GREENSBORO – A baby dedication. That soul-stirring sermon. Raised communion cups.
Text it. Tweet it. Tag it on YouTube.
Churches and other houses of worship that once reminded those in the pews to turn their cellphones off before services now encourage their congregations to post to Facebook as the inspiration hits them.
“If the public Wi-Fi is down for some reason, we’ll hear about it,” Wayne Bennett, the communications director at Grace Community Church, said of the people who take this charge to heart.
The expanding digital world has birthed this electronic church – the new evangelism – and some congregations are finding that it’s bringing the curious to their doors.
Digital media allows anyone with a keyboard to take a virtual step inside a church the same way a potential homebuyer can get a floor-by-floor look in a house on the market.
It’s sometimes the first step for people looking for a church without having to visit a bunch of them.
Local religious leaders know that what’s on their websites might just get someone in the door. What people in the pews tweet often is the best invitation, they said.
A major faith study shows a growing population of people called “nones,” those who select no religious affiliation at all but said they are spiritual, said the Rev. Ann Marie Alderman, the minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greensboro. Her intentionally liberal church community believes personal experience, conscience and reason should be the final authorities in religion and not a book, a person or an institution.
“We feel we are best postured to be attractive to people like that if they knew about us,” Alderman said, so she mentions social media at the start of every gathering.
“We tell them to put their cellphones or iPads in worship mode and to feel free to text or tweet – to send messages to whoever it is who is following them to share what they hear or are experiencing,” she said. “Their friends may know them as pretty cool people and may not think of them as being in church, and when they tweet a message while sitting there ... we hope that’s having the impact of people not being afraid to come and experience it for themselves.”
Some of the people who have visited World Victory International Christian Center have said they did so based on something they saw on the church’s website or social media, said Stephanie Morehead, who leads the social media ministry, which is made up of both adults and teenagers. The church is into Instagram, Facebook and Twitter – and making connections.
World Victory International, like the Summit Church in Kernersville, posts its sermons online. Some, such as Lawndale Baptist Church, offer a “Take a Look” section, with music samples, podcasts and a video of a baptism.
Other churches also have explored ways to use digital media. First Presbyterian has a webcam so members can watch a renovation project as it occurs. Evangel Fellowship Church of God in Christ texts daily videos spoken by its pastor, the Rev. Otis Lockett Jr.
“We did not even have a presence at all on social media, and then in the last year, we kind of tested the waters a little bit to see the effect it would have, and it has been a powerful tool,” Morehead said. “So many more people know about us.”
The digital movement is reminiscent of the frenzy in the 1970s and 1980s to produce radio or television broadcasts, said Jim Trammell, assistant professor of electronic media at High Point University. Trammell recently received an award from an international journalism education organization for his paper “Want to Feel the Love of Christ? There’s An App for That: Understanding Tablet Media as the New Electronic Church.”
“Now a lot of churches are like, ‘We have to have a website. If we don’t have a website, we are in trouble,’” Trammell said.
Those in the pews are keeping up with what’s available to them.
Not only is technology influencing how people connect with the physical church, it also is spawning a whole support industry.
There’s a menu of apps available, including the Deaf Bible, which uses sign language. Another is billed as a one-on-one conversation with Jesus. And people are exploring.
Shirley Rogers bought an iPad while shopping on Black Friday, and it was soon her constant companion on Sunday mornings at Grace Community Church. She might post, “I’m waiting for worship and the word” as her Facebook status just before service.
But it’s the apps that give her chapter and verse, from Genesis to Revelation, that she said have enhanced her worship.
“By the time I found it, he was on to another one,” Rogers said of thumbing through her printed Bible to find the Scriptures her pastor was quoting.
She also is able to make notes and save passages that she can return to later.
Others around her, she said, are doing the same with their smartphones – something that decades ago she wouldn’t have imagined.
“You couldn’t do anything in church years ago,” Rogers said. “You had to sit there with your legs straight.”