With the approach of the new millennium, we are witness to two seemingly incompatible enthusiasms, on the one hand a widespread infatuation with technological advance and a confidence in the ultimate triumph of reason, on the other hand a resurgence of fundamentalist faith akin to a religous revival. The coincidence of these two developments appears strange, however, merely because we mistakenly suppose them to be opposite and opposing historical tendencies.
Theology aside, what we in the trenches of congregational support are experiencing is a passion for embracing technology as a means to better reaching the lives of our congregants. The churches and synagogues we serve are requesting—dare we say demanding—assistance with technology. In response, we at the Indianapolis Center for Congregations created a process to address these issues.
What We Did
In January 1998, the Center embarked on an ambitious project—to teach congregations how to use technology to enhance their ministry. We wanted to include all aspects of technology used by congregations—desktop publishing, member record maintenance, accounting, word processing, communications, the Intenet, and presentation and educational software. Our primary goal was to provide a broad view of what’s available and to show congregations hwo to go about accessing the services, hardware, software, and training necessary to implement new or updated technology; we were not to train them in the specifics of any hardware or software.
At first, this seemed such a logical undertaking that we assumed that someone else, somewhere, had already created such a program. Much to our dismay, this was not the case. What followed was a three-month process of interviewing congregations, researching trends, and ultimately creating the curriculum for “Computers and Ministry: Making Technology Work for Your Congregation.”
The course was originally planned as a series of three all-day workshops with some on-site consulting. It has evolved, thanks to Lilly Endowment, into a grants program—Computers and Ministry Grants Initiative (CMGI). We realized that to teach congregations about technology and then not provide them with the financial resources to implement it was cruel and unusual punishment!
What We’re Learning
As much as we’d like to credit our teaching abilities with the majority of the learning taking place, our data does not necessarily bear that out. The course’s most valuable offerings have been on-site consulting visits and the shared learning that goes on between participants.
The on-site consulting visits are made by professionals who are both experienced in current technology and knowledgeable about congregational dynamics. This is where the material covered in the classroom is tailored to the needs of each congregation and where the technology plan (see below) starts to take shape.
And the shared learning, tose casual conversations that take place at breaks and lunch, has proven invaluable, not just to the participants but to us as well. We discovered that congregations—regardless of faith, denomination, size, or the state of their existing technology—were experiencing certain problems in common. They all needed development in four primary areas: administration, communication, education, and worship.
Congregations have been using congregational management software (CMS) since the 1980s. Most CMS packages, like “office suites” of integrated software, offer a variety of administrative and communication functions that reflect the most common activities performed by congregations. While most denominationally sponsored packages are no longer used or available, a host of companies market CMS applications designed to help with budgeting, accounting, attendance, scheduling, and tracking of members, volunteers, and gifts.
Tens of thousands of congregations nationwide are functioning more effectively with the help of CMS technology. We have worked with dozens of congregations, for instance, that kept a typewritten list of members here, financial records on the volunteer treasurer’s computer there, and correspondence on the church secretary’s PC in the office, with no effective way to share or integrate this information. Any of the major CMS packages can help consolidate administrative information and the pastoral and fellowhsip functions of the church.
They can enable ministries as well. One church keeps on its database significant dates in the lives of its members. By tracking the date of the death of a spouse, for instance, CMS can remind pastors to make a pastoral call or send a card to the widow or widower. CMS is also widely used to track the financial stewardship of members, and the integrated financial and database functions are easily used to document members’ contributions at tax time.
Database and management software also assist churches as they engage in outreach. A well-established missionary Baptist church has given away thousands of pairs of shoes to children in need from the surplus inventory of a vast network of retail stores. But because the church had no effective way of tracking the recipients, the families in need had to take the initiative to find the program. Computer technology has reversed the burden; the church is now using a sophisticated database system to keep track of donors and recipients alike. Now the church can keep inventory information about the shoes, track family information about each child in the program from year to year, and minister to families in the program. The church is also considering ways to use the information to provide other ministries. Computer resources made information available for ministry in ways that the church’s human resources simply could not accomplish.
Beyond CMS and other administrative software, congregations most often use computer technology to improve and expand their communications—both internal and external. Desktop publishing and e-mail are the most frequently sought features. A move to desktop publishing is usually driven by the desire to improve the quality of the printed materials produced by nearly any congregaton; worship bulletins, newsletters, correspondence, flyers, posters, and other educational or devotional materials.
