Technology Enabled Churches

[Post originally made on March 30, 2015 at the blog Religion in American History.]

Last month the Barna Group released the latest in its surveys regarding the use of technology in America’s Protestant churches. Entitled, Cyber Church: Pastors and the Internet, the report notes that an overwhelming number of pastors and church leaders are embracing technology in the church for both personal use and for ministry. Wanting to get a direct assessment of the use of technology in the church, I reached out to Phil Cannizzaro, president of InfoTank, an Atlanta technology services company. InfoTank serves the technological needs of many Christian institutions within the Atlanta-metro area. Clients include Peachtree Presbyterian, the largest church within P.C.(USA), having over 7000 members, North Avenue Presbyterian Church, Holy Spirit Catholic Church, All Saints Catholic Church, Ambassadors for Christ, an Atlanta-based evangelical ministry, Women’s Community Bible Study, and numerous Christian schools including Holy Spirit Preparatory School, Atlanta Youth Academy, and Whitefield Academy.

Cannizzaro was quick to point out that, in general, churches use the same technology as any other profit or non-profit companies. The difference is not what is used, but how it is deployed. One area that he points out is a significant driver of technology use is church membership management. This is an area that the Barna Group makes no reference to, but Cannizzaro says is a major concern for every church he services. Capterra, a business-to-business technology consulting firm, lists over 50 different software packages in the church membership management space. Varying in cost from a few hundred to thousands of dollars, these software packages attend to various needs within the church including membership management, accounting, tithe and donation management, sermon management, and attendance tracking. The more sophisticated software packages often have web server modules that allow members to directly access and manage their account, updating contact information and tracking church giving. As the Barna Group points out, the larger the church and the more financial resources it has, the more likely it is to adopt technology to offer services and solve problems. Cannizzaro notes that the churches that have greater economic resources are willing to invest in customizations to software packages whereas churches with fewer resources are more willing to use software as is “straight out of the box.” One last point Cannizzaro makes about church management software is that the software packages are generally three to five years behind in technology adoption. Even though the market is large for church management software, it has its limits and there is no incentive for being innovative. Only once a technology is ubiquitous in other areas of society, is it likely to show up in the church management space.

In a 2008 report about technology use in Protestant churches, the Barna Group found that two thirds of churches had large screen projection systems in the sanctuary. Cannizzaro notes that his Protestant church clients also have projection systems in their sanctuaries and will use it in a variety of ways during services. One note of contrast, however, is that his Catholic Church clients do not have screens or projection systems within the sanctuary and have no interest in getting them in the future. Another Protestant/Catholic differences he finds in is the streaming of church services. Most of the Protestant churches he services broadcast their Sunday services on the internet. None of his Catholic church clients broadcast their Masses, and he said you’d be hard pressed to find many that do. It would seem while Protestant churches are interested in getting their Sunday Services to anyone in any way, Catholic churches are more focused on getting members to physically attend Mass and not participate through the mediation of online streaming video.

The 2008 Barna report notes that just over half the churches surveyed use email broadcasting to make announcements and keep membership aware of church events. Cannizzaro says this is also an important part of the churches he services. However, the way email is handled is, at times, more sensitive than a commercial environment that might email indiscriminately. Cannizzaro says that there are two kinds of emails sent out, the bulk emails that are usually self-managed, and the emails coming directly from the church back office to the individual members. The self-managed email systems include the daily devotionals, and announcements from various ministries within the churches. An individual might be able to select emails from the youth ministry and to get updates on the church missions. Such self-serve email management results in members and non-members getting the information they want with little to no hassle for the church. The other kinds of emails, however, are sent out with more care. These are the emails coming directly from the back office and demonstrate the kind of care a church will have with its membership. Cannizzaro said it is not uncommon for the ministers or priests to oversee mailings to members, often changing the email or simply eliminating it due to their knowledge of the family and its circumstances. This is especially true when communication is about church giving. The churches want to be especially sensitive about asking for donations if they know the family is having a hard time or is not in a position to give.

