March 9, 2020

How is Shifting Technology Impacting Local Ministry

“Where can I buy that study guide?” a parishioner asked me ten years ago when I launched St. George’s Sunday morning bible study. There was not then, nor is there now, a bookstore in St. Mary’s County, Maryland. There was a used book store in our County seat, but I wasn’t sure they had multiple copies of the study guide for Romans; in fact, I was certain they didn’t have a single copy.

“Amazon,” was the answer I had in my head, but instead I offered to pick up a bunch of copies the next time I was up the road at the Virginia Seminary. Now, even that Seminary doesn’t have a bookstore!

Technology, they tell us, is constantly changing. Some people are quick to add words like ‘updating’ and ‘improving’, and they’re the ones who tell me how much more streamlined and efficient their lives are now that they’ve downloaded this app or they manage their thermostats or answer their doorbells with this new thing. Yes, technology is changing, and constantly changing, and yet that’s equally frightening for a lot of us, especially late adapters such as myself.

In the past ten years, here are the Ten Biggest Technology Shifts I’ve experienced on the ground as a parish priest, and what impact they’ve exerted on local congregational ministry.

1. Amazon. Ten years ago, I bought most of my books on Amazon, but I wasn’t sure I could recommend that to most of my parishioners. Now, pretty much everyone else gets books – and lots of other stuff – on Amazon, and it’s no big deal. I still mourn the loss of local bookstores, and I’m not certain this (or any of these tech ‘improvements’ are actual improvements) but it’s a fact of life.

2. Desktop publishing has become even easier. We’ve gone from RiteBrain software (on a CD, at that!) to Google image searches. Desktop publishing has become much more standard, attractive, impactful, and easier. What impact is this exerting on our tradition of common prayer, now that local congregations can create their own bulletins and images and Google all kinds of prayer resources? This is a big deal, and not without its own benefits and challenges.

3. Internet availability is much more widespread. I know this is not true across the board, and my own (semi)-rural County doesn’t have 100% internet access for all our citizens, but the vast majority of people, today, have internet. We used to keep a fairly lengthy list in our parish office of “people who don’t have internet / email.” That list, I think, is now down to 5 people.

4. Wifi is an expectation. “What’s the Wifi password?” I get that question more than any single question at the start of a meeting these days. Wifi is now a standard utility, and creating a truly integrated system, with excellent security measures to protect important data, and easy to use and remember passwords is an expectation, today.

5. Social media is standard, Facebook is old. Social media is a standard place and forum of communication, and now the parish weekly email distribution seems like a holdover from yesterday – even while it remains a fixed component of most basic communication strategies. Facebook is a given, especially because the average age of the average Facebook user is like that of the average Episcopalian. There are lots of newer social media sites, but if I were to list what’s hot and trending I’d just as soon show how outdated I am, too!

6. Nearly everyone has a smartphone. I didn’t get my first cell phone until 2005. I didn’t get my first smartphone until 2013. (Yes, I’m a late adapter.) Nowadays, I don’t know how I navigated places, answered emails, communicated with people, and pretty much existed without one. I know there are lots of people who don’t have smartphones, but they are increasingly the exception. Therefore, websites and email newsletters need to be set up for mobile viewing, just as much as on a desktop or laptop.

7. From text to images. Images dominate, and text is there to support the power of that image. Also, images of people engaging with other people exert the greatest impact, certainly better than empty, well-appointed churches. This trend was already well in place ten years ago – websites were already, back then, moving from text-heavy to more images, scrolling images even. This is a trend that will only continue with increasing pace.

8. Texting for business. Text messaging is a standard means of communication, now, just like messaging via social media. Not that long ago, texting and messaging via social media were for short threads with close friends. Nowadays, this is standard business practice – letting folks know about a meeting, telling someone on a committee that you’re running late. Texting for business, and communicating via social media messaging, still feels weird to lots of folks (myself included), but it’s a movement underway.

9. Phone calls are the new home visit, or the new handwritten note. All of that said, an actual phone call these days cuts through a lot of the noise and distraction. A real, live phone call is such a gift, and it’s becoming the new home visit, or at least the new hand-written note. A side benefit of these ongoing tech improvements is that most phone calls have little to do with business or catching up – that was already done via texting, social media messaging, websites, and emails. Now, a phone call is a genuine opportunity for a good old fashioned heart-to-heart.

10. Home visits and hand-written notes are still exceptional and important. On top of all of this, home visits, hospital visits, and hand-written notes (“Just thinking of you…” “Happy birthday…” “You are in my prayers…” “Thank you for your gift…”) are still so important – and such gifts of real human connection.

As I close, I want to hasten to add that I recognize the serious ethical implications to a lot of the technological shifts and so-called improvements we’ve experienced, and will continue to experience. I’m not saying that all of these, above, are universally good things. I am saying that these are real things, and clear shifts in the way we interact, communicate, live and move and have our being.

I also firmly believe that the church, the Body of Christ, needs to remember and celebrate our counter-cultural heritage, too. So it’s okay to buy books on Amazon and, at the same time, mourn the loss of local small businesses; it’s okay to communicate with your Vestry via text and, at the same time, wish for greater, more sustained communal human interactions and norms.

How, then, can church leaders use and, at the same time, rise above these technological changes and carve out a place in our communities for “restoring all persons to unity with God and each other in Christ,” that is, carry forward the mission of the church in our time and setting?