Come for the Tech, Stay for the Message

Lakewood Church - Joel Osteen

Lakewood Church - Joel Osteen

“In saecula saeculorum” hums from the Sunday parishioners in a rhythmic unison. Their minds, however, make an effort to translate the phrase... “Forever and ever.” Prior to the Second Vatican Council, practicing Catholics were quite familiar with Latin phrases recited during their Sunday worship. Up until this 1959 assembly, the entire mass was recited in the Latin tongue. Although Latin is held dear to their faith, the language imposed a barrier to understanding. This, along with a number of other religious matters, was an issue that the Second Vatican Council sought to rectify. Perhaps more important than the issues were the subsequent results, which were so successful that it is widely considered one of the most important reformation councils in the history of the Church.

The Second Vatican Council was not a form of submission to internal pressure. What it did show was that an institution founded 2000 years prior was open to change. Without a shred of doubt, much has changed since 1959. It’s unlikely that Pope Francis will call together a Third Vatican Council, but that doesn’t mean the Church should be resistant to change, particularly with new technology. As regional churches amend their facilities to meet the expectations of the younger generation, an indirect benefit becomes apparent: an increase in the church's production value.

Although the Church is generally seen as an institution rooted in tradition, it is cognizant of the fact that the younger age group tends to be less religious than older generations. The consequence is that the Church must make strides to connect with the younger crowd, often through a combination of personal and technological outreach. A conversation with Steve Austin of Lakewood Church, a pastor and Senior Director at the largest church in America, revealed their current efforts and attitudes towards the modern atmosphere of houses of worship. Pastor Austin affirmed that there is a much lower attendance record with the younger generation, but remarked that he was quite optimistic regarding the future of the Church. He was hesitant to pinpoint a reason for the prevalence of secular attitudes but mentioned that technology likely has played a contributing role. “With that,” he remarked, “technology still offers a force for good.” He’s certainly right. Pastor Austin later indicated that technology had given rise to some of Lakewood Church’s most widespread forms of communication. Alongside social media, television and their website, experiential technology has helped spread their message in a way that is far more personal. This level and scope of communication have never been greater, but as Pastor Austin observed… “there’s still a lot to work on, but we’re moving in the right direction.”

The question with technology is often where the Church should move next. There’s no shortage of opportunities for the Church, but the sheer size and pace of technology often evokes option paralysis: the tendency, when given an unlimited number of options, to choose none. With churches like Lakewood leading the pack, many have already made their marks on platforms that encourage mass communication. When asked if there are any other noticeable differences between the younger and older generations, Pastor Austin made an immediate reference to social media. “It changes the way we interact,” he remarked. Admittedly, the way we interact will continue to change as technology does, and that direction appears to be more experiential and more personalized. The penultimate goal of the Church is to increase the physical presence of the younger audience, and they’re willing to adopt facets of technology if they believe it’ll help them reach that goal. Perhaps a more equitable solution isn’t to treat technology and personal outreach as two separate entities, but rather as one. This solution would require that churches integrate technology into their activities and events so that younger people come for the tech, but stay for the message.

The question regarding option paralysis still remains. Which aspects of personalized technology should the Church opt for? There are many answers to this question, but they should begin by looking toward enhancing events that already attract younger people. Many churches have youth groups, teenage community events, and some even have youth-oriented masses and sermons. One option is to use interactive screens that blend the elements in a way that is both engaging on a technological and personal level. These screens have the ability to mingle educational and religious content to enrich the worship experience. Their applicability isn’t limited to the teenage audience either. Pastor Austin defined his younger audience as anyone who falls within the age range of the mid-teens to the early 30’s. The tail end of that age group also tends to have children of their own. The children often enrolled in church-based social groups and children's ministries, hold interactive screens to the highest regard. These screens allow children to socialize with one another in a safe and creatively productive environment. Mesmerized by an array of entertaining colors and religious animations, children and their parents find these screens to be persuasively enjoyable. Churchgoers will continue to look for the family-friendly Sunday experience; to achieve this ideal, churches will need to create an atmosphere that both enlightens and engages the audience using a blend of religious imagery and experiential technology.

Even in the presence of an ever-changing world, religious optimism stands as a staple of the faith. How the Church chooses to integrate technology will remain important to their development, but as Pastor Austin remarked, “There are two sides to technology, but we can use them for good.”

John GranahanComment