Forty years ago, I remember being in a worship service where the pastor spoke with a missionary by telephone, who was living on the other side of the world. The conversation was broadcast live and everyone in attendance was amazed by what they heard.
If that same missionary was with us today, he or she would have even more of an opportunity to engage an audience and to become an integral part of the service. Digital technology creates an atmosphere where individuals on the other side of the city, state, country, or world can appear to be on stage in front of us. But the technology doesn't stop here. It goes far beyond this to a point where a church can become a central point of focus within a community by using various forms of media and communication. It all begins when church leaders ask a very important question: How do we connect the needs of our congregation in today's evolving digital world?
For years, churches have looked for effective ways to bridge this growing gap by having a traditional and non-traditional worship services but change has always been hard. Just a few years ago, architects designed churches and worship centers with long narrow hallways, large classrooms, and very few gathering spaces. We've moved away from this because we realize that people crave community. They want to worship in churches that provide areas and spaces that encourage interaction and engagement. And they want these areas to be places that are welcoming, bright, and warm. Some contain fireplaces, coffee bars, Wi-Fi, and an atmosphere that is engaging and builds community. They are places where people connect with others.
Engaging for the right reasons
Sometimes, I'll have a pastor or a committee member ask: "Isn't there a bad side to all of the technology that churches are using today?" The answer is the same with almost anything: yes. But my goal for churches today is to find the "good" in the technology available to them and to use it to communicate their message in a way that brings people together with God and with one another. When I talk with church leaders who are unsure about today's technology, I use the illustration of the creation of the printing press. There was actually a lot of opposition to its development. There was a fear that it would bring corruption but it didn't. One of the first items published on the printing press was the Gutenberg Bible!
Technology is an indispensible tool, but it also can be overwhelming to those who are not already adapted to it on a large scale. Some of the church committees we work with find themselves asking, "Where do I begin?" As the president of an architectural studio, our team works alongside congregations that are ready to make transitions to digital technology.
This is why we encourage church leaders to think about how they want to engage their congregations and also how they would like to use technology to reach their goals. Many want to engage a younger age groupa group that could otherwise leave the church and attend somewhere else that is more engaging and responsive. After the transition and when pastors see their churches growing and becoming more active within the surrounding community, they realize an important truth: technology connects people.
Before the printing press was created, church sermons or messages were spoken. The church had an oral tradition, but with the creation of the printing press, the church entered a new age that was met with resistance. People wanted to burn the first books printed because they did not know how to accept the change. As more material was printed acceptance began to take hold. Church congregations grew and soon there were presentational churches built with center isles and pulpits. Printed sermons were presented to congregation. They were also published, and passed on to others outside their congregations. With the advent of the printing press, worship became much more of a printed tradition, which made it accessible for a very larger number of people. So historically, worship went from an oral tradition to a presentation tradition. Today we are in a responsive age where people are engaged and congregations are much broader. I believe that the next phase will be "user defined." This means that someone who cannot attend worship at their church will still be able to worship on line and even select the hymns, worship songs, and sermon that he or she would like to hear.
A leap into the future
It can be difficult for a congregation to take a dramatic leap from a traditional setting to one that contains responsive elements. But all of us must remember that a worship service is about people, meeting their spiritual needs, and worshiping God. A responsive congregation may want to add more technology, while a more traditional church may opt to move slower. There's no right or wrong way. Both churches recognize the fact that the world is changing around them, and they know this means they must adapt.
As a congregation ages, people either move or die. Few churches I talk with today say: "We're fine the way we are." They want to find ways to engage people, grow into strong communities, and while retaining those who are with them now. At some point, this means they will have to move outside their comfort zones. Often committee members express the concern that they will lose a sense of intimacy if technology is added. But the opposite is really the truth. Technology is being used to enhancement the worship experience and the church community.
A digital church setting doesn't just combine the advantages of a live broadcast, video archived podcasts, and social media. It is used in classroom settings where there are opportunities for videos to be used along with whiteboards, and Internet connections. A greater number of churches now stream their services live to different locations across a city or even the county. They have the ability to archive broadcasts of sermons so they can be viewed or heard later on line. There is also the option of blending a live service with video. On any given Sunday, some pastors may preach to hundreds or thousands of people within a digital environment. While another several thousand people are watching online. The people online are viewed as an extended community. Over time, they begin to support and become a part of the broader church.
As a leader of an architectural firm, I continually explore ways to engage people in and through a worship environment and so does my team. Ten years ago, we designed a church that at the time was equipped with the best and the latest technology. We had no idea that one day this church would be using iPads for their worship music. At the time, iPads did not even exist. Today, the musicians use them along with many in the congregation. The pastor can change the order of worship instantly and the music for the service can shift, too. Everyone, even the congregation, is on the same electronic page.
An immigrant or a native
Embracing the idea of digital information does not come naturally for most of us. The main reason is that we are digital immigrants and not natives. My grand daughter is a native. She is growing up in a digital community within a digital world. What I have found is that students, who are digital natives crave technology for their worship experience.
I recently talked with a young father who is in his late 30's, and he told me he was "the beginning of his family's first digital family tree." He said everything I post onlineevery tweetis searchable. "My grand kids are going to be able to search for family information. There will be no secrets."
The same is true for me. As an architect, I know my children and grand children will be able to search the web and see all the projects CDH has done over time and how the practice evolved. Everything is digitally stored and accessible.
I also realize that change requires flexibility. When church services moved from an oral tradition to a written and printed presentation, change was involved. Now, we are transitioning to the next age, and it is centered and focused on community and digital communication that reaches across a neighborhood, a city, a state, and around the world.
It has been 25 years since this technology became available, and we are just now beginning to understand its possibilities. The next wave of technology is going to be much more user-defined. In fact, we are already designing for this next digital leap. Some of the pastors we work with have multiple campuses and broadcast live to each one as if they were all together and for many churches they are. It is a matter of enjoying the fellowship of an extended community.
Members and those, who want to attend a church service but for some reason cannot, can stay at home and watch the full service online. Also people, who live in rural areas, can watch a service online. This means if I don't feel well or cannot drive a great distance to go to church, I can still be a part of the online community. Does this replace the fellowship we receive from being in a church environment? Not really, but for some who have physical difficulties it makes going to church much easier.
While we continue to explore different ways to handle technology, the challenge remains to make the experience as engaging as possible. I would be their first person to admit that a lot of this is great, but some of it is not so good. This was true of the printing press, and it is true of different technology advancements throughout time. I'm convinced it's not the technology that is good or bad, it is how we use it that makes a difference. The most important thing we'll ever do is to make a difference for Christ in our world today, and that includes staying in step with the technology He has given us to use for a much broader purposeto do what the apostles didbring people to Him. While the message that is delivered to our church congregations has not changed, the method has evolved since Paul wrote the book of Acts. And it will continue to develop and progress as responsiveness through digital technology is fulfilled and utilized.
Bill Chegwidden is president of CDH Partners, Inc., an architectural practice based in Marietta, Georgia. CDH Partners is one of the top 25 architectural firms in Georgia. It was founded in 1977 and over the years has repeatedly been recognized as one of the most progressive architectural firms in the state and the southeast.