My two-member household is awash in a sea of technology. That’s one reason we were interested in reading Better Off by Eric Brende. A technology consumer, Brende did graduate studies at M.I.T. on technology and its effect on society. He and his wife decided to join a small community of Amish-like folks and lived for eighteen months without electricity or motors. Their experience makes interesting reading. I’m not ready to try living like the Brendes, but one question they continually asked seems to make a lot of sense for us: What is the least [technology] we need to achieve the most?
Congregations, like families, are faced each day with information about the newest and greatest technologies. How are they to decide what to adopt and what to let pass them by? Perhaps a question similar to the one Brende posed can help: Where can we get the greatest benefit for our mission and ministry using technology, and where is technology adding little or nothing to our missional progress?
The Center for Congregations has worked with over five hundred Indiana churches, parishes, and synagogues on issues related to technology. As part of that work we try to keep abreast of technology trends and what works for congregations and what doesn’t. We’ve talked to congregations still using typewriters and those who are often spoken of as national models of technological adaptation. Throughout our experiences, one theme remains: technology alone won’t revolutionize your congregation’s effectiveness. Technology-assisted processes, however, can accomplish a great deal.
Nowhere is that more evident within the religious community than with Internet-based congregation management software. For about thirty years congregation management software, or CMS, has been available. It was originally used by only the largest churches, but today most congregations have some form of database software to keep track at least of basic membership and contribution information. The traditional CMS lives on computers within the congregation’s offices. Information to and from the software is usually managed by staff or well-trained volunteers. Also for the past few years, many congregations have created their own websites and begun using electronic means to communicate with at least a segment of their congregants.
Now the lines among the traditional CMS, websites, and electronic communications are being blurred by a new product—the Web-based congregation management system. Led by companies such as Fellowship Technologies and Church Community Builder, these systems are designed to integrate a member or visitor’s interaction with the congregation’s website, electronic communication flowing both to and from staff and lay leadership, and congregation management data into one software application. This software is not purchased by the congregation. It resides on powerful computer servers owned or managed by the vendor, and the congregation pays to access their own data and to use the vendor’s software for a monthly fee.
So what does this mean? One helpful phrase for this change may be “member-facing services”—that is, software designed not to be used only by a small group of trained office personnel but by anyone who encounters the congregation’s website. It means that information within the system can be accessed not just within the walls of a parish building but by staff and lay leaders wherever they are. It means that a visitor can reach your congregation’s website from a Google search, fill out a brief form requesting information about volunteering for an upcoming community service activity, register his or her child for the next month’s T-ball league, and donate to the congregation’s special appeal for flood victims. This visitor’s click on the website then processes the credit card, registers the child for the T-ball league, creates a new family sports activity record, and sends an e-mail to the appropriate staff member about volunteering. Other tools within the software can help ensure the security of children attending congregational events, enable easy communication within and among small groups, and match an individual’s spiritual gifts with volunteer opportunities.
This powerful technology can give congregations many new tools, but these tools must be accompanied by processes to move ministry and mission forward instead of simply collecting information. Does your congregation have a plan for communicating with people who volunteer or indicate a willingness to use their gifts? Have you had a discussion about the implications and costs of accepting credit cards for donations or payment? How are small-group leaders encouraged to stay in touch with the pastoral needs of their members? By investing in a Web-based system are you getting the greatest benefit for mission and ministry for the least cost?
Maybe yes, maybe no. Just keep asking the right questions. Technology is important, but it’s still more about who your congregation can be than what they can buy.