Over the past few days, I’ve seen Christianity and technology meet in some interesting ways. A colleague and friend related a story about being told that he “wasn’t a Christian” for tweeting during a church event. Meanwhile, various leaders of Episcopal Church Commissions are hosting tweetups (or tweets-up for aficionados of Rite I), while looking at rules for when and how social media is allowable. Many people are all a-“twitter” about how and when churches should use what technology to communicate with current and future members of the Body of Christ.
This week I also re-read a very interesting chapter on technology in Jim Collins book Good to Great . He said that great organizations have a very different view of technology than many other organizations. They don’t try to be on the bandwagon with the newest fad. Instead, they use technology competently in areas that are helpful and are relentless about creating innovation in ways that really matter. Great companies also tend to crawl, walk and run with new technology, rather than run, trip, fall and then crawl before finally dying. Most importantly, they weren’t afraid of new technology, either of using it or of being passed by while they figured out how to use it effectively.
All of this made me think about technology use in the church. Social media is the mark of the day, but many other technologies in church life have come and gone. At St. John’s, for instance, we have a card catalog of members that is decades old — a powerful database before UNIVACs ate punchcards. If I need to find information about members going back a couple generations, it is at all my fingertips. The church could track family relationships, baptisms, confirmations, weddings and all the other information necessary for excellence in sacramental record-keeping and follow-up.
Think, too, about worship technologies and how they have been used. Some churches took to electric instruments and projection screens in all the right ways and grew thriving congregations. Others bought every bell and whistle imaginable — along with the smoke machine to replace an antiquated thurible — and it didn’t go so well. Some parishes passed on those opportunities, but put in quality microphones, speakers, and hearing impaired devices to go with their organ, but are still doing just fine. Others didn’t change a thing and died. The moral for me is that church health and growth has less to do with what technology is used than how well the church is being church. If a church is thriving, technology will be used to further mission and ministry. If mission and ministry are confused, if people in the church don’t deeply love each other, if the place is lukewarm about prayer and worship, then even the trendiest technology doesn’t help.
In recent months, I know there have been times when Twitter and Facebook have been the essential media for the communication, and that our newest members wouldn’t have found us without our simple but updated website. At the same time, parishioners with rotary phones are still important members of the Body of Christ and we are called to meet their needs. I am also aware that a handwritten note delivered by a post office employee can often be the most effective “thank you” I can send. A wise pastor once said something about being all things to all people so we can win some of them to Christ.
Instead of fighting “technology wars”, I think as a church we need to do a couple of things:
1. Relentlessly focus on mission and ministry.
2. Let people who use social media and other newer technologies use it when and how they want and show the rest of the church how it can be useful.
3. Use our mission and ministry goals to see what gaps technology can fill, on local and national levels. In some places, it might be taking mp3 players of sermons and choir anthems to shut-ins. In others, a cutting edge social media presence. In some, a way to communicate cheaply with missionaries sent on projects around the globe. In others, just adding color photos to the parish newsletters that help identify and welcome new members. Urban and college ministries may lead the by innovating so that a few years down the line the small town pastor will know what works and can inexpensively implement it. People on twitter may know what happens at a CCAB meeting before people who read it in the monthly newsletter, but both media can be effective at spreading the gospel.
4. Refuse to be afraid — either of using new technology when it can help or of not using new technologies where they don’t advance mission and ministry in that particular context, however cool they might seem.
5. Have the grace to allow people to build their communities using the technologies they are comfortable with. They will probably be most effective with them, and any medium can still reach segments of unchurched people.