by Rev. Angela Denker
I’ve always been a big fan of integrating technology into my ministry. During my pastoral internship in Las Vegas, our church livestreamed all five worship services, and pastors were expected to use images and slides for all their sermons. Later in ministry, in my third call, my responsibilities included recording a weekly podcast and developing creative, technology-centered sermon series and worship ideas that would work on a screen.
But more recently, in December 2019, I accepted a call that I planned to use as a step backwards from all-encompassing technology-centered worship. Serving as the three-quarter-time solo pastor at Grace Lutheran Church in a small town in Southwestern Minnesota, I planned to return to hymnals, bulletins and … no screens! I was excited to return to a simpler way of ministry, to get back to “basics,” so to speak.
Well, like so many of us in ministry during 2020, the pandemic threw all my best-laid plans into never-ending chaos. When our state started Stay-at-Home orders in late March, my church’s ministry moved online: whether I liked it or not. I had to quickly teach myself how to use Facebook Live, create groups on social media for church members, and turn my home office into a makeshift worship space. I learned to stack my sons’ puzzle boxes underneath my laptop before service, and slant the monitor just so, so that both my son and myself were visible in the screen. Yes, I did enlist an 8-year-old as a worship assistant for a time.
Six months later, the use of technology has continued to be a central part of worship during this time of COVID-19. Our church continues to livestream all our worship services, even bringing an iPad and a tripod outside during our summer outdoor worship services. We recently bought a WiFi extender to supplement our sometimes-slow rural internet, and I’ve learned some rudimentary iMovie skills to make videos with photos and movies from church members for special services.
Still, the unfortunate truth about technology (and maybe about life as well) is that the more you learn, the more you realize that you don’t know. Few people viewing an online worship service or presentation can grasp what went on behind the scenes to make that worship service happen, and even fewer among us (with the exception of software engineers) understand the complex coding and algorithms that make livestreaming and Zooming possible.
After years of lamenting the constant technological changes in the world, and the advent of “screen addiction” among “young people,” in 2020 churches across America were dragged, kicking and screaming, into forced technological aptitude. Now, few among us have a church without a website, without a social media presence and without an online worship option.
But as we’ve just begun to learn to grow in faith online, we’ve all begun to realize how little we know. It’s in these moments that we do well to turn to the experts among us, those pastors and church leaders who’ve been leading digital worship and sharing technological tools for years.
I interviewed three of those people to learn more about how technology has changed their ministry, what this year has meant to them and what advice they have for the rest of us. Their stories are honest, inspiring and full of hope and potential—as well as pitfalls to avoid.
Veronica Britto: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Day job: Administrative Librarian at the Free Library of Philadelphia
Ministry work: Volunteer in Women and Youth Ministries
Veronica Britto has been interested in using technology in ministry since she was a teenager, when she attended Evergreen Youth Television and learned about video production, writing, directing and editing video content from a faith and values perspective. She later returned to EYTV as an intern and employee, producing videos for faith-based nonprofits such as Holden Village in Washington state.
“My years at EYTV created a hunger for knowledge in how technology can be used to share the gospel beyond the church’s physical walls,” she said. “Today, I use several social media platforms and videoconferencing to reach my congregation and those beyond my church family.”
As a lay leader and volunteer, Britto said one of the most difficult parts of her work is explaining to church council members how important it is to have a social media presence and why that work requires the church members’ time, talent and treasure.
“Many people participate in the cost-free versions of their favorite social media outlets … they don’t realize that it takes time, money and creativity to create and distribute content that is engaging, meaningful and diverse to the larger community.”
Britto cites the work of Southeastern Pennsylvania Bishop Pat Davenport and assistant to the Bishop, the Rev. Bob Fisher, as helpful in integrating technology at her congregation. She attends a weekly communication meeting led by Rev. Fisher to troubleshoot technology with other lay and rostered leaders.
“It has been a great help!” Britto said.
One of Britto’s biggest successes this year has been getting nearly 100% of her congregation to participate in weekly Sunday worship via Zoom. She said the process took months and even involved sending out physical letters to the congregation, but eventually the hard work paid off, even in an older congregation.
