iChurch

By Kent E. Fillinger

A recent Family Circus cartoon showed Dolly telling her mother, “Billy says he doesn’t hafta’ go to church anymore ‘cause his phone has an app for that!” The reality is, Billy may be right!

The top-ranked online search topic in 2011 was “iPhone,” beating out Casey Anthony, Kim Kardashian, and Katy Perry. Technologies like Facebook, Twitter, mobile websites, and smartphones are changing the way individuals live and organizations operate.

Church growth consultant Barry Whitlow wrote,

70% of the people living in most American communities now choose not to get up and go to a church service on Sunday, and they can no longer relate to how most churches in America communicate their message on Sunday. They want God to be relevant to their world. We want them to be relevant to ours. So what’s it going to take to reach the 70%? Change, change, change and the right message communicated in the right way.1

Former General Electric chairman and CEO Jack Welch said, “If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near.” The church must upgrade its communication methods to connect with our changing culture.

This year, for the first time, Christian Standard asked local congregations how they and their senior ministers are using technology in ministry. In many ways, the findings were encouraging.

 

E-newsletters and Online Registration

Overall, 85 percent of the churches surveyed used e-newsletters last year to communicate church events to their congregations. Churches using e-newsletters had an average growth rate of 4 percent, compared with a 1 percent growth rate for those that did not use e-newsletters.

As church websites become more sophisticated, more churches are conducting event registration online. The use of this technology ranged from 46 percent of medium-size churches to 95 percent of megachurches; overall, 76 percent of all churches surveyed are using this resource.

 

Facebook and Social Media

Facebook or other social media were the most prevalent technologies being used, with 96 percent participation, which is a significant increase over 2008 when only 25 percent of the megachurches and emerging megachurches surveyed used social media. Lee Coate, executive pastor at The Crossing, A Christian Church (Las Vegas, Nevada), said, “We see the technology as a tool to partner with us. We are leveraging social media (Facebook, Twitter) as our main communication tool.”

 

Podcasting and Streaming Video

Podcasting and streaming video of sermon messages has grown increasingly popular for churches wanting to give people a glimpse of the church. Overall, 73 percent of the churches used podcasting or streaming video last year. Churches using podcasting and streaming video grew 2.5 times faster than churches not using this tool.

 

YouTube

For every minute that passes in real time, 60 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube. That’s five months of video every hour. That’s 10 years of video every day. More video is uploaded to YouTube every month than has been broadcast by the three big TV networks in the past 60 years. And the pace is accelerating: last year the rate was only 48 hours per minute.2

Even though YouTube gets 4 billion page views every day, so far only 62 percent of the churches surveyed have used YouTube or Vimeo for ministry. The churches using YouTube on average grew three times faster last year than churches that did not have videos on the web.

 

Mobile Websites

Douglas Plank, chairman/CEO of MobileCause, points out, “People are connecting with you through their mobile phone whether you know it or not: 40% of people will experience your website for the first time through their phone.”3 This statistic demonstrates that it is necessary for churches to create a separate mobile website that is formatted to be viewable on a mobile device, in addition to the regular website, in order to connect with people on the platform they use the most. To date, only 29 percent of churches have launched a mobile website, and the growth rate for these churches was 7.1 percent, compared with only 3.4 percent for churches without a mobile site.

 

Internet or Online Church

While 20 percent of megachurches used an Internet or online church campus, only 10 percent of all the churches surveyed have an online church. The churches with an online campus grew at a better rate than those with no Internet church.

The Crossing in Las Vegas has been streaming its worship services since the summer of 2007. Approximately 125 unique viewers experience the church’s services online each week, which is equal to the size of the average church in America.

Lee Coate, executive pastor at The Crossing, said,

We have not approached our online services as a “campus,” but rather as an alternative or first impression. We provide this online presence at this point for those who are unable to be with us live, on campus, for various reasons and for those who want to check out our worship experience in the safety of the virtual world before coming [in person]. Recently, quite a few individuals outside of our immediate geographical area have become regular viewers.

 

Custom Apps

The Wall Street Journal noted, “App developers say more than 150 churches across the U.S. have had customized smartphone and tablet apps created to connect with their members . . . [and they] expect thousands of churches to develop apps in coming years to meet demand from worshippers.”4 A recent survey showed that about 42 percent of the nation’s adults have phones with apps.5 At least 22 of the churches surveyed (or 9 percent) used custom apps for their ministry in 2011.

The Christian Church of Jasper (Indiana) has an Apple-specific app called The CCJ app (available at http://ccjasper.com/app). The church has promoted the app mostly from within through verbal and bulletin announcements that include a QR code to send people directly to its site, website, and social media platforms. The church sent a press release to the local media announcing the release and received a couple of write-ups in the local paper.

The church outsourced the creation and technical coding of the app to a freelancer in its community, but did all of the design and graphic work in-house.

Daniel Ross, music and communications minister, said,

The common reaction has been positive. People love being able to take the church with them wherever they go. They can listen to sermons, some of our original music, get social media updates, read our blog, and watch our YouTube channel wherever they are in the world.

The app has been downloaded in almost a dozen different countries. It’s cool to see that people in China, Indonesia, and a few other nations use the app (especially considering that we are in a town of 15,000 people in rural southern Indiana).

