Using technology to enhance, not replace, the church experience

Tulsa church develops its own app for communication with members — and offers it without charge to other churches.

Confession, an iPhone app aimed at helping Catholics through confession and encouraging lapsed followers back to the faith, has ignited a maelstrom of controversy centered around whether the sacrament of penance can be replaced by a computer application.

Regardless of the theological conundrum swirling around this app, it helps highlight the degree to which technology is ushering in a new era of religion where churches are increasingly heightening relevancy by embracing the cultural shifts and trends associated with digital media.

Technology has played an integral part in the spread of religion throughout the ages. The printing press revolutionized the spread of the Bible; electricity, microphones, then radios and TVs, and of course the Internet – all of these technologies have been used in to spread the message.

All but taken for granted today, these advances at their conception were often revolutionary (and perhaps even met with some resistance). iPhone, iPads, Blackberries, laptops and the apps that populate these gadgets are tools that foster improved efficiency and interactivity as well as enhancing personal convenience. At its core, the use of technology in church isn’t about strategy and values.

Church not a solitary event
Church is more than a building or weekly event and has never been designed as a solitary activity. Most members of our congregation have smart phones linking them to family, business and social networks.

As a long-established and large church with a rich history, First Christian Church in Tulsa, OK, is bringing the benefits of mobility to our congregation of 950 people through a mobile app. The app, available at no cost to everyone, provides the latest real-time information about the church and its child care center, including phone numbers and e-mail addresses of staff, the church newsletter, calendar, service times, prayer requests, and weather cancellations.

It also provides weekly Bible verses from the common lectionary, a Bible program used by many preachers to systematically cover the entire Bible in three years.

The app is used to enhance direct communications with church members, not replace it, while fostering a greater connection between and among the church and its members. It also facilitates an opportunity to reach out to the greater community, keeping them informed of programs within the church.

These new mobile technologies present a way for us to stay in close touch with our congregation and cultivate a deeper connection while simultaneously streamlining our operations.

While the cost of building an app is directly proportional to the scale and the app platforms you are targeting, a 2009 Forrester report set the price of a no-frills app at a minimum of $20,000.

Same less expensively
While many large corporations have spent millions developing applications for proprietary handheld devices, smaller app developers are emerging that empower businesses and organizations of all sizes, including churches, to do the same at a lower cost.

It only took us four to six weeks to develop our app and get it approved for the iPhone at a cost under $2,000 (less costly than building a custom website). The app is based on MacroSolve’s ReFormXT platform, used by schools, including the University of Tulsa, country clubs, healthcare organizations, and businesses. The specific platform designed for church use is known as ChurchInsight.

Just as websites did years ago, mobile apps are popping up at congregations across the nation. A recent search through the iPhone App Store yielded several church applications. With the launch of the iPad, the use of mobile apps will not only solidify but skyrocket.

Rev. Jeremy Skaggs is associate pastor, Youth and Family Ministries at First Christian Church in Tulsa, OK.


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