Who Owns Your Technology? You, or Those Who Supply the Tools?

If you are a Gmail user, you have probably noticed a recent change in your e-mail dashboard. Now, instead of seeing all your mail, you see three tabs: Primary, Social, and Promotions. Google has gone to the trouble of sorting it for you.

As a minister, your first reaction may well be—“Hooray! Google has saved me the trouble of separating the email myself.” And indeed, the system seems to work pretty well.

But here’s the problem—The industrial giant may be signaling that it believes it knows what you want better than you do. And in that mindset are the seeds of Google’s decline. Or so says blogger John Shinal.

Should you care? Well, yes.

Take a look at the software you are deploying in your church. Whether for keeping track of your members, sending your e-newsletters, running your website, handling your phone trees (yes—they still exist), or blasting your presence to the world, it pays to stop and ask yourself, Who’s really in control here? Me, or the people producing the technology?

Church Management Software

Let’s start with the most expensive piece of technology your congregation probably runs—your Church Management Software (or ChMS). There is no shortage of options, and no amount of money that one can spend on it.

Money spent on technology that does the work it promises to do is not money wasted. But if you are finding that the technology is driving you, and not serving your congregation’s needs, it’s time to reconsider what you’re doing.

Just like Microsoft in the early days (see Shinal’s article above), or Google today, many of these systems—which are pervasive in congregations—tie your hands with ever-expanding tools and more and more complicated applications that are often overkill for smaller communities, or poorly fitted to the peculiar needs of larger communities.

I recently test-drove three ChMS systems. I also spent time surveying those who use these systems. The consensus? No one’s really happy with them, but what other options do they have?

The particular complaints ranged from slow response times to poor navigation to technology solutions that forced the church to adapt its procedures to the peculiarities of the system they adopted. And of course, there were complaints about cost.

Social Media

If you think cost is the only burden, think again. Social media platforms are often free, and imperfect. Either because they leave too many people in the dust; or staff members frantically feel they are constantly trying to keep up with the plethora of emerging technologies that congregational members keep tying into.

The writings of Wendall Berry have struck a nerve with many in the church world who have said “enough!” Enough with the 24-hour connectedness. Enough with the inability to have dinner without a cellphone in hand. Enough with people interrupting face-to-face conversations to favor virtual ones.

To be sure, this is a reactionary response and one that will not stand long. Technology is here to stay, and running away from it won’t change that reality. But the reaction is grounded in very real frustrations that people feel they are changing everything to make space for electronic communications. And there in lay the rub. We are bending our lives to accommodate technology, instead of allowing technology to serve us.

What’s Really Going on Here?

I believe that Shinal’s message is important here. It’s not that we’re becoming too connected or that technology itself is the problem (though certainly we struggle with what technology has done to us), but rather that our technology is not simply driving our lives, but taking over our lives by forcing us to change the way we interact best in our communities.

Herewith, some simple questions to ask yourself about how your congregation is deploying technology, and whether it is serving you, or you are a slave to its vicissitudes.

Administration

  • Did your technology force you to change the workflow in your office? And if it did, was it a change for the better, or change for the sake of change?
  • Has technology—which should simplify and streamline communications—complicated the process?
  • Are you able to turn it off?
  • Do members understand the best ways to get hold of you, or are they coming at you through a range of media channels?

Education

  • If you use multimedia presentations in your classrooms, are the tools enhancing and improving the educational experience, or simply adding more “stuff” to the equation?
  • Are your education technology costs under control, or is there always a push to add more and more components?

People

  • Members and guests are the core of your “business,” if you will allow the expression. Is technology helping those relations, or hindering them?
    • Do you favor electronic welcoming letters over face-to-face interaction?
    • Does your accessibility depend upon your guests being technologically savvy?
    • If you use a lot of social media to stay in touch with people, are you equally accessible to them? Or do you use technology to “screen” people?
  • Do you understand what percentages of your congregation are engaged with each social media type, and do you adjust your approach accordingly? Or do you take a shot-gun approach to communication channels?

Have a look at these questions, then decide for yourself—is technology controlling you, or serving you?

If it is controlling you, how do you get it under control?

That answer next week.

Tackling the Social Media “Growth” Myth

Church Photo 3This summer The Christian Post released its list of “Top 5 Churches That Use Social Media Best.” On one level, there were few surprises on the list—five leading mega-churches with massive audiences, bulging budgets, and staff members dedicated to social media.

And here-in lie the difficulty.

The view that social media is essential to growth is intoxicating, and wrong.

The list directly, and indirectly, perpetuates two myths of social media use that too many churches fall victim to.

Myth 1: Social media is key to—and at its heart about—church growth.

“When it comes to churches,” begins the CP article, “having at least a minimal digital strategy has become crucial in expanding Christian outreach even locally within their own communities.”

The view that social media is essential to growth is intoxicating, and wrong. Megachurches—if that’s the type of community you’re trying to cultivate—were around long before Facebook hit the scene. Social media in megachurches is more a reflection of the population served than a distinguishing trait.

But here’s the real problem. By tying social media to growth, the article overlooks the more important point—electronic communications (e-mail, e-newsletters, etc) and social media (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc., etc.) are first and foremost about communicating, not growth.

As with any form of communication, executed properly, growth may be an outcome. But growth is not an indication of success.

Take-away: Pay attention to the extent to which social media improves and strengthens community. That’s the true measure of whether social media is working well in your congregation.

Myth 2: Social media requires professionalism—and professionals—to work well.

Let’s be clear. Social media are tools for communicating. Nothing more.

If you are a poor communicator in person, or have difficulty writing coherent thoughts, social media will only exasperate that situation, not improve it. People who communicate well, however, will find their voice with these tools and learn to do it well.

Now, it is true that advice from professionals helps. Writers have from the beginning of writing had their work improved by editors. Public speakers have long benefited from what they learn at Toast Masters.

But one does not require professional communicators to master social media.

If you are a poor communicator in person, or have difficulty writing coherent thoughts, social media will only exasperate that situation, not improve it.

The five models held up by CP suggest that professional staffs are central for social media success. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Take-away: Yes, communicating through social media requires our adjusting to the medium, and good advice and guidance can help. But, social media is still just a mode for communicating language. Don’t believe the hype. If you communicate well in traditional venues, you can adapt and communicate well using social media.

At the end of the day, social media is not about growth but about communicating better with those in your faith community. Growth may come as a result, but if you place growth above improving your faith community’s ability to communicate, you have missed what makes social media so valuable in the first place—its ability to improve the ways we talk with one another.