Local churches come in all shapes and sizes. Most have been touched, in some way, by the digital revolution. Each church has chosen its own path through these potentially disruptive changes to match its own focus and realities. The underlying technologies may be neutral, but churches must be intentional in their reasons for adopting technology and must be diligent in evaluating the dangers in each technology’s use. The digital Christian revolution is in full swing, but as Christ told his disciples “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” (Matthew 10:16) [Note: you can read part one of this article here.]
Steve Hewitt founded Christian Computing magazine in 1989 to help churches safely integrate computing technology into their ministries. Christian Computing became MinistryTech in 2015 and continues to live on at ChurchLeaders.com. What seemed like a complex and danger filled road in 1989 hasn’t gotten any simpler or safer as it has wound its way through four waves of this digital revolution at large:
- The Microprocessor/PC Revolution
- The Internet Revolution
- The Mobile/Social Revolution
- The Connected Intelligence Revolution
Digital Christian Revolution
Wave 1: The Microprocessor/PC Revolution
The first wave of the digital revolution was relatively harmless to churches and the potential was quickly realized. The microprocessor or PC revolution put tremendous technological power into the hands of church leaders and administrators.
Perhaps the power of PCs most apparent to church-goers was in the bulletin handed out upon entering the church. Word processing software and high quality desktop printers made it easy for churches to produce attractive and well-organized handouts each week that reflected that Sunday’s service and the active life of the church throughout the week.
Presentation software (like Harvard Graphics and Powerpoint) also enabled PCs to have a very visible impact on the church. Combined with digital projectors, these tools started to be used to project hymn lyrics, scripture, worship backdrops, and videos.
But the real impact was behind the scenes. Paper records of membership, contacts, and giving were converted into digital files. PC-enthusiast church members (and some leaders) created spreadsheets to hold information. The most ambitious created databases and forms to simplify the process for church administrators. In time, some of these home-grown solutions became products available for purchase by other churches. This quickly grew into the Church Management Software (ChMS) industry.
PC-based Bible study tools also became available. The earliest ones (e.g. Verse Search in the early 1980s) were quite simply searchable digital versions of the Bible (typically just the King James Version). New features, more translations, additional resources, and better user interfaces soon followed. BibleSoft was formed in 1988 and Logos Research Systems (now Faithlife) was formed in 1992. Today the Logos software supports over 200,000 different titles of resources for Bible study and research.
The biggest danger in the first wave was system failure. As churches became more dependent on digital technology, the impact of any downtime became more significant. What if bulletins couldn’t be printed in time for Sunday? What if a projector bulb burned out and no one had the words to sing? Worse yet, what if a database crashed, losing membership information and giving records? Like other organizations, churches put in place data backup procedures and had more than one computer that could be used to complete each task. Until computers became connected, security was less of a risk, but awareness was growing of the sensitivity of the information being digitally stored by churches.
Wave 2: The Internet Revolution
Unlike the PC, the Internet has dramatically changed the way that churches work. Consider the impact of just a few Internet capabilities on how churches operate:
- Church websites
- Online giving platforms
Bible study tools moved online. BibleGateway was launched by a Calvin College student in 1993. Today it is owned by HarperCollins and provides over 200 bible versions in 70 languages, in addition to other Bible study and devotional resources.
Church Management Systems also moved into “the cloud.” In 1998, Church Community Builder (CCB) was launched, a web-based church management system that not only provided church staff with access to the tools they needed, but also gave church-goers the opportunity to update their personal information, access church directories, and see upcoming church events. In time, many more features would be added.
Connecting members and visitors into the system provided a natural means for creating community and streamlining communications. Moving the church database and software out of the church office and into the cloud made the entire setup more robust, eliminating concerns about backup and recovery. Now, any authorized church leader or administrator could access the system and perform administrative tasks from any Internet-connected computer anywhere in the world.
Of course, this accessibility also introduced the greatest danger as churches moved into the Internet era — privacy and security. To some extent, relying on online software experts (like CCB) to safeguard church data, rather than on the church’s own IT staff, provided a higher level of protection, but many churches were still hesitant to risk exposing church members’ personal information.
As church members increasingly moved from no Internet access (~1995) to dial-up access (~2000) to broadband access (~2005), multimedia content became increasingly viable. SermonAudio launched in 2000, later adding streaming of uploaded sermon videos, and more recently supporting live streaming of church services. Of course, without live video streaming, most churches would’ve been unable to meet at all during the lockdowns caused by COVID-19.