Barna’s 2015 report claims that pastors use technology and the internet extensively in the preparation of their sermons and other kinds of presentations. Cannizzaro noted that in the churches he services, all the church leadership embrace technology in their ministry, ranging from software with a variety of Bible translations, concordances, and the use of the internet to compare their take on a subject in comparison to sermons made by others. He also notes that for his clients, the use of smart phones, laptop computers, and tablets is common. A minister giving a sermon off a tablet or smart phone is a given. With this said, the use of screens and projections services do vary at his Protestant church clients. He noted that it is more common in the contemporary services for the projection screens to have slides and video supporting the service than in more traditional services. Another area in which mobile technology is becoming more common is instant giving. Cannizzaro claimed that more and more, congregants are asked to use their mobile technology to text or use some other means to give to a worthy cause, or support a church initiative. Other times the church will have laptops or tablets just outside the sanctuary so the members can give right on the spot after leaving the sanctuary. Having the technology to capture people’s willingness to give at the moment is significant and can really boost a chruch’s financial position.

Not surprisingly, technology was a significant part of church missions. The communications that the internet provides allows participants the ability to report progress and experiences on mission directly to the membership at home. The accounts can be augmented with pictures and video. Combined with websites, email lists, and media services, technology allows members supporting missions to participate vicariously, and see how their donations are being put to use around the world.

The Barna report found that only 11% of pastor’s interviewed believed the internet will provide all the religious needs of a person in the future. This is one point that Cannizzaro was adamant about. The technological services provided by his church clients were always in support of the in-person services of the church. The technology is to give members services that help them maintain connections with the church, but all the churches are primarily interested in encouraging members to come to the church and participate. This tension between physical and virtual participation is going to increase over the years to come. Moreover, as more and more people become accustomed to technological convenience in other areas of their life, they are going to demand similar conveniences from their churches. Today, technology is not seen in opposition to religion but is supportive. Over the years to come, more and more technology will mediate religious participation. Keeping track of how that technology is used will be important for scholars of religion. This is not a passing fad. It is only going to increase and is something we should keep in mind as we study the place of religion in America.

Inline Commenting

I just installed a new plug-in for my site that allows inline commenting. This means that in addition to a comment being posted at the bottom of a page, assuming a page allows comments, now the reader can add comments paragraph by paragraph. This allows a greater specificity to comments. This does not mean you should not put comments at the end, because it will add the comment to the page, at least in blog posts, but it does allow the ability to highlight exact content one wishes to comment on. The plug-in also allows you to subscribe to the thread and to the blog in general. I look forward to your comments, inline or otherwise.

American Religious Change and Caring for the Dead

[Originally posted on the Religion in American History blog on 1/30/2015]

Burial and caring for the dead has been traditionally something associated with religion. When we teach our introduction or defining religion classes, we frequently discuss what might be called religious behavior of prehistoric peoples. We point to the ways they buried their dead, including objects, arranging the body, and placing materials, like ochre, on and around the bodies. In some cultures, whole religions are associated with death and caring for the dead, such as Buddhism in Japan. In the United States, burial practices have often been influenced by prevailing religious attitudes. For instance, how one behaved in life influences if one can be buried in hallowed ground. In the South, it was not until after the Civil War that the undertaker became professionalized as a mortician who offered the services of embalming, shifting care of the body from a religious concern to a medicalized one. Yet, many Southerners were concerned about the effect of embalming on bodies when they were to be resurrected. As Charles Wilson writes, “The undertaker had trouble convincing many tradition-bound southerners to allow this tampering with the earthly remains of the temple of God.”

During this this period, cremation was also introduced to America by the Theosophical Society. The first cremation in America was in Washington, Pennsylvania. Henry Steel Olcott, of the Theosophical Society, organized the cremation of Baron Joseph Henry Louis Charles De Palm (pictured) on December 6, 1876. While Olcott’s motivation was a result of his orientalism, the sudden explosion of cremation after De Palm was led by other concerns including sanitation. Yet, there was much concern about whether cremation was compatible with Christianity. Stephen Prothero notes in Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America (2002) that despite many of the first participants in cremation coming from alternative religions, the vast majority were Christian and the debate about the suitability of cremation versus burial was an intra-Christian one (80-81).