About half of St. Peter’s members attend worship by calling into Zoom via phone, but they can still participate in the service this way, even without a laptop or a smartphone. Members via phone can read the Gospel, recite the Apostles’ Creed or even lead a praise and worship song. Another church member, the Rev. Clesha Staten, helped St. Peter’s update its website.
Still, even as she celebrates successes, Britto says it’s been hard being the only person in the congregation responsible for setting up weekly Zoom worship and difficult to figure out ways to resume church life outside of worship services via the internet. She has been grateful for the support of elementary school teachers in the congregation, who have helped bring back ministries such as church council, Sunday School, women’s ministry meetings and an Advent Bible Study, all online.
Britto recommends that church leaders join Facebook groups to get technology assistance for ministry, as well as asking Synod offices to help connect you to congregations who are already doing this work. She suggests creating a tech team to divide the many technological needs of congregations and to focus on inclusion, so that your church “doesn’t lean too heavily on a technology that your congregation or community can’t access or easily adapt.”
Implementing new technology requires time and research, and Britto says it’s important to take time to get it right before plunging in and launching. Considering your audience, the average age of the congregation, and the congregation’s tech resources are all important steps before determining how to use technology at your church. Content should also be relevant, relatable, and connected to the gospel and the teachings of your faith.
“Remember, this is a representation of your church or organization, and personal opinions are for your own channels,” Britto said.
She suggests forgiving yourself when things don’t go right. In the world of technology, trial and error is a necessary step.
David Hansen: The Woodlands, Texas
Pastor of Spirit of Joy! Lutheran Church
Born at the tail end of Generation X, Pastor David Hansen first began using technology as a young adult, when online communities allowed him to connect with others around health issues and shared passions.
After becoming ordained as a Lutheran Pastor in 2006, it felt natural for him to integrate these online communities and technology into his ministry.
“I immediately began to explore how technology could help us to connect with new people and strengthen our connections to one another,” he said. “Digital tools have been a part of (my) ministry since day one.”
As he began working with technology in ministry almost 15 years ago, Hansen encountered a common resistance in the church to “new things,” both inside his congregation and beyond. He said it was common to be asked to justify how spending time in online community was ministry. But especially in 2020, that climate has changed.
“The mistrust of online community has been slowly changing over the last decade,” he said, “and has quickly faded during the last year.”
Hansen says the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated changes that were already in motion, as the church was forced to embrace technology rapidly. His own congregation experienced a big upswing in small group ministry when its members realized the convenience of online videoconferencing.
Even as one of the first pastors to embrace digital ministry, Hansen has had a hard time without the physical, face-to-face contact with his church community on Sunday mornings.
“It is a mix of intimacy as we engage in one-on-one conversations, alongside the broad connection of all being in the same place at the same time,” Hansen said. “The biggest difficulty is realizing that nothing we are doing is quite scratching that itch.”
Still, Hansen isn’t giving up. He tells other church leaders that the most important thing they can do is: Experiment! Experiment! Experiment!
“We are all learning as we go. Don’t be afraid to try something and have it fail,” Hansen said. “And when it fails, stop doing it. Nothing you are doing needs to be a permanent solution. See a need. Try a solution. If it works, awesome. If it doesn’t, learn and move on.”
Like Britto, Hansen recognizes the essential nature of technology-based ministry as being rooted in trial and error. Even as churches find it hard to end programs and ideas that aren’t working, Hansen’s advice makes it easier for churches to move forward and focus on the future—instead of the past. But giving up on one idea just means there’s room to try another one.
“The biggest mistake I see is when congregations give up too quickly,” Hansen said. “Building an online community takes time. When starting out, it takes more work to get things off the ground—it can feel like you are talking to yourself! But with time, momentum builds up, and it becomes easier.”
Brian Norsman: Mahtomedi, Minnesota
Pastor of Spiritual Formation at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church
Beginning his career in children’s and youth ministry, Pastor Brian Norsman was always looking for ways to implement technology and fun into his church work.
“I’ve always had a knack to research and leverage technology to do creative church ministry with greater impact and reach,” he said, remembering that 30 years ago he would lead Polaroid scavenger hunts, “way before cell phone selfies.”
Norsman’s early ministry work also included creative youth group videos as ways to include kids who might not otherwise be attracted to church.