E-mail and other Internet-related modes of communication have a great impact on congregational communications and the promotion of fellowship and community-building. They are used for such typical parish activities as sharing prayer concerns, coordinating committee meetings, and providing spiritual advice and support. A United Methodist congregation in Indianapolis was casually asked in a worship service if anyone would be interested in receiving a weekly devotional e-mail. The pastor was flooded with e-mail addresses from members who wanted to take part in the ministry. In an unexpected burst of evangelistic zeal, members then forwarded the e-mail devotions to their friends, neighbors, and coworkers, turning the ministry into a significant expression of outreach for the church. This ministry has opened many opportunities for witness, counseling, and participation in the church’s fellowship.
The use of e-mail in internal communications, particularly among congregational staff, has brought about significant improvements for many congregations. It is interesting to note that in a recent Pew study (see James Wind’s article on page 8), an overwhelming 97% of respondents from congregations with “high access” to Internet communications said that e-mail “helped congregational staff and members stay in touch.”
Existing systems sometimes had to be significant
ly overhauled before their benefits could be realized. At a large Baptist church, each of the seven staff members had a PC with its own modem and phone line, so that each person was required to access a separate personal America Online account to use e-mail. In addition, varying schedules, a mixture of part-time and full-time staff, and the location of staff offices all over the vast church building made communication among staff entirely ad hoc, ineffective, and inefficient. The PCs were incompatible, and the staff members thought they were incompatible with each other as well! When the church cleared away the incompatible computers and individual AOL accounts, installed new computers connected to a local area network with a single Internet service provider account, they were astonished at how their internal communications improved. Moreover, the monthly fee to connect the church to the Internet was much less than the cost of the individual accounts they had maintained before.
Other Internet technologies, such as Web sites, are also affecting congregational communication dramatically. Most congregations maintaining Web sites tend to use them for internal communication with members about fellowship and upcoming events rather than as a chief outreach tool (though the technology is used for this also, to be sure).
One church, having sent its youth group on a mission trip to South America, wanted to keep the congregation back home informed and involved in the group’s activities. The youth group leaders took daily pictures at the mission site with a digital camera and sent them to the folks back home with accompanying e-mails that summarized the group’s daily activities, described their feelings and experiences, introduced village children, and sought prayers. All were posted on the church’s Web site each day of the trip. At home, an interesting and spontaneous gathering began to take place. Daily, as the pictures and e-mails appeared on the Web site from the mission, the parents of the youth and others gathered in the church to learn the latest news, pray for the people of the village and their youth, and thereby were gathered into the larger cloud of witnesses engaged in mission and ministry.
Nearly all of the 471 rabbis and ministers responding to the Pew survey reported that they use the Internet as their primary source for sermon materials and personal spiritual devotions. Respondents called the Internet a “vast library” of resources for everything from material for services to educational information.
According to a recent study by students at Hartford Theological Seminary, “People who use the Internet to ‘shop’ for a Church home will likely be turned off by a poorly produced church Web site, while a slick, interactive site could help draw new members in if a church invests the right resources” (Religion News Service, December 13, 2000). The group surveyed 63 individual church Web sites and compiled questionnaires. They found that churches that invest in up-to-date Web sites do a better job of catching the attention of would-be congregants.
The strong desire of many local congregations to establish learning labs was one of our surprises. A quarter of the congregations that supplied applications to our grants program wanted to either establish or improve a learning lab. Interestingly, many of them seek to use the lab as an outreach program for their surrounding communities in addition to using it as a tool for religious education within the congregation. African American churches that serve impoverished urban areas make especially compelling arguments about how kids in their neighborhoods are often being left out of the digital revolution because they do not have computers at home. Labs in these churches, available after school and for youth programs, can help close this divide.
But many parishes and synagogues recognize that the divide is generational as well as economic. Several churches and synagogues in our program are establishing labs for use by seniour citizens as well as by seniours in high school. It is not uncommon for a church computer lab to be used during the morning hours by elderly people learning to send e-mails to their grandchildren and in the evening by a youth group playing Bible software games. In one church’s computer lab, the youth group are the teachers and the senior citizens are the students!
It is fascinating that even as intergenerational issues divide churches around issues of worship, many congregations are finding ways for computer technology to bridge generational divisions. Many parishes and churches that have parochial schools are working especially hard at this. One large Catholic parish in Indianapolis is designing, as part of a new building, a library to serve both parish and school, a prime feature of which well be its computer lab. The parish envisions the lab as a place where young and old, parish member and school student, are all engaged in the common task of growing in knowledge and in faith.
