- Associated Press - Saturday, March 7, 2015

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - Pastor Matt Santen doesn’t know if River Ridge is the most technologically advanced church in the valley, but he acknowledged they do have a lot of gadgets and gear. Some of it he understands better than others.

“Our band, they use loops?” Santen, 46, said, and shrugged. He grinned sheepishly. He wasn’t sure what they do.

Loops can be used to repeat rhythmic patterns or musical phrases or a number of others things to build sound.

“We also have some new lights,” he said. Those he understood a little better.

“They can be controlled by computer to create mood, to make a more worshipful environment,” Santen said. Previously, the church had used lights with gel filters.

“This is better,” Santen said, though he acknowledged the idea of paying attention to lighting might be too much for some people. “We try to use things to improve what we do.”

He added they try to adopt only those technologies they think won’t be a distraction from the business of serving their congregation.

River Ridge Church started out humbly. In 2002, it was just a loose group of about 20 people meeting at Santen’s house. As their numbers grew, they began meeting on Sundays at the Capitol Theater in Charleston before buying property and building their first location on Greenbrier Street in 2007.

They opened a second campus in Teays Valley, a year later.

River Ridge Church has flourished, partly because the church has tried to keep their generally upbeat, Biblical message current to the times and partly because they’ve embraced the advances available in these times.

River Ridge Church doesn’t look much like a traditional church. The entryway resembles a travel stop or the lobby at a ski lodge. Volunteers staff a desk for newcomers and a desk for people with questions about programs and groups within the church.

There are doughnuts, coffee and small tables for people to gather around before or after services.

The crowd is young: Lots of families with small children. There are a lot of teenagers, but not so many seniors. People dress casually for the most part.

The church sanctuary is more like a theater. Instead of hard, wooden pews, there are padded chairs. A worship band plays uplifting, modern Christian music. It sounds a lot like the kind found on Christian stations like Air-One or K-Love.

A team of people engineer the house sound and run the lights.

At the rear of the stage, well behind the pulpit, a video screen is used to illustrate examples, play testimonies from the recovered or recently baptized, as well as broadcast the words for the congregation to sing along with the band.

“The point is always the message, but we try to stay up to date,” the pastor said. He added with a laugh, “Well, I would say we try not to always be too far behind.”

Some of it is obvious: the lights, the computers and the flat screen televisions.

Others are less obvious. The church has a strong web presence. Their website is loaded with information about missions - small groups volunteer opportunities.

River Ridge also has a library of archived sermons, which are even available as podcasts on iTunes.

“I don’t even know how far they go back,” Santen said.

The past year is posted online.

Santen said the archived material is often replayed by people who miss a Sunday due to illness, work or travel. The archive is a convenience. Like a lot of other churches, the pastors at River Ridge will often preach sermons that are part of a larger series.

“You can pick it back up, if you miss,” Santen said.

What surprised him was the number of people who’ve listened to their sermons without first stepping through the door.

“We’ve had people listen before they come,” he said. “I mean, it makes sense. Maybe you’re looking for a new church or maybe you’re moving to town and you want to find a new church home.”

Logistically, that can be daunting. Sunday mornings are prime time for Christian churches, which makes it difficult to try more than one church on a single Sunday, let alone get an idea of what they’re really about.

Santen added, “Or maybe you haven’t been in a while and you’re looking to come back to church. You kind of want to know if they’re going to yell at you or if the message that’s being shared is relevant to your life.

“It’s a preview,” he said.

River Ridge also uses social media, though with some platforms, Santen said it was kind of spotty.

“We have a Twitter feed,” Santen said and then frowned. “I can’t say we do a lot with it.”

Instead, they lean heavily on Facebook, which he said their members seem to respond to.

“It’s what people use,” he said.

Much of their technology is aimed toward the young. Sunday teachers use different videos with their students.

“The videos are a little more advanced with the middle school kids,” Santen said. “There are more graphics and things that are used to illustrate a talk.”

River Ridge also has a computerized check-in/check-out system. Parents log their children into the church at a computer kiosk before they drop them off before attending the service.

It is similar to what some school systems use in their after school programs.

The kiosk prints out a pair of coded stickers. One is for the child. The other is for the parent.

“It’s about safety and peace of mind,” Santen said.

The pastor said they didn’t really worry so much about a stranger coming into the church and walking off with a child. They were more concerned with domestic problems and custody issues.

Santen prefaced it by saying, “We’ve never had it happen here, but a child who probably wouldn’t go with the stranger, might go with a grandmother.”

It’s a security feature, but the coded stickers are mainly used by volunteers to communicate with parents during the service.

“If your child wakes up from a nap, starts crying and won’t stop or if they don’t feel well, we can alert you without telling anyone we’re alerting you,” Santen said.

A message with the specific code for the child will scrawl across the screen telling parents to come back to the children’s area for a visit.

Santen said all of it, from their online presence and their security to the lights and even the loops, was about creating the right atmosphere.

“We want it all to point to the message,” he said. “We want to go toward God and away from the distraction.”


Information from: The Charleston Gazette, https://www.wvgazette.com

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