Churches Adopt Technology To Reach Out To Congregants

Wired In The Pulpit

Bishop T.D. Jakes often preaches at his Potter's House church in Dallas, Texas, from an iPad rather than from handwritten notes.

The Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, N.Y., saves an estimated 2 million sheets of paper a year by sending out its bulletins and announcements via weekly email blasts.

And the Rev. Thomas Bowen of Shiloh Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., has even used an iPad for musical accompaniment during a funeral service.

"The acoustics were great," he said.

There was a time when the only tablets discussed in most churches were the two inscribed with the Ten Commandments, and church bulletin boards and telephone grapevines were the most effective means of spreading information to a flock. But these days more and more churches are stepping up their technology game, outfitting their sanctuaries with Wi-Fi and encouraging congregants to use their smart phones, iPads and other electronic devices to follow along with the minister's message, look up Scripture or to send Twitter and Facebook messages about the good word to their friends and followers.

"It used to be that every other person was carrying a Bible when they came to church," said Lance Goudy, a member of Potter's House and the head of its IT department. "Now, across the board, young adults up to people into their seventies are walking in with iPads."

From the smaller, more traditional neighborhood churches to the huge megachurches, tech-savvy religious leaders and congregants are finding unique ways to incorporate technology in order to modernize the church-going experience. Some companies are beginning to market specialty products to the more technology-minded ministers. One company, Little Mountain, has created the iPulpit, a lectern with a slot for the iPad to make preaching from it that much easier. (They sell for between $650 to $1195.)

Some churches are even passing the collection plate less often, instead taking tithes and offerings via electronic kiosks or directly from the pews through sites like Paypal. Others are livestreaming funerals for out-of-town mourners or Sunday services to the sick and shut in. The days of the church sound guy, overseeing a few microphones, speakers and perhaps an amplifier, have been replaced by church IT departments, technology ministries and in-house social media machines.

"Technology is allowing families to worship together again," said Andre Barnes, the technology director at Impact Church in Atlanta, Ga., which has developed its own iPhone app and where Twitter hashtags are routinely flashed on a pair of big screens during services. "While mom is in the church with her paperback Bible, the daughter is on her cellphone. Mom is taking notes with a pen and paper, but daughter is taking notes, too, just through Twitter."

When Theryl Jones moved from Peoria, Ill., to Atlanta recently, leaving behind her home church, St. Paul Baptist Church, she said it was comforting to know that her pastor was just a few mouse-clicks away.

"I get daily devotionals from my pastor. I can download his sermons and the notes and be a part of small groups," said Jones, who also confessed that "my iPhone IS my Bible."

She also said her pastor, Rev. Deveraux Hubbard Sr., is a "true techie" and made his stance on social networking during church plain from the beginning.

"My pastor's favorite saying is, 'I know you're going to text, tweet and Facebook in church, so give them some Jesus while you're at it!'" she said. "It's a good way to share the Gospel with your friends and followers."

Popular religious leaders like Jakes, whose Potter's House Facebook page has 505,954 likes and nearly 240,000 followers on Twitter, have managed to expand their reach in ways almost unimaginable in the days before the social media and Internet explosion.

His followers and friends live as far away as Nigeria, Europe and Australia, and receive inspirational tweets throughout the day, like this tweet from last week:

The frequent tweeting, some 5,579 as of late last week, is an important part of the church's larger outreach strategy to keep people connected to the church's message, said Marc Jeffrey, head of social media, at Potter's House.

"Our goal in the ministry is to continue to find ways to connect with people on any given platform that is out there," said Jeffrey, adding that most of the services at Potter's House are streamed online. "At a lot of churches several years ago, you probably would have heard the pastor make an announcement to please silence your cellphone. Now it has become a tool, with Bishop Jakes pulling out his cellphone during church and telling people to pull out theirs and please text and tweet."

Even Pope Benedict XVI, the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church, perhaps the most traditional of religious organizations, have been bitten by the Twitter bug. The Vatican's English-language Twitter account has about 73,448 followers, which is not world-shattering in the Twitterverse, where Rev. Run (of Run-DMC fame) has more than 2.5 million followers. The Dali Lama, besting the both of them combined, has over 3 million.

The introduction of technology into the church can be a delicate undertaking, several ministers said. Older congregants sometimes see the sanctuary and their faith as sacred, not to be crossed with too many wires and gizmos, while their younger counterparts often want to enjoy their religion on the go, or to share their faith with others via social media, sometimes before the minister has even finished preaching.

"I think some of the older people say, 'We don't really need that in the church, it's not sacred' -- that they didn't need it when they were growing up, so why do they need it now?" said Rev. Nicholas Richards, a minister at Abyssinian Baptist Church. "And young people want to be able to have the same experience that they have outside of the church, inside of the church."

"I think the task for us, the leadership at Abyssinian, is to blend both of those perspectives," Richards said. "We don't want to just take wholeheartedly everything that's happening outside of the church, but at the same time, there are so many things that we can learn from, especially from technology and how it can help us spread the word and the Gospel of Jesus."

There are also concerns about isolating church members who might not be technologically inclined due to economic circumstances. Abyssinian Baptist Church is in a Harlem neighborhood that is slowly gentrifying, but one that remains largely poor.

"Technology requires a certain amount of income," Richards said. "Abyssinian by and large is a community church and reflects the income and the economy of the community, which right now is depressed. We'd never want to get to the point where we are exclusively high-tech. I think that's not really fair to the majority of the people who are low-tech."

Rev. Michel Faulkner, pastor of the 50-member New Horizon Church in Harlem, said that, despite some grumblings, his members have opened up to using more modern technologies. Not that they had much of a choice.

"I let everyone know that, as much as I love you, if you don't have email, I can't really communicate with you," said Faulkner, who also said that PowerPoint replaced Bibles and hymnals in his church services nearly 15 years ago. Nearly a third of the church's offerings are donated online now through a website called Acceptiva, similar to Paypal, he said.

At Shiloh Baptist Church, the church's two-person tech committee wired most of the church, including the sanctuary, with Wi-Fi -- as announced by a 12-foot-high black-and-gold sign that hangs outside one of the church's entrances, reading "Wi-Fi Zone." The church has worked out deals with Microsoft to offer church members hundreds of dollars in discounts on Windows and Office Suite, and once a month, technicians are brought in to give tutorials, install applications and make computer repairs on the spot, all free of charge. Some of the teenagers from the church often volunteer to help with texting support.

In just five years the church has also been outfitted with a computer lab, a projection system and a digital dashboard that streams information to a number of monitors located throughout the church, replacing the old bulletin board, said Joy Patterson, who serves on the church's tech committee. Before the digital dashboard, "it looked junky," Patterson said, with prayer requests and announcements layered with pushpins.

"Everyone laughs and says we are pulling them and dragging them into the modern era," said Patterson. "It's amazing how just a lot of hand holding and constantly talking to people about technology broke down some of the fear and barriers."

Editor's Note: Please note that all figures related to social media subscriptions are as of date of publication.