Cremation, though, has become more and more popular over the last fifty years. According to the Huffington Post, in 2012, cremation was how 43.5% of all bodies were handled, up 1118.5% from 1958 in which only 3.6% of American bodies were cremated. But this trend intersects with another, the decline in participation with organized religion, and the increase of the spiritual but not religious (SBNR). What do the SBNR do with their bodies after death? It turns out there have been many responses, but most deal with remembering the person while forgetting the body.

Corpses are becoming less and less of an issue for people to be concerned with when a loved one dies. Upon death, the body is quickly taken away by morticians and funeral home staff. More and more, memorials are taking the place of funerals and viewings, meaning that once the body is in the possession of funeral home professionals, loved ones may never see the body again. Instead later they might just see a closed casket lowered into the ground or a box or urn containing ashes. Candi K. Cann notes that this dislocation of the body results in people looking for other means to remember the lost loved one as ways to deal with their grief. In Virtual Afterlives: Grieving the Dead in the Twenty-first century (2014), Cann writes, “Whether it is a memorial located at the place the body was last intact before its death, such as roadside memorials and the Sandy Hook Elementary memorial, or it is a memorial service held with cremated remains and no corpse, bodiless memorials are clearly indicative of the trend towards memorialization without bodies” (17).

 

Cremation is common with the SBNR and there are creative ways in which bodily disposal reflects the values of the departed. For instance, a recent product on the market targets the environmentally conscious offering a biodegradable urn that also is the basis for growing a new tree. Bios burial urn is made of organic materials which contain the ashes, but also have a place at the top for a tree’s seed. Before death, the individual can choose what kind of tree they want to be. Later, as the “spirit tree” grows, its roots spread into the ashes allowing the deceased to become nutrients for the tree. Trees can be planted anywhere, at least theoretically. However state laws vary regarding the disposal of cremated ashes. Other times the body is turned into a manufactured diamond, or combined with tattoo ink and embedded in the skin of loved ones. These types of memorials, whether a tattoo, or a flourishing tree allow people to “remember but not to encounter death itself” (Cann 18). But what about someone’s online presence? Most online companies now have policies of how to deal with one’s digital demise. One of the most common responses, though, is to create an online memorial. Of course there are companies that help with this.

Another implication of the bodiless memorial is that any place can become sacralized. In the past, the body denoted the places of remembrance, whether buried in a cemetery, or ashes kept in a columbarium. But when bodies are displaced, and the memory of the loved one becomes the focus, anything or anywhere can become embedded within the sacred. This matches how place, space, and objects become sacralized for the spiritual but not religious. No longer is a backyard just a backyard, now it can be the final resting place of mom or a tree becomes the spirit tree of dad. Personal fields of the sacred are negotiated in secular public spaces.

As the role of religion changes in America, so does its place in the care of the body, including its disposal. More and more, Americans are less capable of dealing with death. In the past there have been social customs of grieving over weeks, months or years, and taking pictures with the deceased, cleaned up and staged doing their favorite activities. However, as Cann points out, today society has little patience for prolonged, or complicated grief, as some psychologists call it. One of Cann’s points is that our society is so in denial about death that rarely do companies have bereavement policies, and when someone loses a loved one, it is considered a personal issue, no different than taking time off for a vacation. Similarly, just as death has been displaced from the day-to-day lives of people, bodies are displaced, and instead memorials emerge. It is here that the individual can be celebrated without the encumbrance of a corpse. These trends are likely to persist and increase. I also think, in contrast, there might be a back-lash response to the displacement of the body, a movement to bring the body back into view, and for family and friends to have more involvement with the care of the loved one. It remains to be seen. Playing attention to the care of the body will be a useful way to track the way religion is changing in America’s shifting religious landscape.