I began ministering in small, rural churches in Kentucky. I can’t even recall a soundboard at the first church in which I regularly served. I was aware of a single microphone at the pulpit that had a power button, but there was no dedicated soundman, and I can only recall two small speakers. Folks who couldn’t hear well sat quietly in reverent duty, without being able to really receive what messages were given or to fully participate in worshipping through song. Those songs were often a cappella, with members holding their own hymnals.
I was briefly a youth pastor at a church where it felt like technology had taken a leap forward. They had a dedicated Audio Visual area, a soundboard, multiple mics, speakers, and even a projector and a few small, older TVs in the kids’ area. The technology brought in young individuals who connected with the different style, but unfortunately the moral failure of the senior pastor led me to resign and leave to go to another church.
I also served at New Hope Community Church in Corbin, KY, in several different capacities. First, I was a regular guest preacher, then youth leader, and finally assistant pastor. As of my last visit, their technology was the same as it was 13 years ago: a few microphones, a soundboard, and a dedicated Audio Visual volunteer. The congregation was primarily older, with the most of the younger individuals who grew up in the church leaving it sometime during their high school or college years.
Later, I was able to attend and serve other larger churches, including two Calvary Chapels and Community Church Oxford. All three were more youthful and multigenerational. Each had many volunteers serving in different roles. Each utilized multiple forms of technology.
Technology has changed drastically in my lifetime. While I grew up in a rural area in a lower-than –average income home, I can remember owning a black and white TV; now I carry a much more powerful smart phone in my pocket. Tech site ZDNET.com reports that the average American spends 5.4 hours a day on their mobile phone alone. This has pushed out some TV time, but they also overlap, as well. If the average person outside the church communicates through technology — specifically, screens — what does that mean for the church?
1 Corinthians 9:19-23 records Paul adapting to cultures as he moved through the ancient world on missionary journeys.
For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some. I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it. (NASB 1995)
To reach a “techy” generation, we, too, must communicate the Gospel in a techy way. Matthew 28:19-20 tells us, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” In today’s world, to “GO” means going online.
The problem with being a tech-savvy church? It takes time, finances, and people. It’s not just a matter of equipment. Software and even rights to images and songs cost money, as well. In some ways, individual churches are “nickel and dimed” to death. As costs for churches have consistently risen, different things are required. Training on equipment to takes time and skill. The demands on church staff have also increased now that they are even more readily available to those they serve locally, as well as having a wider area of impact in a world that is more connected.
This is the biggest factor currently impacting the small side of what is called “The Church Squeeze.” This “Church Squeeze” refers to a perceived sweet spot in the health of churches: large enough to meet the needs of their members, but small enough to not be saddled with too much debt. The small end of the healthy size is usually estimated at 200, so by these metrics we are experiencing the squeeze from the small side: too many things we need to do to effectively serve our body and reach out into our community, and not enough volunteers to do all those things, as well as expensive technology which can have a bigger budget percentage footprint at our size.
Approximately 20% of churches that existed at the beginning of 2020 closed their doors by the end of last year. Many, if not most of those who did close, didn’t have google business profiles, Facebook pages, online giving, streaming, or even websites. Quite simply, they weren’t speaking in an area where people were listening, and they were trying to a reach world that no longer exists.
Beyond technology, there is a rising list of regulations that churches must comply with in terms of their building, staffing, volunteer training and insurance coverage. There are more hoops to jump through to get a youth pastor into a school or any staff to be allowed to visit a hospital.
What does all that mean? Said more simply, to be effective at reaching the lost and equipping the Christians in their doors already, churches need more volunteers than ever before, and running a church costs substantially more than even 20 years ago. It’s been fascinating to watch the increasing obstacles and demands pile up over just my nearly 20-year ministry career. (Remember, I started very young.)
How do we overcome it? Step 1 is honest communication. Step 2 is living out 1 Peter 2:9 which informs the church, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light;” (NASB) This means both serving inside the church, and living a life that tells others about the Gospel. Step 3 is making sure that we follow Romans 2:11 and treat each individual as having the same value. That means that we need to make sure multiple generations feel welcome here. It’s a give and take that requires delicate balance. Step 4 is continuing to adapt.
Colossians 4:5 commands us to “Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity.” The speed at which our society is moving requires the church to be nimble and to think both quickly and long term if it wants to make an impact on our community. As the authors of U Turn Church let their congregation know, if they were trying to make an impact for Jesus in a changing world, there would have to be change there, as well. There will be no change in the essential doctrines, but the way messages are conveyed, the technology, the look, the illustrations used in conveying truth, all might change. I’m conscious that I’m on the younger side of our congregation’s average age, and I already at times can relate to the difficulty of learning new software or making small changes that might not be my preference. Nevertheless, if it’s necessary to remove an obstacle from people feeling welcome or participating, it’s worth it.
We have already added to our Audio Visual team. Sometime ago, we officially hired Chris Sagastume for limited hours on Sunday in the sound booth, to help us in growing and training others, since he had experience using a digital board. Judy, Brent, Sheila, and others have spent LONG hours learning the new board and new software, and we have been adding new volunteers from youth group.
Since going online is essential, it’s not only our sound, but also our look that is important. We need to be able to control our lighting for the best possible online presentation. This is complicated by the diversity of screens used by those viewing the services. We are already seeing success in this area. Of 750 unique screens that have watched our services, not only do we have people watching our live services, but our edited-down, sermon-only videos have been watched for well over a thousand hours. Despite this success, feedback on needing to improve has been consistent. On a related note, younger individuals prefer a darker, more contemplative atmosphere. We have also had consistent feedback from visitors and church members that match this need. We have already started fundraising for an important upgrade.
When this church was constructed, the archway had curtains that rolled up and down. It was also designed with shutters for the overhead windows that had to be scrapped due to budget. We are fundraising to restore and improve the originally-intended function of the large window at the front of our sanctuary. For now, we have used a small screen to help improve the view for those watching online. We also plan to eventually centralize the projection. I’ve included a photoshop mockup (not final) of what the finished product could look like. We will still have it open for our classic service and be able to open and close it so attenders can enjoy our beautiful fountain, but we can also have a more welcoming and tech-friendly environment.
We have other building improvements in mind, which is why we have opened an optional area of special giving on our online giving portal, “The special building fund.” It’s one way to help, but it isn’t the only way. While this is an important part of a strategy, each of us is an ambassador for our Lord, and we must continue to impact our neighbors, one at a time, as we serve and interact with them.
I hope you share my excitement for what comes next in our journey. For 164 years, our congregation has been a unique community, willing to focus on the essentials, disagree on the non-essentials, and glorify God together. These adaptions are like many that have come before and will help us continue our impact into the future for the next 164 years — or until the Lord returns!