- Associated Press - Sunday, July 6, 2014

GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) - A baby dedication. That soul-stirring sermon. Raised communion cups.

Text it. Tweet it. Tag it on YouTube.

Churches and other houses of worship that once reminded those in the pews to turn their phones off before services now are encouraging their congregations to post to Facebook as the inspiration hits them.

“If the public Wi-Fi is down for some reason, we’ll hear about it,” Wayne Bennett, the communications director at Grace Community Church, says of the people who take this charge to heart.

The expanding digital world has birthed this electronic church - the new evangelism - and some congregations are finding that it’s bringing the curious to their doors.

Digital media allows anyone with a keyboard to take a virtual step inside a church in the same way that potential homebuyers can get a floor-by-floor look inside a real estate property on the market.

It’s sometimes the first step for people looking for a church without having to visit a bunch of them.

Local religious leaders know that what’s on their websites might just get someone in the door. What people in the pews tweet is often the best invitation, they say.

A major faith study shows a growing population of people called “nones,” who select no religious affiliation at all but say they are spiritual, said the Rev. Ann Marie Alderman, the minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greensboro. Her intentionally liberal church community believes personal experience, conscience and reason should be the final authorities in religion and not a book or a person or an institution.

“We feel we are best postured to be attractive to people like that if they knew about us,” Alderman said, so she mentions social media at the start of every gathering.

“We tell them to put their cellphones or iPads in worship mode and to feel free to text or tweet - to send messages to whoever it is who is following them to share what they hear or are experiencing,” she said.

“Their friends may know them as pretty cool people and may not think of them as being in church, and when they tweet a message while sitting there … we hope that’s having the impact of people not being afraid to come and experience it for themselves.”

Some of the people who have visited World Victory International Christian Center have said they did so based on something they saw on the church’s website or social media, said Stephanie Morehead, who leads the social media ministry, which is made up of both adults and teenagers. The church is into Instagram, Facebook and Twitter - and making connections.

World Victory International, like the Summit Church in Kernersville, posts its sermons online.

Other churches have also explored ways to use digital media. First Presbyterian has a webcam so members can watch a renovation project as it occurs, and Evangel Fellowship Church of God in Christ texts daily videos spoken by Pastor Otis Lockett Jr.

“We did not even have a presence at all on social media, and then in the last year, we kind of tested the waters a little bit to see the effect it would have, and it has been a powerful tool,” Morehead said. “So many more people know about us.”

The digital movement is reminiscent of the frenzy in the 1970s and 1980s to produce radio or television broadcasts, said Jim Trammell, assistant professor of electronic media at High Point University. Trammell recently received an award from an international journalism education organization for his paper “Want to Feel the Love of Christ? There’s an App for That: Understanding Tablet Media as the New Electronic Church.”

“Now a lot of churches are like, ‘We have to have a website. If we don’t have a website, we are in trouble,’?” Trammell said.

Some, such as Lawndale Baptist Church, offer a “Take a Look” section, with music samples, podcasts and a video of a baptism.

And those in the pews are keeping up with what’s available to them.

Not only is technology influencing how people connect with the physical church, it also is spawning a whole support industry.

There’s a menu of apps available, including the Deaf Bible, which uses sign language. Another is billed as a one-on-one conversation with Jesus. And people are exploring.

Shirley Rogers bought an iPad while shopping on Black Friday, and it was soon her constant companion on Sunday mornings at Grace Community Church. She might post “I’m waiting for worship and the word” as her Facebook status just before service.

But it’s the apps that give her chapter and verse, from Genesis to Revelation, that she says have enhanced her worship.

“By the time I found it, he was on to another one,” Rogers said of thumbing through her printed Bible to find the Scriptures her pastor was quoting.

She is also able to make notes and save passages that she can return to later.

Others around her, she said, are doing the same with their smartphones - something that decades ago she wouldn’t have imagined.

“You couldn’t do anything in church years ago,” Rogers said. “You had to sit there with your legs straight.”

Some people don’t even come into the church. Webcasting allows those at home or at the beach to hear a pastor’s sermon at the same time as those in the congregation, and some of the applications available to churches are free. World Victory International, Morehead’s church, uses Livestream to connect people with their pastor, Bishop Adrian Starks.

“Whether they come or not, our goal is not necessarily to draw them to World Victory International Christian Church, it’s to draw them to Christ,” Morehead said.

The webcasts also are a convenience for those who can’t attend services because they have to work or are home with an illness.

Still, most churches hope that those who happen upon a church’s online ministry eventually will make it into the pews.

Most churches have practical reasons for that: keeping the lights on in the building and funding ministry work. Congregations usually take up offerings to support the church.

When Alderman’s church revamped its Web page, it was important for there to be a ” Donate ” button on the sermon page - and it has produced results, she said.

“The culture is shifting. … What we’re finding is when people feel moved or you are meeting a need of theirs, they will make a donation,” Alderman said.


Information from: News & Record, https://www.news-record.com

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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