Churches have a complex and dynamic relationship with technology. Often a church will use a mix of technologies to aid, support and enhance their ministries and mission. In particular, information technology can be used for many tasks, from coordinating rosters to doing evangelism via social media.
At OBT, we spend a lot of time thinking about how technology can be effectively used by churches, and we think churches should do the same. The potential benefits of adopting and developing technology warrant careful consideration and discussion. Technology always carries risks and challenges associated with it, and this is particularly true when it comes to new and upcoming technologies.
With that in mind, here are some upcoming technologies that we think have the potential to be good long-term investments for churches. How might these technologies enable the church to better carry out its mission? And what risks and challenges do we need to address when adopting these technologies?
#1 Cloud Technology
Everyone has heard the buzzword, ‘the cloud’. “The cloud is everywhere, and everything is going to the cloud”. A lot of people already make use of cloud technology when using their smartphone, which comes with automatic cloud backups. But what is the relevance of ‘cloud’ to the Christian world?
There are still a large number of churches who store all of their data on-site. Previously this has been a good way to simplify data access, but with the widespread adoption of cloud technologies for personal use, church staff will be used to using the cloud to send and receive information. Security and privacy policies of many of the large cloud providers are now solid and reliable, meaning your data will be more secure in the cloud than onsite.
Adopting cloud technology has immediate benefits: information is accessible from home or while travelling, there is no server you need to maintain, and it’s easy to give temporary access to some files while keeping the rest secure. Depending on how large the church office is, there will likely be a reduction in ongoing cost. Cloud technology can also increase your productivity and effectiveness by assisting with some of the tasks you perform, and giving you better tools to use in your ministry.
It’s safe to say that cloud is going to be a fixture of the modern work environment, regardless of office size or organisation type. A good first step would be looking into using Google’s G Suite or MS Office 365 for your contacts, calendar and emails.
#2 Data collection and analysis
Churches are better able to serve their congregations and neighbourhoods when they have a good understanding of what people need. Often this is done by experience: being in the community for a number of years and building up a sense of what is valued and what helps. With the advent of mobile technology, social media and other innovations have created an online space in which the behaviour, values and responses of a community can be viewed and, almost as importantly, archived.
Services such as IBM’s Watson allow a church to take its data from website traffic, from event attendance details and other sources and discover trends and patterns within the data which might not have been immediately obvious. There is a surprising amount of data that churches have the potential of generating and analysing which can assist with staying in touch with the church and wider communities.
One application might include performing “sentiment analysis” of social media so that a church could post on a Facebook or Twitter page and be able to see whether people generally respond positively or negatively to each post. Feedback like this could be especially helpful in larger congregations or communities where having a full picture from on-the-ground experience is a difficult task.
Data analysis through online tools is something which previously was the domain of marketing firms but is now becoming much more accessible to the average person. At the end of the day, a church wants to be able to make informed decisions about what they do, and where and when they do it. Tools like Watson are able to give you much more information with which to make these decisions.
#3 Machine Learning
While the previous point represents a current application of machine learning, there are also future applications which are being developed that churches should be mindful of. Some of these will have very broad applicability to almost every church congregation, and a direct positive impact on the effectiveness of church discipleship and outreach. However, applications of large-scale technologies such as machine learning to users’ personal information warrants a consideration of privacy concerns.
One big challenge of today and tomorrow is data collection/retention and personal privacy. This is an issue that has not yet been fully solved in current technologies. As communities and organisations that, at a fundamental level, care deeply about people, we should be among those thinking and speaking most about this issue. We want the safety and security of users to be one of the primary considerations in every system we implement.
With that in mind, let’s look at some of the ways machine learning could apply to church congregations. Social media sentiment analysis could be performed in real-time on the pages of your congregation members. From this, you would be able to know when significant events occur in people’s lives, sometimes before they have relayed the news to the church staff. This could enable more proactive pastoral care as you are less reliant on word of mouth to keep up with the congregation. As a side benefit, information could be matched up with attendance so pastors will have a better idea whether someone is missing church or just away on holiday. Social media posts about church could be correlated with events that were happening at that time, so you could see what individuals respond to and be better informed for pastoral conversations.
As well as providing you with a better profile of the people in your church, machine learning could also affect the resources your church provides. If you upload sermon audio to the internet, an AI could use this to listen out for bible passages, and then automatically tag the sermon with that passage. The same goes for themes (e.g. mentioning of ‘running the race’ or ‘persevering’ can be tagged as ‘perseverance’). You can use this information to know how often specific things are mentioned, and when combined with social media sentiment analysis, what themes people respond to. If you allow your sermons to be streamed from the website, you can see how long people stay engaged for during a sermon recording and when people pause, resume or stop listening. All of this can feed into the planning of your future sermon series.
#4 Local Device Communication
There are a large number of retail stores already making use of local communication technologies. You may be familiar with NFC allowing you to pay with your phone at the checkout, or stores broadcasting specials to your device using BLE beacons. These same technologies have a number of potential applications for a church.
Checking in is an example. NFC could allow a broadly technical congregation to check in and out of church services, or event venues. This means less hassle for people having to be signed in by someone, or for whoever has to do attendance counting!
Event registration is similar. As well as taking online registrations, people could register for events after church using their phones, and pay on the spot. Because you have their device on file, it will auto-fill personal information of the attendee, including their saved dietary requirements, allergies and family information. The registration could ask the user (on their device) to confirm details are correct, select ticket types, and answer questions such as can they provide lifts to/from the venue.
BLE beacons could also be used during a church service to broadcast bible references or links to articles, theological books and even videos referenced during the service. An order of service link could be sent to devices so people can follow along, allowing those with visual or hearing impairments to make use of accessibility functions on their smartphones.
There are technologies available with the capability to make the day-to-day lives of pastors and church administrators easier, and connect congregations closer together and closer to the Word of God. Some of these are fully developed, but others are just starting to show their usefulness and are in the process of being refined. As stewards of the resources (time, money, people) given to us by God, we should be evaluating each of these in consultation with technical minded brothers and sisters, who can help us choose and adopt these technologies in our church and mission contexts.
We hope for many churches to join us in the discussion, evaluation and development of technology in order to carry out the mission of the church more effectively. Together, we can add a voice into today’s discussions about technology, and shape these technologies for the better.
We are more than happy to help churches think about using technology to assist and enhance their ministry to make it more effective for our common gospel mission. If you are interested in how these, or other technologies, can push your church ministry forwards and outwards, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org