Sunday, August 21, 2011

Church and Technology: Are These the Good 'Ol Days? Time will Tell...

The use of technology in church is intriguing.

Streaming video.

Online giving.

Individual self-paced Bible Study.

Church Announcements (some, literally high quality produced commercials)

Power Point Sermons.

Sophisticated (and not so sophisticated) websites.

It's all intriguing...

Not every church, mind you. But even smaller churches are, in some ways, trying to replicate the mega-church experience with screens and monitors.

I'll confess, I'm not totally sure how I feel about it all.

I am part of a generation of clergy, influenced by the activism of the '60's and the scholarship of the '40's and '50's. We are related to the traditional churches in which conventions and denominations were seen as viable. When denominational and interdenominational ministerial groups were respected and viewed as the means through which connections were made and ideas and new methods were shared.

To say times have changed would be a uselessly obvious analysis.

When we talked about 'technology' useful in getting the 'Word out to the World', we were talking about radio, television and cassette tapes!

I remember when I was pastor of New Mount Moriah Baptist Church in Dallas, we were one of the first black churches (if not the first), to make use of the computer. This was in the early '80's. It was a struggle, convincing church leaders that this was a necessary purchase. It took research and SEVERAL meetings over MONTHS. You would have thought we were trying to buy blocks of real estate! Finally, with the help of three or four young deacons we put together enough information to convince our elders (age, not position), that producing bulletins on a computer would be a more cost effective exercise than the state of the art mimeograph and stencil machine currently in use. Also, it would, we argued, eventually help us keep more accurate records! The older leaders finally relented and the first computer was finally purchased.

I remember, one of the older deacons said ruefully, 'I guess soon we'll have to get one of them new fax machines!' Trying to allay fears of 'modernization' that were rippling through the room at the time, I assured him and the others, 'I can't think of any reason at all that we would ever be able to make use of a fax machine...'

Of course, the problem with us purchasing the computer at that time, was that there were only about 3-4 deacons who worked at IBM who had ever used one. I had never even turned one on! Once purchased it took weeks of one deacon giving me personal tutorials, staying sometimes as late as 1:00 am to learning unfamiliar language: DOS, floppy disks, prompts, cursor, until I eventually grew proficient enough to begin to show some of them how to do things they didn't know how to do.

For all that technology did for us: allowing us (eventually) to more proficiently produce church bulletins, keep church records, generate form letters and the like, I would remind our membership, that we weren't interested, in becoming what I referred to as a , 'Nintendo' church.  I remember saying with supreme confidence in a sermon one Sunday morning, ' can't do church over the Internet'!

Boy was I wrong! Or was I?!

It is no doubt that we are more and more a world in which all types of content is disseminated digitally. During the time we got that first computer, 'cell phones' were the huge grey brick sized devices with the long grey antennae (and don't forget the suitcase you had to have with it!).  Now of course PDA's, smart phones, iPads and tablets make taking our technology with us, not only practical, but arguably indispensable. Churches now seem quaint with posted signs asking congregants to 'turn off their cell phones' - they are missing the opportunity for attendees to tweet, text or post to Facebook pages immediately their enjoyment of the worship and the sermon, or immediately uploading video content to You Tube.

I recently preached at the Concord Church in Dallas and at least three friends, that I know of, told me how much they enjoyed the message. When I asked them why they didn't come say hello after church, they told me they weren't there, they saw the message on Concord's streaming video broadcast of the message! When my friend, Rev. A. Louis Patterson, Jr. passed earlier this year, I was unable to attend the services in Houston. But streaming video of those services along with a chat room, not only allowed me to 'attend', but share memories of ALP3 with other mutual friends throughout the service.

Certainly there are drawbacks: people in church with cell phones could be texting who knows what during worship. Embarrassing things can be video recorded as well as things which edify. Video and audio clips can be taken out of context. Of course, back in prehistoric times when I grew up in church, every note we passed to our peers weren't Bible verses and all gossip after (and sometimes during) church had nothing to do with how wonderful God is!

But what I'm really concerned about is the degree to which technology reinforces the isolation that comes with it. Clearly what's happening is that we are redefining 'community'. It can be face-to-face and in person. Or it can be 'skype' and Facebook. People 'meet' on the Internet. They 'fellowship' through technology. And they share some of the most intimate information digitally.

It is a different world. And the church must adapt to the culture. But we must guard against the positive being pushed to the negative. And for all of the challenges, I know the church can't sit this one out. We have to take the risk.

I remember talking to a group of pastors decrying the computer and technology  - most older and those who weren't older were simply unfamiliar with the benefits and way to cautious when it came to the risks. Finally, when I heard enough, I told them, 'Ya'll sound like our forefathers who, when they saw the first automobiles, started complaining that church members were better when they came to worship in a horse drawn buggy!'

Is technology responsible for new 'good 'ol days'? Like everything else, only time will tell...

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