The app has been downloaded less than 500 times total, but the church is pleased with the response so far, and Android users are asking for their own version.

 

Text Messaging

Studies show that 21 percent of people who receive an e-mail will actually open it, whereas text messages have a 95 percent open rate.6 That is why churches and other organizations are starting to send text messages in addition to e-mails. (But it is important to note that e-mail is not dead. In 2010, 107 trillion e-mails were sent, which reflected a 19 percent increase from the prior year.) Almost half of the surveyed churches (49 percent) used text messaging for ministry last year, and those that did grew 2 percent faster than the others.

Jeremy Jernigan, worship arts pastor at Central Christian Church (Mesa, Arizona), said the church has used text messaging in its student ministry for event promotion, to send updates for its churchwide reading plan, and to receive questions at a churchwide conference. He said that overall the response has been good.

Jamie Allen, senior pastor with Central Christian Church (Mount Vernon, Illinois), said his church has used text messaging as a reminder for upcoming events and as a way to remind volunteers they are scheduled to serve during the upcoming weekend. The church is even able to use text messaging to help “recruit” substitutes, based on the feedback. Central uses Ez Texting, and has been pleased with the service and the price.

“We are definitely moving to a more digital format with much of what we do,” Jernigan said, “but because we have a quantity of people who don’t connect this way, we probably won’t dramatically alter this in the next five years. We are trying to stay with the curve or ahead of the curve, but this often means you will isolate a handful of people. Picking the proper speed to implement this is probably the biggest challenge.”

 

Smartphones and Twitter

The majority (72 percent) of the senior ministers surveyed personally used a smartphone, compared with the U.S. average of 40 percent. Consistent with the other technology findings, the churches led by senior ministers using smartphones grew twice as fast last year as churches whose ministers did not.

Twitter is a growing trend, with 13 percent of online Americans using it. Comparatively, 44 percent of senior ministers used Twitter last year. The growth rate for churches whose ministers use Twitter was five times greater than churches whose ministers do not use it. Jeff Faull, senior minister at The Church at Mount Gilead (Mooresville, Indiana), has used Twitter for more than three months and typically tweets spiritual thoughts two or three times a week.

Dave Stone, senior pastor with Southeast Christian Church (Louisville, Kentucky), has been using Twitter for almost a year and usually tweets once or twice a day.

“It [Twitter] provides another touch point helping to support our mission,” said Stone, who has more than 3,600 followers. “We want to provide connection points for people where they are and where they are living. We continue to seek opportunities online and through social media to connect with people throughout their day and throughout their week. It allows people a glimpse behind the scenes, as well.”

 

Blogging

The survey showed that 38 percent of the senior ministers had a blog, and the majority updated their blog on a weekly basis. Senior ministers who blogged last year were almost 2 years younger, on average, than their nonblogging counterparts. Plus, the blogging ministers’ churches grew 7 percent last year, while the churches led by nonbloggers grew only 3.3 percent.

 

Technology Use Indicates Growth

Technology is undoubtedly changing our culture and the church. Churches employing technology to supplement and support their ministries overwhelmingly had better growth rates, regardless of the mechanism used.

“It often takes seven touch points to connect a message with someone,” Stone said. “We are beginning to focus more attention on our online audience, and providing the sermon and other ministry opportunities in multiple mediums, and leveraging them all for reaching people where they are—from radio, to newspaper, to TV, to print, to web and social media, to shoulder tapping.”

“At Central Christian Church, we view technology as simply one more tool for helping people connect with Christ,” said Jamie Allen. “Methods of teaching, travel, and communication have evolved drastically during our church’s 158-year history, but our message has remained, and will remain, the same.”

In summary, I like what Daniel Ross of the Christian Church of Jasper said about technology and the church, “The advancement of technology has made spreading the gospel easier and has taken the reach of the local church and spread it to the world. Technology can be embraced, redeemed, or rejected by the church. Redeeming it is, ultimately, the best option.”

________

 

1“The Growing Church Communication Gap,” accessed at www.churchleaders.com.

2Lev Grossman, “The Beast with a Billion Eyes,” Time, 30 January 2012, 40.

3“Text Generation Leaders: Using Mobile Phones for Nonprofit Outreach,” accessed 6 February 2012, www.blueavocado.org.

4Emily Glazer, “Churches Bring Custom Apps to Their Flocks,” The Wall Street Journal, 29 December 2011, www.wsj.com.

5“Our Love for Apps Is Fleeting,” The Indianapolis Star, 3 February 2012, A2.

6“Text Generation Leaders: Using Mobile Phones for Nonprofit Outreach,” 6 February 2012, www.blueavocado.org.

 

Kent E. Fillinger is president of 3:STRANDS Consulting, Indianapolis, Indiana, and associate director of projects and partnerships with CMF International.

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1 Comment

  1. May 19, 2012 at 3:57 pm

    Loved reading this article. This is the approach I have been attempting to educate churches and ministries on for the last few years. How to integrate technology into their church and advance their ministry online. That was the basis for my book “The iChurch Method,” so when I saw this article it made my spirit leap on the inside! Great article.

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