Churches of all faiths across Marshall County are adjusting to the world of new technology – clearly here to stay in the secular world – and implementing positive ways to use it in their services, to communicate with members and to reach out to those looking for a church.
Most churches have websites now and use email, and some local churches also use Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, among others. An increasing number of church sanctuaries are equipped with large screens to display many different kinds of images.
One Marshall County church that incorporates technology into many facets of its mission is Hardin Baptist Church, where Kory Cunningham is associate pastor. The 30-year-old is also the son of the church’s senior pastor, Ricky Cunningham.
“Our website is a big avenue for reaching prospective attendees and for giving visitors to the church more information,” he said. He had just been in a two-hour meeting with the church’s web developer, to make sure that the website’s content “gets people connected.”
The church, with an average Sunday attendance of 1,100, he said, also puts its sermons online in audio format and has a pod cast in iTtunes. Members with smart phones can consult the church’s mobile app.
Cunningham said he convinced his dad to use Twitter, to share his thoughts with the congregation. All four pastors at the church have their own Twitter accounts, he said.
Twitter is an online social networking and microblogging service that rapidly gained worldwide popularity after its creation in 2006. It was said to have more than half a billion users in 2012, with an average of 28 million tweets per day.
In terms of reaching out, Charles Frazier, 46, minister of Zion’s Cause Baptist Church, just outside Draffenville, said Facebook doesn’t help the church stay connected so much with the younger generation. “It’s mainly for moms now,” he said.
In addition to a Facebook page, the church, which he estimates has an average Sunday attendance of 370, has a website and communicates via email. Frazier and some of his staff also use Twitter, he said.
The church employs large-screen technology for services in the sanctuary. “We live in a visual culture,” Frazier said. When he quotes scripture, people in the pews may be opening their Bibles in traditional bound format or by accessing a version of the Bible they have downloaded onto their smart phones or iPads.
Dan Atkinson, 53, is pastor of the Benton First United Methodist Church. A total of approximately 210 people attend church there in two services on Sunday morning, he said.
Atkinson and John Legan, 33, minister of worship and music, provided a tour of the sanctuary, part of the church’s sprawling complex built in 2000. To include visuals in the service, the sanctuary has three large screens that can be lowered from the ceiling.
Two of the screens are for worshippers facing the pulpit, and the third is for those facing the congregation, so that all can see the video portion, whether it is lyrics to a hymn or a picture that augments a point in the service.
At the rear of the sanctuary, the control booth for video and audio, with its soundboard, black boxes, and wires, resembles that of a community theater.
Atkinson, who admits he is “still on the learning curve,” said the church uses technology “to respond to that interactive need that our culture has created.” In terms of social media, he said there is no Twitter feed running during services.
There are two Sunday services at the church, he noted, each styled differently. The early service he refers to as the contemporary one, which uses technology more; and the 10:30 service is in a “traditional” style, although he cautioned that what is new today may be traditional tomorrow.
Once a year as part of the service, the church honors members who have died during the preceding year.
Atkinson said projecting pictures of those deceased members onto the large screens was “a wonderful addition” to the service, in that it helped people remember their emotional bonds with the deceased.
Atkinson believes that a church’s website is a selling point for people who are church shopping, people who once attended churches in person before settling on one.
He also said a positive aspect of the Internet is that for any number of topics or causes, it helps people find “like-minded” thinkers.
Mark Ray, 41, minister of the Benton Church of Christ, which has an average Sunday morning attendance of about 300, says the “purpose of preaching is to communicate the gospel.” He noted that churches have communicated in “different ways in different cultures and times.”
His church uses a variety of technology in the following ways, he noted: PowerPoint, Apple TV, and an app called You Verse, which provides members with an outline of the sermon to study and share.
And, as with so many other congregations today, the church’s website serves as an introduction to people looking for a church home and helps church leaders communicate with members, as do its Facebook page, Twitter and email.
But Ray says he is well aware of technology’s downside.
Not everyone has it, including members on fixed incomes and many of the elderly. “They still need to be included in our ministry,” he said.
He also worries about the possibility of our technology-laden society losing the art of the spoken word.
“Imagine Jesus using a PowerPoint for the Sermon on the Mount,” he commented, “or Lincoln giving the Gettysburg address” (short, but at 269 words, still too long for Twitter).
Although many churchgoers have Bible apps that are very effective, others prefer to hold their three-dimensional Bibles in their hands.
“I really appreciate my father’s Bible,” Ray said, the one he received after his father’s passing.
For some members, he says, there is “the constant temptation to get on Facebook or Instagram during services.”
For example, many devices through which users download the Bible also have Internet, and reminders called “push notifications” can pop up on the screen when they get an email or other electronic message.
The ability to get those notifications can be turned on or off, but one can only speculate as to how many choose to turn these distractions off while focusing on reading the matter at hand.
“Technology,” says Ray, “can make it difficult to think deeply and find time to mediate,” to follow Scripture, as in Psalms 46:10, to “be still and know that I am God.”
And, cautions Legan, at Benton First United Methodist Church, “There is no downloading of God to us.”