In a recent essay in New York Magazine, English author Andrew Sullivan states that “the greatest threat to faith today is not hedonism but distraction.” He criticizes how churches have traded their places of sanctuary and contemplative prayer for “spaces drowned with light and noise” and “emotional spasms.” He praises solitude and meditation as a balm for those who are drained from constant web interaction.
The quiet retreat of a contemplative church might draw what Sullivan calls “a frazzled digital generation” to its doors, but that doesn’t mean churches can expect to reach the app-addicted without having an online presence. According to Darrel Girardier, digital strategy director at Brentwood Baptist Church in Tennessee, churches will indeed have to start asking themselves how they will provide solace from those who are overly connected, but they can’t deny the impact they have when they become part of a person’s daily digital habit. “Whether we like it or not, this is going to be the future,” Girardier said. “We have to figure out how to get there.”
For two churches in Valdosta, Georgia, however, apps are the future they’re embracing right now.
The Virtual Gathering Place
Building an online presence for CrossPointe Church in Valdosta, Georgia, was never a question for its leaders. According to the church’s communications director, Janetta Oni, if there were simply one physical place in town where everyone gathered, the church would need to go there to meet and minister to people. The space to be right now, however, is virtual.
“All the media on people’s cell phones—Facebook and Instagram and apps—it would be irresponsible of us not to take the gospel there,” Oni said. “It would be negligent, actually.”
According to Oni, taking the church online is vital to keeping their established community close as well as connecting with newcomers. Having a mobile app, in particular, benefits the church population in a number of ways. With Moody Air Force Base nearby, families and individuals who once attended the church can relocate and still stay in touch with CrossPointe. The church’s app users can stream live videos of sermons, listen to podcasts produced or endorsed by the church, and keep in touch with their Bible study groups.
Offering a mobile app, she said, also gives smartphone users a practical way to engage with the sermon.
“Not everyone brings a pen and paper to church,” said Oni, “but everyone brings their cell phone.”
Justin Crenshaw, the youth and college pastor at Valdosta First United Methodist Church, said he has seen a huge increase in giving and other community engagement since the church began using an app two years ago for their contemporary worship service. The app was so widely used that the church has expanded its reach to the entire congregation, which consists of about 900 members.
“We’ve had a definite spike in people listening to podcasts, connecting to small groups, and giving,” Crenshaw said.
After seeing the data, Crenshaw said it’s critical that churches get online to be effective in reaching people. However, Crenshaw and Oni both said some of their older congregants still want printed copies of the weekly bulletin and information about upcoming events. They make sure those printouts are still available, so no one is left out.
The days of folding sheets of copy paper in the church office may not be over, but Crenshaw doesn’t see those days making a comeback, either.