The use of multimedia presentations for worship and education is a glitzy application of computer technology that a number of congregations, even very traditional ones, are seeking to use. Software such as PowerPoint, coupled with projectors or large-screen televisions, are increasingly being used to replace worship bulletins, provide visual sermon outlines, display songs and music, and show illustrative video clips (now cataloged and available online the same way reference books of sermon stories and illustrations have been used by pastors for generations).
Similar multimedia applications—assisted by ever-expanding numbers of software programs—are also gaining wider usage in congregational education programs. Awkward (and often outdated) pull-down maps for Sunday school classes, for example, are being replaced by software-generated images of the Ancient Near East that let Bible students trace the missionary journeys of Paul or follow the exodus route of the Israelites. Classrooms of children can take part in an interactive encounter within Noah’s Ark, face down lions in the den with Daniel, or take part in a host of other games that enhance Biblical literacy. As one church in Indianapolis advertises, “This is not the church you grew up in!”
Presentation technology may be attention-getting, but is also costly in money, time and energy, and in some cases has ignited conflict. Most churches seek to use this technology not for its entertainment value, but for its theological and strategic significance in reaching people.
One very traditional Baptish church in Indianapolis, for instance, was engaged in a far-reaching process to assess its theological mission and ecclesial purpose. As a result of this process, the church decided it was not bringing its message effectively to younger people and that its worship practices would need to be changed. Its decision to use multimedia technology in a new alternative worship service was not driven by the desire to appear relevant or up-to-date. “We always have before us the desire to find the most effective ways of communicating the gospel,” said the pastor, “and using these technologies was one way to do that. We are simply using the new technologies to tell ‘the old, old story,’ as the hymn says.”
The bulk of advertising and promotion by vendors is centered on the use of presentation technologies for worship. Perhaps this is in line with popular culture and is an attempt to bring secular habits into congregational worship. Many vendors completely overlook the need for administrative, “back-end” technologies, which support the use of the fancier ones. Very little press is given to the behind-the-scenes support that is necessary to make technology successful in a congregation—technical support, consulting, training, and ongoing planning. For technology to succeed for a congregation, it mus
t become a part of the culture of the church, parish, synagogue, or mosque. All too often, attention is focused on technology only when there is a problem. Then the problem is resolved, only to have the difficulty surface once again. Long-term planning, including budgeting, must become part of the ethos of any congregation seeking to advance technologically.
How to Develop a Technology Plan
The goal of the Computers and Ministry Grants Initiative (CMGI) is to create a technology plan that will outline short-, medium-, and long-range goals for implementing technology in a congregation. Here’s a process we suggest to create one:
1. Create a technology team. This should include stake-holders—people representing the pastoral staff, the office staff, the education staff, the financial board or committee, and other significant interests in the congregation. This approach is essential in the successful implementation of a technology plan because it enlists the ideas and support of all facets of the congregation. Imagine having one individual who works with consultants on a plan, then presents it to the congregation’s board, session, or elders only to find out there is no support for implementation!
2. Use professional help. This seems a sore subject for many congregations, but our experience has confirmed the belief that volunteers aren’t always the best implementers. Professional help used wisely and judiciously will actually save a congregation money. Consultants can assess your current operation and make recommendations about how to implement additional features, suggest vendors of both hardware and software, and manage the project. This help on the front end always saves money because it saves a congregation from making mistakes, most often errors of omission. This is not to say there isn’t a place for volunteers working with professional integrators, which is the most effective way of handling a congregation’s technology needs.
3. Include more training than you think you will need. A common and disheartening scenario for congregations is budgeting only for necessary hardware and software, having it installed, and then discovering no one knows how to use it. Make sure staff and volunteers have adequate access to initial and ongoing training.
4. Talk with other congregations. There is no better resource than a church or synagogue down the street that has already done just what you are going to do. Find out how successful they are at using hardware, software, consultants, training venues, and so on. Be sure to talk with more than one person; often the pastor’s perspective is much different than the administrator’s!
5. Don’t worry about technology passing you by. If you purchase current hardware and software, it’s likely that you still will be using the same equipment three to five years from now. Some upgrading will be necessary, especially with software. The changes occurring in the personal computer industry are in large measure governed by the requirements of hightech games. Unless your staff is going to be playing games in church, today’s technology will work just fine for quite some time.
6. Get all your records on computer and back up your data. It is true that storing data on a computer is more secure than storing it on paper. But accidents do happen and data can be corrupted or lost. In such a case, if you have been in the habit of backing up your data you’ll be back in business in a matter of hours, rather than days.
7. Expand your technology with your needs. Don’t buy things you don’t need today or in the next six months. Compatibility is not the issue it once was, and most hardware and software integrate easily.