermon. Be fair … make sure it’s funny and pertinent to the point … and then use it in worship. The following week, ask your congregation what they remember from the previous sermon. Guess what they’ll remember? I’ll give you a hint … most won’t remember your carefully crafted three point alliteration. Once you’re convinced, then it’s time to start creating video for “advertising” your events, illustrating your sermons, setting the mood during offering, communion, prayer, and so on.
But using video is only the beginning. Some of you may remember the article titled “Parabolic Preaching” where I mention worship at Woodcrest Chapel in Columbia, Missouri. The last time I visited, they were using seven … count ’em … seven screens of content on the front stage all running simultaneously. There were at least three different video projections going on at any given moment. During the music, there was a live handi-cam on various instrumentalists and vocalists. There was the requisite words to the song with the floating backgrounds. And there was a video montage (not a series of slides, but a series of videos) that captured the theme of the song. With the price of flatscreens coming down, and the price of projectors so low, there’s virtually no excuse for not having at least two screens even in smaller churches.
Let me ask one last thing … when you go to a concert, where do your eyes naturally go to? The stage or the screen? If you were born after 1950 then your tendency is likely to track to the big screen – if you’re one of the exceptions you’ll have to trust me. We’re a screen culture. With that in mind, if you’re using a digital video projector and you’re not putting the head-and-shoulders shots up on the screen while the speaker is talking, you’re missing out, or rather, your congregation is missing out. That screen up there ought never be empty … you paid enough for it, go ahead and use it effectively.
I’ve already mentioned the need for a good Web 2.0 website, and though this article is about technology in worship, I want to share how you need to be tying the two together. More and more folks are coming to your worship service with web-enabled devices. It’s almost rare for a cell phone to not be web-enabled anymore, and those of us who live or die on our Blackberries, Treos, or SmartPhones have almost as good access as we do on our laptops. With this in mind, it only makes sense to start using the internet and your website to enhance the worship service.
Before you do so, you’ll need to do a couple things. First, you’ll need to get your website mobile ready. That’s really a pretty easy trick using today’s CSS (Cascading Style Sheets), but it’s probably beyond the capabilities of the average pastor. You’ll either need to hire someone to do it for you or spend some serious time learning it … and you don’t have that kind of time if you’re trying to grow your church. Second, you’ll have to develop content and/or do some decent Googling if you plan on using the technology.
Here are some ideas on how you can use this technology in your services. Upload your sermon notes/outline to your website and include links to Wikipedia, the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, and other sites that include additional information on your topic. Use BibleGateway to display multiple translations of your sermon texts. Set up a church Facebook account, a chatroom, a wiki, or even a blog to encourage feedback and communication during the service. Set up a Twitter account (www.twitter.com) and use it during the service for sharing pop-up thoughts and Aha’s during the service.
Lest you worry that you’ll simply be adding an additional distraction to your service, think again. You’re actually providing opportunities for using the internet to keep your congregation more focused … they’re already surfing the net during the service anyway. They can either surf for related information or they can keep checking on ESPN.com, MySpace, YouTube, etc.
As I mentioned in the introduction, if you think that a mass email is keeping your congregation informed, you’ve dated yourself. Email is almost as archaic as snail mail these days. It’s slow and verbose … and in today’s culture that’s all three strikes. If you want to keep your parishioners informed these days, figure out how you can do it in 160 characters (the new Twitter standard is 140) and then send that same message to all 50 or 100 or 1000 members in your church who’ve signed up for a weekly text. Of course, that’s communication in general … and in this area, there are very few churches effectively using texts to communicate with their folk.
But again, this is about worship. How can you use TM in worship? Well, your congregants are already texting during your worship services anyway, so how about putting that fact to work? During a service emphasizing the unchurched you could set out a challenge: “In the next five minutes, text at least three unchurched friends and ask them three questions: (1) Do they believe in God; (2) Why don’t they go to church; and (3) What do they think of when they hear the word ‘Christian’.” Then let the congregation share the responses. It will be eye-opening, I promise.
Another idea would be to invite questions about the sermon to be texted to a particular phone held by an usher who would compile the questions and get them to the pastor before the end of the service so they could be addressed.
And let’s not forget that texts could be used to elicit feedback, prayer requests, and more.
It used to be said that the church was at least twenty-five years behind technologically. In today’s terms, that comparison is dinosaur-esque. The church simply can’t afford to be as much as nine months behind, let alone two years. If all this makes your head hurt, I implore you to find someone in your congregation that “gets” this technology stuff and have them show you … not explain it to you … demonstrate it. You’ll get the hang of it much more quickly that way.
And if you’re reading this article and it’s post December 2008, then you’re reading ancient history. Go find another article that’s more current.