by Wayne Sankarlal
What do I mean by a “small/rural church”? To take a page from Jeff Foxworthy, if your church has less than 150 regular attendees, you might be a small/rural church. Churches of this size often have both human and financial resource challenges. And, they also have one thing in abundance that many large churches spend a great deal trying to create with varying levels of success. What is it? An innate, instinctive sense of community.
The real challenge is to expand that feeling of community out the doors of the church and into the neighboring communities. These could be communities of other denominations, other faiths or other socioeconomic groups. If it’s “other,” then it’s worth thinking about how, when and where to engage them.
The church is about community, and technology is about communication. By their natures, they are intertwined and intermixed. They thrive when they are brought into harmony with one another.
Technology & ministry: Three basic principles
How can rural and small churches use technology to engage with the larger church? How can technology facilitate ministry through communication and connection?
I have found that the answers to those types of questions invariably start with “It depends …” But here are a few basic principles:
1. Technology is not a magic bullet. While I love technology and making use of it to advance the mission of the church, I do not believe that it is a panacea for the challenges of the church.
Technology is and can only ever be a tool of human endeavor. While we may be able to use technology to invite people into our churches, the very second they step over that threshold, it is their experience with the congregation that will determine if they ever come back. So don’t expect technology to shore up human deficiencies — it can’t and won’t.
2. Leading-edge technology is not mandatory. I believe that proven technology when properly applied (and whose users have been fully trained in its use) beats “cool” technology every time. Why? Because the church environment is weighted toward volunteer-led work initiatives. Most times those volunteers do not have specific technology knowledge and may even be intimidated by it. Proper training removes both the intimidation and the knowledge gap.
3. No application of technology is going to be without cost. There is always a cost, whether it is in terms of money or time. Money is actually the easier one to deal with, time is much harder. There are so many facets to time. Time to work out the kinks. Time to determine how best to use technology. Time to figure out when best to use it. Time to convince church leadership it should be used.
The question of cost boils down to the question of vision, direction and will. It’s easier to spend when the object is something we deeply desire. If the goal of the church body is truly to grow and welcome the surrounding community, then the money will be freed up in surprising ways. If it’s not, then no amount of technology or money will ever be enough.
Building your resources
1. Choose life. In my first meeting with one minister, I was told the history of the church he was serving. It started as a thriving country church. As the years went by, the nearest city began to grow and eventually engulfed the church. Yet, instead of the walls of the church bulging with new people, they experienced steep declines in attendance. It was at that point that the elders met and realized they had to make a decision. They asked: Are we going to die slowly or are we going to live and thrive? They consciously chose life. Before any decision on technology is made in any church — small, rural or otherwise — they too must consciously decide to choose life.
Choosing life is a hard decision fraught with many accompanying uncomfortable realities, but once made, the possibilities are incredible.
2. Build an essential technology toolbox. There are a number of essential technologies that a church must have in place to reach out to its congregants, to reach out to the community and to be reached by the world outside. Many of these elements may already exist in your church, but some may require a decision to put in place.
- Website. Having a website is a mandatory requirement as it will be the first place potential new faces will look for information. It can also be the main communication vehicle for long-time members.
- High-speed internet access. The need for high-speed access (as high a speed as you can afford), especially in North America, is no surprise.
- Audio recording device. The capability to make an audio record in MP3 format is paramount. The MP3 files are easily transportable, take up a small amount of disk space and are easily uploaded to most any audio recording service or website.
- Visual display device. Be it a flat-screen TV or a projector and screen, you should have a means of displaying videos, movies or visual content available as part of a program or a service.
- Speakers. Speakers are required to ensure speech or audio can be heard across the sanctuary. In many cases, amplified USB speakers that can plug into a PC will be sufficient.
- Training. Training is the final element in an essential technology toolset and it is most often overlooked. Training is what pulls together all the different components of the toolset and ensures they work together cohesively.
You now have your technology toolbox, so what? While all these technologies have value in and of themselves, they also have power when they are combined and used together.
What are some possibilities?
- A regional center for Christian distance lay and/or pastor education.
- A regional center for church/nonprofit governance.
- Family movie nights.
- Special online streaming events that can be made available to the public.
Consideration of the strategies that can be used to bring these elements together cohesively is needed. In my experience there are three strategies that have the highest impact. These are:
Partnering. Community and communication are really what partnering is about — look into the secular community around you to see where you may be able to make use of external skills within the church. These skills could come from high school volunteers, businesses or existing community goodwill projects.
The first step is to assess which resources you need and which resources you have that others may need. For example, high school students may need volunteer hours and references for summer jobs, so you can approach the audio/video department and give volunteers the opportunity to run the equipment during the service. Along with getting some needed help, you could gain new insights about the equipment you have, and you may be welcoming someone who has never been to church to see what it’s all about.
The AV team at the church where I worship started out as four adult volunteers. Using this approach, we now have two adults and four teenagers. One of the teenagers is from a different faith, but he enjoys coming to the church and being part of the team. (And he has been thoroughly welcomed by the congregation.)
Partnering is about finding help to achieve your vision while providing help to your helper at the same time.
Clustering. Clustering is about cost sharing. Like partnering, it involves reaching out to the wider community and can be bounded by or cross denominational lines.
Clustering means meeting with these partners to determine where there is common ground and seeking their help and assistance in establishing the vision you have determined for the church.
In practical terms, this could mean using the church’s facilities to establish a regional center for church management issues or for Christian education. All churches experience similar regional, governmental and regulatory constraints. Navigating those waters can be difficult and isolating. If a church established itself as an ecumenical center for regulatory seminars, it could be well received across all denominational lines. By providing a venue and the technical facilities, your center would be able to recover costs by requesting nominal amounts from participant churches.
This example also arises from a real-life situation. In Canada, there are very stringent rules around renting church facilities. One poor decision can have far reaching consequences — up to and including the full or partial loss of a church’s charitable status. One church in our presbytery took on the challenge of arranging for a seminar on establishing strong church-use policies, then opened registration to other churches in the presbytery. Word traveled, and by the end of the registration process, close to 40 churches attended from multiple denominations. The sponsoring church was able to recover the cost of the seminar, the cost of a continental breakfast for participants and a little extra to be put toward future initiatives.
Planning. In this context, planning refers to which technology is chosen and when it is implemented. It is about deciding what needs to be done immediately, what needs to be done in both the short term and the long term and what does not need to be done initially — or at all — given a congregation’s circumstances.
All planning exercises require buy-in from all parts of the church leadership (both formal and informal) as well as a clear vision. That is, a great deal of work is involved. That work does not need to be the minister’s or even the elders’ responsibility. The church I attend has adopted the concept of “marathoners” and “sprinters” to engage more of its membership in the running of the church and to lighten the load on the minister and elders.
Essentially, marathoners are those who want to be involved in the church for significant periods of time, and sprinters are involved in short-term activities. Both groups fall into these categories for reasons of time and temperament, which contributes to the success of their respective contributions. A vision and plan for technology use could well be developed by sprinters under the guidance of a marathoner.
Community and communications go hand in hand. The odd paradox of the world we live in is that there are immense amounts of social technology and even larger numbers of isolated and lonely people. The goal of our technology use should be reaching out and drawing in the community around us. I think they used to call that The Great Commission.
WAYNE SANKARLAL is the founder of IT4Worship. He lives in Pickering, Ontario, and contributes to the Presbyterian Record.