But Norsman said he didn’t intentionally think about technology in ministry until he was a student at Wartburg Seminary more than 20 years ago. He was working at the Center for Youth Ministries and doing an interim project focused on “facilitating the power of the internet creatively for families in the home.”
At a time when few churches even had websites, Norsman was ahead of the curve. He created a faith-at-home online family ministry plan based on the Four Keys of faith formation. Then, after leaving seminary, he’s implemented missional technology through screens in worship, church websites, one of the first-ever church apps, live worship streaming platforms and an online ChMS system for real-time data and pastoral care.
In his work as mission developer of The Depot Church, Norsman was eager to use his technological expertise in communicating and growing the community. But he said many times it seems the church is the last to invest in technological systems and infrastructure.
“Feeding the hungry and ministering to the vulnerable is much easier to advocate for in church,” Norsman said. “Yet, implementing technology for missional purposes is also ministry and mission. Over time, communicating the gospel in innovative ways through technology helps connect even more people in mission.”
Norsman said one challenge of doing ministry today is peoples’ shrinking attention spans, with the popularity of short videos on apps like TikTok, YouTube and Snapchat. It’s gotten harder and harder to grab the attention of distracted people for worship online.
“Churches have to think about ways to creatively engage online audiences in bite-sized chunks,” he added.
Norsman’s preparatory technology work served his current congregation well in the age of COVID. In the Fall of 2019, St. Andrew’s tested a new interactive livestreaming platform that curates chat, live prayer and online connections during live or on-demand worship services. Because the congregation had already been using this technology, it was easier to move to full online worship during the pandemic. Prior to COVID, Norsman was even able to help lead the online team in worship from a beach in the Caribbean!
In 2020, that online streaming platform has enabled worship services weekly, as well as a special experiences for Good Friday, VBS, confirmation weekends and a weekly digital family Sunday School experience.
“In many ways, this online platform has helped us create a digital online campus that will continue to expand online, as well as connect and reach far more people all over the world, wherever they are.”
Despite this success, Norsman said his congregation has been dealing with peoples’ online meeting “fatigue,” in late 2020.
“It seems difficult at times for people to commit faithfully to one more online space in their lives,” he said. “They are either ‘Zoomed’ out or just ready to resist online by the time we offer one more digital alternative.”
One solution has been providing more online content on-demand rather than live, such as video classes, podcasts and social media posts.
Norsman said he’s convinced the post-COVID world will never be the same in communities, businesses and churches.
“We won’t have a choice to either stay offline in person or go online,” he said. It will be ‘both/and.’”
Norsman sees both online and in-person ministry offerings as worthy of future investment for worship, youth ministry and discipleship, and he said people are beginning to expect excellence coupled with authenticity to the church’s context.
But he warns against trying to do everything all at once.
“Begin with one thing like livestreaming worship, test it and do it well,” Norsman said. “Develop a plan for IT and technology and work the plan in your budget as part of your strategic plan.”
Like Hansen, Norsman has experienced resistance to change in the church, and he often hears the words: “We’ve always done it that way.” But a gift of COVID has been to force creativity, innovation and an end to fear-dominated rhetoric in the church about technology. Now is the time for churches to try new things and take chances.
“Believing that technology will magically happen one day in the future is not prudent,” Norsman said. “You have to plan now and continually invest in systems, people and platforms. Livestreaming, digital giving, social media platforms, church apps and church management systems are some of the minimum technological vehicles of grace to thrive in ministry in the future. COVID-19 has only accelerated what the church has needed to do for some time to expand the reach of the gospel message.”
Like Britto, Norsman emphasized that technology in ministry works best when done in a team. He said that he has been encouraged and amazed by the way that “artists show up to creatively do ministry” in the church. More important than financial investment is for churches to invest in creative, innovative and risk-taking leaders who will be confident enough to try new things.
“Trust that the Spirit can use you and your teams to do things never before done in ministry in ever-surprising ways,” Norsman said.
Angela Denker is a Lutheran pastor and veteran journalist who lives in Minneapolis with her husband, Ben, and two boys, Jacob and Joshua. Angela is the author book, Red State Christians: Understanding the Voters who elected Donald Trump,
Categories: December 2020: "The Theology of Technology"