Integrating Technology into Your Spiritual Community

Published on: May 22, 2017

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My birthday sits a few years within the window that fuzzily defines the X and Millennial generations. While I will boldly jump into making tech do what I want it to do, I do not always turn to it for the solution. I have spent most of my adult life working with folks who were more “experienced” than I, and I understand that all this “tech stuff” sometime seems like too much, or not worth the effort. I’ve even made that argument myself. Technology in the sanctuary doesn’t have to be scary or obtrusive, it can actually be a big help. How? Read on.

Ten years ago when MySpace was popular, Facebook was on the rise, and Twitter was still a baby, spiritual communities could afford to ignore the social media trends without too much backlash. If your Sunday services looked the same as they did 30 years before, it was quaint, not outdated. Those days are over!

When I was asked to write an article about technology in the sanctuary, I did what most folks of my Xer/Millennial cohort would do: I asked Facebook, and then I googled for articles.

What I found may hint at trends, and some things you may want to consider stretching into.

 

Projection

Let’s start with projection of content before/after/during services. Though we often use the word PowerPoint as a generic term for this, there are other programs for managing your visual projections, and I would argue that some do it better. As for my informal survey, most folks responded that they use projection at some point during their Sunday experience. Some for announcements, others for music and readings, and some are utilizing photography or video during the lesson.

While there are some who still can’t stand it, most communities are finding value in using projection. When I arrived at Unity of Anchorage, Alaska, in the fall of 2015, there was a projector, but it was not used often, and had to be set up on a cart and project onto a wall. This setup was awkward and had a ripple effect on other decisions that we made. For instance, we used music from the Wings of Song hymnal and the Songs from a World Awakening songbook. (Both are now out of print.) There is some perfectly fine music in those books, but there is also a lot of music that reflects a God concept I’m not comfortable having in the lyrics of the songs we sing, namely an anthropomorphic “he” God.

The obvious solution was to start singing more of the current Posi music whose lyrics can be projected under our emPower Music Arts license. We didn’t throw out the old standards, we just started shifting and introducing the new music into the mix. Many in our congregation had attended the metaphysics classes and were asking for the music to reflect their fresh perspective on language. There was an unspoken and only half-realized discomfort with some of the language, but no clear path to transcend the obstacle.

For our community to adjust to weekly visual projections, there were some practical things that had to be addressed. I hung the projector from the ceiling and ran the cables back to the sound area and created  and hung a simple screen of white fabric stretched over a frame. These things were not difficult or that expensive to accomplish, but worth the effort.

Now not only are most of our song lyrics on the screen, we can all look up and speak together when reading our vision and mission, offering blessing and the statement of belief. No more rustling in the bulletin for the newcomers who find what everyone is saying once it’s over, no more having folks who don’t read music confused about what to sing when faced with a repeat or coda.

Yes, there are a handful of folks in the congregation I serve who like having the music in their hands. I understand the sentiment, however music that supports the message and is congruent with what we are exploring in SEE (Spiritual Education & Enrichment) classes is the music team’s and my primary goal. Ask most people, but especially people who are seeking a new spiritual community, and they will tell you that when they get mixed signals about what a spiritual community, or any other organization. stands for they are going to be wary, and possibly look elsewhere.

As for sermons, I agree with the consensus of my survey, use of videos or pictures in sermons needs to be supportive of the message and not grandstand. In my theater days, we would consider a tech element and whether it was because it was moving along the story, or if we were showing off. If it was showing off, it was cut. I think this is a great test for projection usage as well.

 

Smartphones and Social Media

While the use of projectors has become relatively commonplace in our ministries, there are other technologies seeping in as well. Now that most of us have gadgets in our pocket or purse that a generation ago would have appeared to be alien technology, it is no surprise the debate on proper use of phones in the sanctuary is raging. I think we can all agree that turning off the ringer is the respectful and appropriate thing to do, but then what?

Some ministries report taking a quick picture before or during the service and posting to Facebook. Others invite congregants to check in on social media before ensuring phones are silent. These things are great steps, and are not that intrusive.

 

Videos

But what about Facebook Live (a live feed directly on Facebook of whatever you’re showing)? Is livestreaming necessary, or posting to YouTube later good enough? First of all, if you’re not posting videos of your talks, you’re missing out big time. People who are shopping for a spiritual community are going to check your website first, and having videos on your site give them a taste of what your congregation is about. If you’re not livestreaming, it’s something to consider, Facebook makes it easy, and it has the added advantage of your followers having it pop up in their feed instead of having to specifically browse to your livestream page. Another great advantage of Facebook Live is that the people watching can comment and engage, which builds community. My respondents who are utilizing Facebook Live had positive reports.

Whichever combination of video presence you choose, the setup doesn’t have to be complicated or have an effect on the in-person congregant’s experience.

 

Tweeting/Live Updating

What about tweeting or live updating? This is, I think, where we find the greatest divide. Personally I am perfectly happy taking notes on paper or electronically. That said, the most engaged and connected to a presentation I’ve ever felt was several years ago at Unity People’s Convention when about 10 of us were tweeting a storm during the keynotes. It may seem counter-intuitive, how can you pay attention when you’re doing something on your phone, but you wouldn’t think twice to wonder how someone can take notes on paper during a presentation.

During that convention it was collaborative note taking. In real time I could see the quotes that were meaningful to my fellow participants, I could catch things that I missed or misheard, and I had a feeling of connection to my fellow tweeters similar to if we were sitting next to each other nudging over a point we loved. But the bonus is that not only were we sharing the experience with the folks in the room, we were sharing it with the world. People who were not in attendance were following the hashtag and it was meaningful for them.

This kind of collaborative note taking and reaching beyond those in attendance can happen in our churches too. Not only does it build connection between people already attending, it is a neutral way for those tweeting to share your message with their followers, who may decide they like what they hear and choose to engage further with your community.

I can already hear the objections: that it’s distracting for congregants and it’s distracting as the minister. In my searching the web for this topic, I found some advice on making a smoother transition into tweeting: Share a clear and unique hashtag for people to use, invite people to tweet during the service (and even remind them that there may be times when silence is best, such as the meditation), explain briefly how this point of connection can benefit the congregation even if it seems distracting at first.

Finally, for the minister or spiritual leader who wonders if the person is taking notes or making a shopping list, you couldn’t tell when they were writing furiously on the paper you provided for that purpose, so don’t worry about it. The bonus is, if they are tweeting, you can learn about what is meaningful to your people, and you can engage with questions or comments afterwards. With the notes on paper you’ll never know.

 

Multiple Choices that Work

In short, technology in our spiritual communities is not going away. There are many ways to approach it, and each congregation has its own culture to consider. For the person who wants their hour in service to be a pause from their phone and the “outside” world, there is nothing stopping them. For the person who is inspired by your message to share it on social media, I say consider them an asset. Finally, having various ways to be spiritually nourished, especially through videos of sermons, is reaching beyond the walls and being in service to those who can’t attend because of schedule conflicts, travel or being home-bound.

Some decry technology as a distraction and departure from connection, and indeed it can be. But welcomed and used well, technology can serve as a medium for engagement, community and inclusiveness. You can do it!

 

Rachel Simpson
Rev. Rachel has served in various staff and volunteer capacities at Unity Worldwide Ministries and many local Unity ministries. She holds a Masters in Divinity from Unity Institute and Seminary, and a bachelor of arts in technical theatre with a minor in music from Central Washington University.

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  • Elizabeth Mora

    Great article, my friend.

    • Rachel Simpson

      Thanks!