Last Sunday I paid a visit to a local church here in Memphis out of respect for the pastor, who proved to be an invaluable resource for a past project in which I looked at the role of small, grassroots churches in facilitating social capital and information amongst its members (I conducted participant observation there, interviewed various church members and staff, and recruited participants for subsequent stages of research for the project).
The two-and-a-half hour service was quite enjoyable, first and foremost because the pastor is an excellent preacher who kept my attention with his speaking and story-telling abilities. Not surprisingly, I began to assess the context and social interactions I was witnessing through an anthropological lens, because no matter where I am, my anthropological radar is always on at full power, kind of like Spidey-sense. One thing that really struck me was how various forms of technology had been integrated into the church to enhance the member experience.
Now I’m not usually one to attend church and haven’t been for quite some time (years?), so this may not be new to some people. But remembering back to the times I did go, I do not remember such a prevalence of technological improvements but more of a traditional churchy experience that was actually quite boring (after all, I was a kid). For example, the entire service was visible to all on a giant screen projection above the altar (not sure if that’s the correct term), as well as highly audible via an excellent sound system. DVD copies of the service were available for purchase immediately afterward at the “Media Booth”. I was also impressed by the videography taking place, with multiple camera people and the integration of biblical verses and images onto the screen up above (not to mention contemporary Christian music in the background).
Perhaps the most intriguing form of technology I observed was when various individuals took out their cellphones and opened up mobile Bible apps when the pastor asked the congregation to turn to a particular book of the Bible. Bibles were not provided at this church and most people didn’t carry them as far as I could tell. I couldn’t get a good count of how many people actually used apps for this purpose, but at least two young women within my vicinity did.
This got me thinking in general about how technology has enhanced church-going and made it more convenient for people. One of the earliest examples I can think of is the ability to view church services on television, which makes it easier for those who can’t get out of the house or who want to watch services broadcast from other parts of the country or by famous preachers. Churches (and other religious institutions) now have websites that make it easy to learn more about them and their services. Many have newsletters that allow members to keep up to date on activities, happenings, and life events like births, marriages and deaths.
During the service, the pastor announced that members could now pay their tithes/offerings online. This was interesting because the church is located in a low-income African American neighborhood where perhaps people may not have as much access to the internet, but I could be completely wrong on this. The pastor also has 5,000 friends on Facebook (the maximum allowed) with a growing waiting list, which he showed me on his iPhone when I saw him at the farmer’s market the day before. He uses Facebook regularly to keep in touch with members and pose theological/philosophical questions to them for discussion. I asked him if he was on Twitter but he said he wasn’t because he didn’t really understand what it was for.
Again, I don’t typically attend church or any other sort of religious services, so there are probably technological enhancements I’m not even aware of. Please feel free to share them here if you know of any.