The global adoption of websites and e-mail also enabled communications from missionaries around the world to become richer, more timely, and more frequent. Broadband also enabled free or cheap International phone calls using Voice over IP and video conferencing, giving churches more opportunities to communicate directly with missionaries they supported and even the opportunity to see them working in the mission field.
Wave 3: The Mobile/Social Revolution
While cellphones had been around for decades, and there had even been smartphones capable of running applications, the Mobility Revolution really began with the release of the iPhone in June 2007. Similarly, online social networks had been around for years, but social networking as a dominant societal force really began following the opening of Facebook beyond specific universities in September 2006.
Broad iPhone adoption was immediate, with many Christians among the masses. When the App Store was introduced in 2008, the YouVersion Bible App was among the first 200 apps in the store. (There had been other Bible apps from companies like Olive Tree and Laridian available for years for earlier smartphones and personal digital assistants.) Believers started showing up in church with their phones and Bible apps instead of traditional paper and ink Bibles. Today, in many churches, the electronic crowd greatly outnumbers printed-Bible congregants.
Churches started exploring creating their own mobile apps, but often struggled to figure out what to include that couldn’t simply be accessed from their website through the mobile browser. Eventually, it became clear that the modern smartphone wasn’t just a smaller, more portable computer, enabling the same activities done on a laptop but from anywhere — it enabled an entirely different mode of use. The smartphone became almost like a digital appendage, constantly being referenced to remind, inform, and, most significantly, stay connected to the people and things we love and care about. Companies like Aware3 helped churches build the mobile experiences that enabled their members to stay engaged throughout the week.
Since many ChMSes had already moved to the cloud with web access, software makers quickly moved to support the smaller browser window of mobile phones and before long introduced dedicated mobile apps that connected to the cloud back-end. Some of the newer vendors, like TouchPoint and Breeze, saw the potential of the new mobile use patterns and made mobile a leading element of their solution.
Mobile and Social also fundamentally changed the way that churches communicated with their members. As more people adopted text messaging as their preferred means of communications, churches had to adapt to this new reality. Companies sprang up offering text-based prayer chain solutions, broadcast text, and more general texting group management capabilities. Churches also began to use social networks like Facebook and Twitter to connect with and communicate with their congregations.
Social media became a potential landmine for many youth pastors. On one hand, teens were getting Facebook (and later Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and Tik-Tok) accounts as quickly as they could and wanted to receive youth group information through those channels. Unfortunately, children under 13 were prohibited from getting accounts with these services, so relying on social media would leave some kids out. Even worse, news stories quickly emerged of predators targeting youthful victims through social media sites, causing many parents to ban their kids from the popular services. Capturing the power and managing the danger was easier said than done for many youth pastors.
Software vendors saw these challenges as market opportunity. Some of the ChMS and engagement vendors saw an opportunity to create church-specific social networks. Long-time ChMS provider, ACS Technologies launched The City, “a group-oriented social network that [was]all about helping churches build deeper community and extend the love of Christ to the world.” I even worked with some young entrepreneurs to launch CXfriends — “the Facebook alternative for Christian families.” Unfortunately, as much as some parents said they distrusted Facebook, they didn’t seem willing to walk away from the network where all their friends were already actively engaged (Facebook) and commit to a new platform (like The City or CXfriends).
Recently, some dangers of social networks have become more apparent, including creating negative self-image in young people, leading to mental health issues, and acting as an “echo chamber” amplifying narrow perspectives and contributing to divisiveness in our society. Social networks are also known to be used for human trafficking, drug dealing, and to promote coordinated violent activities. While social networks have helped church members to stay connected with each other throughout the week, and to be more deeply involved in each others’ lives, churches have struggled with how to balance the power and the danger.
Smartphones have also introduced new dangers into the world. While the devices have helped us stay more connected with those we care about throughout the day, they can introduce what researchers call “technoference” in relationships when we are together, as we divide our time between the social connections in our hand and those in our presence. Smartphones have also helped break down the time and place barriers between work and home life, which can be damaging to healthy family relationships. Smartphones also make it easier for the weak flesh that remains even in believers to sin in many ways (covetousness, anger/hate, lust, disrespect, etc.).
While church use of mobile technology is unlikely to directly contribute to these dangers, we must be aware that by helping habituate our congregants to using their phones all day, we may be normalizing these damaging behaviors. As with social networks, it is challenging for churches to find ways to capture the power while managing the danger.
Wave 4: Connected Intelligence
We are now in the fourth wave of the digital revolution. As I’ve previously written, the core building blocks of the Connected Intelligence Revolution are:
- The Internet of Internets: the rapidly growing interlinked webs of unstructured content, social relationships, connected devices, and structured data which provide timely and timeless information about virtually everything, from anywhere, and at any time.
