Multiplication Center

Beyond Digital, Part 4: There is Tension within the Marriage of Tech and Ministry

April 12, 2013

Welcome to the Beyond Digital blog series!  If you missed the introductory post outlining Leadership Network’s Beyond Digital Initiative, be sure and read Beyond Digital: A New Initiative from Leadership Network.  In Part 2 of the Beyond Digital blog series, we looked at some of the more common opportunities and obstacles connected with technology use in the Church.  Part 3 brought some examples of technology use for positive human impact, both inside and outside the church.  In this post we will raise questions that represent some of the tensions present in the ‘marriage’ of technology and ministry.  Perhaps you are living in one or more of these tensions now.

Tech and Ministry: Managing the Tensions
The conversations I’ve had over the past several weeks with church leaders and ‘techies’ across the country have surfaced some key ideas that must be held in proper tension for healthy and effective implementation of technology for the church.  The following list, in no particular order, highlights some of the areas in need of balance.  Ultimately, what that balance looks like will depend on the mission, context, and culture of each church.

Tension #1: To Digitize or not to Digitize? Many companies have employed “Intelligent Electronic Agents” to decrease costs and provide a ‘better’ customer experience.  Using natural language voice commands was popularized by Apple’s Siri which was rapidly followed by Android, Microsoft, and others all offering what will become a mobile ‘electronic concierge’ on your smart devices including your phone, tablet, and television. Soon, researchers suggest, retailers will have a Siri-like sales assistant, and maintenance workers will have a Siri-like assistant. Great idea, right? 

If you’ve ever been stuck on the phone with one of these ‘intelligent’ agents when what you really needed was to speak with another human being, you might not think so (I’d be glad to share my experience of being stuck in an airport at midnight on a recent trip to San Francisco).

This example represents a point of tension for churches related to the extent they should ‘go digital’.  A couple of questions leaders should consider: What ‘analog’ things need to be augmented/replaced with digital ones?  What things should never be digitized?  Some things absolutely should be digitized at your church.  For instance, if you are not leveraging technology for communication and message delivery in some capacity, you are paying a steep opportunity cost that you may be unaware of.  Other elements, however, may need to remain offline.  For example, some churches conduct online communion services and small groups while others would argue that these things should remain primarily as ‘analog’ activities.

Tension #2: Which Comes First, the Physical or the Virtual?  Many companies have made the decision over the past couple of years to think ‘mobile first’ when it comes to their development and use of technology.  Rather than build tools aimed at a declining desktop interface paradigm, they understand the value of the mobile space and want to ensure their future in it.  The booming mobile app economy is one outcome of this shift in thinking.

But what about the church?  What is the proper relationship between virtual and physical?  Are they separate?  Does one serve as a conduit to the other?  Should churches begin to think ‘digital first’ as they look toward the future?  Where does the balance lie?  These are important questions for leaders to consider as they plan and develop around technology.  Churches that are already investing in online campuses and experiences have likely wrestled with some of these questions to a great extent.  As I suggested in Tension #1, there are certain aspects of church life that should never be fully digitized.  But as you’ll see in Tension #3, always beginning with the existing ‘analog’ model may not be the answer either.

Tension #3: Is the goal to simply recreate the physical ‘model’ of church in the digital space, or develop a completely new expression and experience? John Fitch completed the first successful steam boat trial along the Delaware River in 1787.  His new ‘innovation’ involved little more than retrofitting the current model of boat propulsion (oars) with the newer steam technology.  While his trial did earn him a few patents and the short-lived attention of delegates of the Constitutional Convention, Fitch remained unable to develop a model that would justify the benefits of steam navigation.

As church leaders explore effective means of utilizing technology to accomplish their mission, it may not be enough to cram technology into the center of existing church models.  The true benefits of some digital tools will not be fully realized until churches are willing to step outside of current strategies and assumptions and look at the available technology from a fresh perspective.  Arguably, this brings about greater risk and uncertainty for leaders, but many churches are finding the rewards for ‘success’ are more than worth the risk.  And, as I alluded to earlier, the unseen opportunity costs of not thinking differently may provide the greatest risk of all.

Tension #4: In the midst of seeking to utilize new technology, where does it makes sense to invest in making old technology relevant again?  New York startup Neverware’s mission is “to produce innovative technologies that make life easier for our clients, and save them money along the way.”  Founder Jonathan Hefter set out to accomplish this mission by developing a powerful, innovative server called Juicebox that would allow schools to run the latest operating systems and software on previously outdated hardware.  Utilizing Neverware’s model could save schools tens of thousands of dollars annually on hardware costs alone.   Because of Neverware, old technology is being made relevant again.

As churches rush in to employ the latest technology and digital tools, it becomes easy to only look ahead to the ‘new’, without regard to what value exists in the ‘old’.  Like the 10-year-old computers being repurposed by Neverware’s technology, what ‘obsolete’ resources and tools could churches give new life to due to advances in technology?  Who knows, perhaps all those old Joy Buses could be turned into mobile learning centers for disadvantaged kids?

Don’t Forget the Survey
If you haven’t done so already, I would encourage you to take 5 minutes to complete the Beyond Digital Survey.  We’ll be using the information we’ve gathered to provide a snapshot of some of the tools and strategies churches around the country are using when it comes to technology, as well as some of their wild ideas for the future.  We will share this information in a report or infographic soon.

Up Next: Code for the Kingdom Hackathon Series
The next post in this series will highlight the Code for the Kingdom Hackathon Series that is a key component of the Beyond Digital Initiative.  Stay tuned!

Learn More: Visit the Beyond Digital Leadership Community Website

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