Holy High Tech: Chattanooga area churches find technology makes it easier to spread the gospel

Holy High Tech: Chattanooga area churches find technology makes it easier to spread the gospel

August 3rd, 2014 by Susan Pierce in Life Entertainment

The Calvary Chapel uses jumbo screens to display the lyrics to worship songs.

Photo by Logan Foll/Times Free Press.

Giant screens in Calvary Chapel give worshipers a better view of the service.

Photo by Logan Foll/Times Free Press.

MAXIMIZING SOCIAL MEDIA

Media for Churches, a how-to blog by Capterra Church Management, has these suggestions for social media accounts.

FACEBOOK

• Allow members to comment on the church Facebook page. Have a staff member moderate it, but keep it open.

• Add "Like" and "Share" buttons so users can share information with nonmembers.

• Link to content by Christian artists, speakers, bloggers. Invite discussion on those links.

• Promote more than just the church; link to helpful articles on substance or physical abuse, financial help or inspirational quotes.

• Post youth group or mission group videos to raise awareness.

• Post notices of community meetings being held at the church; they might bring a potential member through the doors.

• Post sermon notes or podcasts.

• Update daily.

TWITTER

• The account should be set up by a person officially representing the church. People want to interact with another individual, not an organization.

• Follow church members on Twitter and retweet thoughtful posts.

• Don't "tweet preach." Short, newsy updates engage people.

• Follow and retweet as many people as possible to gain more followers.

• Include links to church videos and photos.

• Update several times a day: one to four times an hour is suggested.

YOUTUBE

• Upload videos of church sermons or music.

• Create playlists, putting a series of videos all in one place.

• YouTube video shorts can be posted with one click onto Facebook and Twitter. Use descriptions and tags. Descriptions give search engines subject matter and content; tags are a way for YouTube to index videos and help others find them.

On a good Sunday, the congregation at Covenant Baptist Church in East Brainerd will boast about three dozen in the pews.

Although its membership ranges in age from 2 to Ms. Lola Anderson, who will reach 100 in September, at least 50 percent of them are 60 or older. Yet, despite that cultural divide, this coming week Covenant's congregation will take a big step into the 21st century: installing a big screen-projector system in its little, brick, circa-1950s chapel.

The new pastor believes the system will help engage younger folks in the services as well as expand community outreach with neighborhood movie nights.

"Before coming to Covenant, my family attended Abba's House in Hixson, which has used projectors and big screens for praise and worship for years," says Covenant pastor Chris Finch.

His 12-year-old daughter was so used to seeing lyrics for hymns projected onscreen, she didn't know quite what to do the first time they attended a service at Covenant.

"We walked into Covenant, opened hymn books and my daughter couldn't figure out how to use them, why you didn't read from one line down to the next like reading a book," he recalls. "She loves to read books, but doesn't take music lessons, so she didn't know to use a hymnal. She's grown up reading church music from overhead screens."

Finch laughs, recalling how one of his relatives jokingly describes this style of worship as "off-the-wall music" because worshipers literally read lyrics projected onto wall-mounted screens, which often flank choir lofts.

The introduction of big screens in churches -- a trend that started in the '90s -- was the first change in an evolution of technology use that has reshaped how churches share the gospel. Congregations are turning to social media to spread God's word, reach new members and engage their youth in services. Facebook is the new church bulletin. Miss Sunday service? Catch the pastor's lesson on YouTube.

Ironically, the very venue in which etiquette mandates that members turn off their cellphones and disconnect for an hour to focus on a higher power, is relying more on social media accessed by smartphones and tablets with each passing day.

Traditional worship has always utilized auditory processing, i.e., listening to a preacher's sermon. But a new generation is growing up that accesses its information through visual processing on the small screen, whether it's the iPad or iPhone. To reach both groups, churches often deliver God's word through a combo package of audio with video on wall-mounted screens.

Incorporating cultural changes into traditional worship is a delicate balancing act, especially in established churches whose older members are wary of change, who are accustomed to traditional music read from hymnals and accompanied by organ. Try every tech trend and you risk overshadowing the church's primary message; don't adapt to technology and your church appears out of touch, perhaps unable to attract new, younger members, the lifeblood of any congregation.

"This is a hot topic now, but in my mind, it's not," says Allan Ledford, music director of Signal Crest United Methodist Church. "It's not an 'us vs. them' issue."

A 2013 survey by Barna Research Group, a national, for-profit organization based in Ventura, Calif., showed that 59 percent of Millennials (those born between 1984 and 2002) who grew up in a church ended up leaving it during their first decade of adult life. Reasons included church was not "personally relevant" and they could teach themselves what they needed to know. The study also found that the number of unchurched Millenials grew from 44 percent to 52 percent over the last decade.

Here in the Bible Belt, those numbers may seem disproportionately high; however, it's a wake-up call for congregations to engage this future generation of church leaders. Social media is proving to be a successful way to do that, say area church staff. Younger generations prefer technology's interactive experience because that's what they have grown up with.

"We look at technology as a tool for teaching," says Brian McKenney, communications director at Calvary Chapel on Broad Street. "It's not just the young generation engaging in social media. I read a study that said the average person spends over three hours a day on their smartphone. So if this where we spend our time each day, that's where teaching the word of God needs to be as well.