- Networked Computing Infrastructure: the global collection of digital hardware and connections that enable data collection, sharing, and processing.
- Analytical Software: complex and evolving algorithms which consume structured and unstructured data, identify patterns and trends, predict likely future occurrences, evaluate potential options, and recommend specific actions.
- Real World Interfaces: natural and intuitive human interfaces and software controlled machines that translate decisions into actions.
The most visible, and perhaps impressive, aspects of this wave of the digital revolution are the ways in which real world interfaces bring connected intelligence capabilities into our daily lives. As Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant have enabled us to speak to devices to tap into the Internet of Internets, some churches have developed apps or “skills” to make it easy for anyone to access their sermons and other content. Robots, self-driving cars, and other powerful ways that connected intelligence protrudes into the real world may not have any or many direct applications for churches, but will still likely change the way congregants interact with the world around us.
One development that technology-oriented churches are paying attention to is what is becoming known as the “metaverse.” The definition of this concept is still pretty fluid, but NVIDIA describes it as “a shared virtual 3D world, or worlds, that are interactive, immersive, and collaborative.” Facebook recently changed its corporate name to Meta to reflect the company’s increasing focus on technologies like virtual reality and augmented reality.
Some are already envisioning and trying to create churches that exist in “the metaverse.” While COVID-19 shutdowns introduced many of us to churches meeting “virtually” for a season, some advocate that churches can exist entirely in the digital realm, never meeting physically in person. There are advantages to this approach, increasing the geographic reach of a church, and being able to serve those that could never set foot in a physical church building (e.g. for medical or political/persecution reasons). However, the sacrificial love to which Christ has called us, as He physically demonstrated in washing His disciples feet, is hard to accomplish without personal proximity. There’s something about a handshake or a hug that strengthens the relationships between the brethren. The sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are physically ministered by pastors amongst the gathered church, and, as we learned last year, corporate worship simply doesn’t work well over virtual connections. Digital church is an interesting concept, but doesn’t seem to meet the needs described in the New Testament.
However, the most powerful (and dangerous) aspect of the Connected Intelligence Revolution is happening behind the scenes as organizations collect massive amounts of information about us and apply artificial intelligence software to predict what we are likely to do next, what we will prefer, and what we want or need. We reap the benefits of these solutions when our Google search results are most relevant to us, when Amazon recommends products to us that we didn’t even know existed, and when our Apple Watch tells us we should leave to make it on-time to our next meeting. But we feel like we’re being spied on when ads or article recommendations make it appear that someone is reading our minds or listening to our private conversations.
Jeff Hook, a veteran of the ChMS industry, has formed Communitas Technologies to help churches to leverage this power in serving their members while respecting their privacy. Although much more complex than this, it’s easiest to think in terms of collecting data about people and then applying machine learning algorithms to that data to classify people or to predict what they need.
We generally are uncomfortable with the concept of someone collecting information about us. Traditionally, we feel this discomfort when we first visit a church and the visitor’s card, for example, asks for the birthdates of all of our children. More recently, we feel violated when we realize that businesses have collected information about us that we’ve never intentionally disclosed to them. Jeff explains how churches can demonstrate respect for their people: “In our personal relationships, we share little bits of information with people we trust over time, as our relationship grows. The church should operate the same way. As our relationship with our church deepens, it’s natural that we will be comfortable sharing more about ourselves with the church so that the church can better respond to our needs.”
As I get to know people better, I try to introduce them to others that share their interests or might be in a similar situation. As I understand their needs, I might recommend books or other resources that might help them. For a large church, it can be hard for pastors to know everyone well enough to similarly know how best to meet each member’s needs given where they are in life. An intelligent church management system can help bridge this gap, helping church leaders identify better ways to disciple and minister to those in their flock. But this is hard to do, and I’m sure painful lessons will be learned as church leaders consider if and how to introduce these types of technologies into how they operate. Communitas hopes to help churches in this process.
I’m confident that the Digital Revolution isn’t over. We haven’t seen the last technological innovation that will impact the church. We haven’t fully discovered the power that is available, nor do we fully understand the dangers inherent in adopting these technologies. As church leaders venture forward into this technological unknown, they can rest in God’s sovereignty and use the most powerful tools that He has provided to them: His Word, prayer, and fellowship with other believers. Most importantly, they can keep their eyes focused on Christ, on God’s glory, and on the mission Christ has given to His church.
“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen. (Matthew 28:19–20)