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Va. church goes high-tech to spread the gospel

ROANOKE, Va. – Roanoke pastor Quigg Lawrence remembers “looking very preacherly” a while back as he officiated a wedding in his white robe, as people like him have done for centuries.

But if you had looked past the traditional garb, you would have noticed he was reading the ancient vows from the most recent model of Apple’s iPad. He stealthily launched the camera app and filmed as the bride and her father walked down the aisle. After the service, he posted the video to all the usual social media sites.

It was a big hit, he recalled, doing little to mask the pride on his face.

For those who know Lawrence, this is nothing out of the ordinary. This tech-savvy pastor is just part of a growing trend of churches using mobile technology to spread the gospel.

“Dude, I preached from an iPad the week the first iPad came out,” Lawrence said. “I wasn’t trying to be showy with it, but a lot of times my printer is down or I don’t have ink. So it’s just easier to put it on the iPad.”

Church of the Holy Spirit, the Anglican ministry in southwest Roanoke County where Lawrence preaches, is one of the only churches in the area with its own smartphone app designed to serve its members.

The app has been downloaded 880 times in the year it has been available – not bad considering the congregation consists of less than 1,500 members.

It features a home screen with buttons to get directions, announcements, calendar listings, blog posts from the pastors. It lets you tithe online and stream audio or video of sermons.

One churchgoer said he usually uses it when he misses a service. When he’s working out or driving in his car, he can at least get a taste of that week’s message.

“Any kind of program we put in place, whether it’s a ministry, an event, an app, whatever, the goal is to cultivate relationship, build community,” said Justin Carlson, the church’s worship arts director and young adults minister. “I’ve found it is a good way to connect people with what we’re doing.”

The app was inspired by a similar one at a church in Charlotte, N.C. When a member saw theirs, he donated the money for Church of the Holy Spirit to get its own.

It’s powered by Subsplash, a software design company that makes low-maintenance apps for churches across the United States. Their apps start at $499. After startup, churches pay a monthly fee based on what services they want it to include.

Subsplash first ventured into the church app industry when its developers created one as a gift for their home church in 2009. A short time later they were contacted by another church that wanted one, and then another.

Today, churches are the largest part of Subsplash’s business. They have built several thousand apps for congregations ranging from 25 members to 25,000. Some for churches with well-known pastors have been downloaded more than 100,000 times.

They’re just one of the many software companies that are making sure if you’re looking for eternal salvation – there’s an app for that.

“It’s a great tool for expanding your reach and getting your ministry’s content out there,” Subsplash marketing coordinator Krissy Schoeffling said. “We want to get the truth of Jesus out there. It’s Twitter, and Facebook, and websites, and it’s definitely apps.”

Heidi Campbell, who studies the intersection of new media, religion and digital culture with a team of students at Texas A&M, said religious apps have been popping up for about five years now. Some communities are still shedding the taboo of cellphones in church, but they’re already gaining traction in urban areas where smartphones are a more central part of everyday life.

“When they go to the Bible reading, they don’t say pull out your Bible. They say pull out your smartphones,” Campbell said. “And they have the apps they recommend that you would download to get the readings of the week. But they expect people to be reading, following along, taking notes on their iPhone. Some of them had a Twitter wall so they might even be expecting them to tweet during the services.”

She said religious groups focused on reaching out to new followers are usually the first to adopt these technologies. Evangelical Christians, progressive Muslims and certain sects of Judaism have historically all used them in similar ways.

“They see new technology as an avenue for doing outreach and mission. They see it as a neutral technology and it depends on how you craft it and cultivate it,” she said. “So, if your focus is you want to outreach, then digital culture provides you with those tools. That’s where the people are so you have to use them.”

Lawrence said Church of the Holy Spirit uses technology to “lower the ramp” to those who have never been part of a congregation before.

“The church is always celebrating the invention of the printing press 100 years late,” he said. “Church is always 100 years behind the technology of the world. And we’re like, well we’re not trying to be worldly, but why would you not use it?”

A Sunday service at Church of the Holy Spirit is an amusing mix of centuries-old tradition bred with all the hippest trends of the digital era.

The church recently hired a new video pastor. The worship leader uses a special stand with Bluetooth foot pedals to hold an iPad instead of sheet music. Tithing can be done online. It’s even considering putting a kiosk in the lobby where the congregation and visitors could swipe a debit card for donations.

Sanctuary stage lighting is run from a booth in the back row. It’s fully programmable and can splash the crowd with colorful lights like you would see at a concert. That feature – and the fog machine of course – are saved for less formal occasions like Vacation Bible School.

The church even took the prayer books out of the pews and stopped printing a newsletter in favor of a blog.

“When we started doing all that stuff, some of the older people (said), ‘I don’t know how to use the World Wide Web,?’” Lawrence said. “We’re like, ‘For the five or six really old people, we’ll print it out for you.?’”

But the changes at this and many other churches aren’t about the older members. Lawrence said it’s about going after the “lost generation.”

“We very intentionally reach the 20-somethings,” he said. “Honestly, that’s why I hired a video pastor. We’re not using flannel-graph anymore. In the old days the church had this flannel and they would stick things on it and, hey, that was cool.

“My thought is what good is a church if they ignore 20- to 30-year-olds? Guess what: The people in their 70s, they’re going to die. When they die, who’s behind them? It’s spiritually important and it’s the right thing to do. But also, practically, why would you ignore a huge percentage of your population? It’s nuts.”

Church of the Holy Spirit is always on the lookout for the newest avenue to reach younger Christians. Of course it has a Facebook page and is on Twitter, but Lawrence said he can already sense those platforms fading in popularity.

“That’s the whole thing about technology,” he said. “If it was cool two years ago, it’s not going to be cool next year. So technology changes, the message doesn’t change.”

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