"We've never been interested in attracting a crowd; we're more interested in reaching people with God's word, and we're using technology to fulfill that purpose," he explains.

Last week, Calvary launched a new, free church app -- calvarychatt -- that includes an audio Bible, podcasts of recent teachings (the church's term for the pastor's sermons), an online church bulletin, a place for prayer requests and a Connect section with links to Twitter and Facebook. The church also posts a weekly video after each week's teaching called "AfterWords" that offers a couple of postscript thoughts on the lesson, food for thought in the coming week and how the lesson can apply to daily life.

"Lots of us grew up going to church on the weekend, life happened in the days in between before you went to church again the next weekend," says McKenney. "Our goal is to use media to connect the dots between each day."

He points to Psalm 96 as inspiration to "be creative" in worship.

"'Sing to the Lord a new song' talks about moving forward in worship and creating. God's certainly creative -- he made sunsets, mountains, oceans and stars in they sky. We're serving a creative God; we can be creative in our worship."

'THE PIT' AND THE PODCASTS

The summer after Travis Jones joined the staff of Silverdale Baptist Church in January 2009, he started a back-porch Bible study at his home with two other young men.

"All I would do is preach through the books of the Bible," he describes. He didn't serve refreshments, not even a glass of water, because it was what he had become accustomed to while serving the Lord in Africa.

"We never even knew if we would have electricity there," he jokes.

Despite the no-frills teaching style, word spread about the men's-only meetings. Soon his cul de sac was filled with trucks and cars on Wednesday night as numbers grew from the original three to 30. Some were married, most not; the majority never attended traditional church, but they were discovering Jesus on the Joneses' back porch.

"Initially, people were curious. I don't want to say my way is the correct way to teach, I just believe that guys 18- to 35-years-old just want to hear expository word-by-word teaching of the Bible. It's tremendous to see young people coming to faith," Jones says.

By fall, the group had outgrown the porch and back yard. Jones found room in the basement of a home on Silverdale's property in which to meet. The basement venue led to the new nickname, "The Pit."

When The Pit launched, so did a podcast by the same name about each week's study. Word-of-mouth grew both the number of attendees in Bible study and the number of downloads.

"I'd preach to about 180 on a weeknight and, by the next week, there would be several thousand downloads of that podcast," says Jones. "The Lord continued to bless us and, in April 2012, we had outgrown the basement and started meeting on Saturday nights in the church chapel."

Silverdale Saturday Nights is now one of four weekend services offered by the church. The Saturday night service is averaging 360 attendees per week, and reached record highs of 500 or more during April this year. At last count four months ago, 1,500 downloads of Silverdale Saturday Night app had been sent to phones. For those who can't see Silverdale Saturday Nights live, a Vimeo video is now offered.

AUDIO VS. VIDEO

The introduction of big screens in the '90s was accompanied by a new emphasis on contemporary songs whose lyrics were flashed up on the "jumbotrons" for the congregation to follow. These songs were upbeat, repetitive, one-line melodies usually sung in unison. In no time they were dubbed "7-11 Songs" because you sang "seven words 11 times," or vice versa. Soon after, guitars began replacing organ music at modern praise sessions.

Because not all church members enjoyed the contemporary style, many denominations sought to appease all worshipers by offering traditional as well as contemporary services, a choice still in place at many churches today. Yet almost two decades after the introduction of contemporary services, they remain a source of contention for some congregations.

"I know some churches that have almost divided over music in worship," says Ledford.

He says Signal Crest offers two traditional services and one contemporary, and attendance is a good mix of young and old at all three. Signal Crest's sanctuary does not have big screens installed, Ledford says, because its A-frame architecture is not conducive for them, however, there are screens in the church area where the contemporary service is held.

Betty Hull Hubble, who grew up in a Methodist church, says she considers herself "a more traditional worshiper" and cannot appreciate contemporary music. She's found the music and sermon she was looking for at GraceWorks Church on Lee Highway.

"I think there is a generation coming up now that will not know the hymns we grew up with," she states. Those foundational hymns of a church denomination -- "Rock Of Ages," "Onward Christian Soldiers," "Nearer My God to Thee" -- are seldom heard in praise worship.

"My grandchildren prefer contemporary services, but I do not because my worship background consisted of a quieter form of worship," says Hubble.

Covenant's Finch recalls the church meeting in which he broached the subject of purchasing a screen and projector to Covenant's older congregation.

"I was unsure of the reaction I'd get," he says, chuckling.

To his surprise, an elderly matriarch stood up and announced "Well, heaven forbid I get to raise my head and see the words so I can sing to heaven, rather than bury my head in a hymnal!"

The motion passed.

Calvary's McKenney says that, in addition to using screens for music, his church projects video recaps of events such as baptisms. The screens provide visual backup of facts during announcements, or just give folks sitting in the back a closer look at pastor Frank Ramseur's face while he's teaching the lesson.

Ledford believes the issue of traditional versus contemporary will resolve itself with time.

"For those who grew up in contemporary services, those songs will be their tradition. Thirty years from now, when the newest thing comes along, those people will be the ones lamenting 'I can't believe they don't sing the songs we sang growing up.'"

Contact Susan Pierce at spierce@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6284.