I was a high-tech expert in a low-tech church; here’s what I did

Photo: Anthony Diehl

Anthony Diehl is a media/technology specialist. He reflects back on his experience during the pandemic with a church made up primarily of 70 years olds, pointing to some creative practices which helped to include them and which may still have value as we work our way back to a ‘new normal.’

This comment was written for FaithTech Institute site and is re-posted by permission of the author.

In the fall of 2019, my family landed at a small church in our neighbourhood that was trying to re-plant. With only 30 or so remaining members and an average age in the 70s, this little church was struggling to keep the doors open.

Yet, there was a clear love for Jesus, a passion for the Gospel, and a vision to re-plant the church. Our family felt the Lord calling us to this little church for a season, so we got involved right away. I had no idea what was just around the corner.

When March 2020 hit, news of the spreading pandemic triggered a lot of rapid changes. Because our little church was made up almost entirely of people in a high risk group, we needed to transition to something remote very quickly. The next several months were a continuous process of trying to adapt, not only to the new safety requirements, but also to the limited tech-literacy of the congregation.

Before 2020, you might have encountered some form of ‘church online’ or watched the occasional live streamed service, but over the last year, chances are you depended heavily on things like Youtube, Facebook Live, and Zoom to continue participating with your local church.

Even savvy technophiles had to find new platforms for connecting online. So it’s easy to understand why the elderly in my own church struggled to make the leap. But they weren’t the only ones.

Age is only one factor limiting tech literacy. Other factors include access, ability and vocational background. In rural areas, some communities still lack the basic internet infrastructure to make web-based solutions possible; in the US alone, 15 – 20 million people still lack broadband access.

Meanwhile, differently-abled and intellectually disabled persons may also struggle to connect using new technologies. Consider also that many people don’t regularly use computers in their work – certain trades, including industrial, service and natural resource jobs, for example.

As churches’ moved online, it was easy to overlook these people; I certainly did. Then I found myself in a church where these factors couldn’t be ignored.

Large-scale spectacle, small-scale churches

As a designer, one of my goals is to champion empathy in the design process. It doesn’t matter how cool, effective or scalable your idea is. How do the people you aim to serve experience it? That is really the big question. While I firmly believed in this empathetic approach to design before 2020, that year serving our little church stretched my imagination and opened my eyes to serving those who would otherwise be excluded from the life of our churches.

As 2020 rolled on, I began working with other churches, helping them solve problems, connecting people and training teams. While I usually get the call for more high-tech related problems, I’ve come to deeply care about including those people who might be excluded (often unknowingly) from our gatherings. But is trying to connect people with low tech literacy to a church really worth the effort?

When you come together

I found I needed to wrestle with the apostle Paul’s pointed words to the Corinthian church.

For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not. (1 Corinthians 11:21–22)

The early church practiced what is known as an ‘agape feast,’ a sort of extended potluck with the Eucharist at the centre. Wealthy Christians would typically host the gathering in their homes, and those with the means would supply enough food for those who had none.

However, not everyone was able to gather at the same time. The wealthy could leisurely feast the day away while the poor – and slaves in particular – had to work like any other day. When the poor finally arrived at the end of their work day, much of the food was already eaten. When Paul learns what the Corinthians’ feasts were becoming, he has some strong words for them.

Paul reiterates what the Lord’s Supper is truly supposed to be and then offers a simple exhortation: “So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another” (1 Corinthians 11:33, emphasis added).

It was not until 2020 that I saw how our use of technology might be excluding some members of the body from the gathering. While Christians could apply this passage in many ways today, for those of us serving in media and technology, how can we wisely deploy technology to ‘wait for’ our brothers and sisters whom we might unknowingly be leaving behind?

Low-tech church solutions

As I’ve worked with dozens of churches over the past year, I’ve encountered many different ways churches are developing low-tech solutions to keep their members connected to the weekly rhythms of worship and community life together.

Here is a list of some of what I’ve learned.

  • Small ‘offline’ groups + pre-recorded elements. Some of the most encouraging creative examples this last year have been small groups (2 – 10) meeting and holding a small service with some prepared materials. A song or two, some Scripture, a recorded sermon and prayer. Most of the stories where people said things like, “You know, I actually feel like I grew closer this last year” had something like this in play. Not always doable, but worth striving for.
  • CD/DVD recording. A surprising number of churches are still recording and distributing services on CD/DVD. It is a medium that older members can use with minimal headache. This highlights the tradeoff of using better, newer technology – and the very steep learning curve for some – versus working with mostly obsolete forms that an older generation already knows.
  • Dial-in phone solutions. For churches already using Zoom, the platform provides a phone dial-in solution. It may not always work with some of the ‘dial 9 to get an outside line’ phone systems in care homes, etc. Some have reported good experiences with phonelivestreaming.com while many are using freeconferencecall.com as a low/no cost solution. At least one church I heard about literally has one member who calls several other members who all put their phones on speaker while the caller holds their phone next to a laptop with the live stream!
  • Phone Check-ins. Speaking of phones. . . . Talking on the phone is still a personalized and meaningful way to connect people. One church in New York organized groups of 15, each with its own leader. Those leaders called each person on their list to check in and see if they needed anything. It helped sustain connections that might otherwise fade out. With pastors already stretched thin, a small bit of planning, organizing and communication can equip the church to care for each other.
  • Low-power FM broadcast. It is quick and easy to set up a consumer grade FM broadcast in an outdoor space. Many churches are adapting services so that people can participate from the parking lot. In places where lockdown is still in effect, ‘parking lot church’ has been a breath of fresh air for many. If you can get in a car and turn on the radio, you can participate!
  • Local AM broadcast. One church I know of reached out to a local AM radio station and secured a Sunday morning time slot. While this solution may be a bit more expensive or not possible in some areas, it will provide an extremely reliable and accessible solution for connecting members who can’t get online.
  • Internet radio. I am exploring a low cost broadcast solution where an inexpensive portable internet radio player (basically a small radio) could be set up in advance to receive a church’s live stream. The idea here is that someone could literally just turn the device on when the service is live and listen in. While traditional radio broadcast is expensive for an individual church, an internet radio stream is cheap and can reach anywhere with an internet connection. This concept is being prototyped, and I’d love to see it put into a real world test. Interested collaborators welcome!
  • Zoom. Perhaps nothing revolutionary here for most, but last year, I discovered that many people were not using Zoom to connect simply because even the simplest tutorials were beyond them. I also found that once someone tried Zoom or other video conferencing one time, they were much more likely to continue using it and learn by doing. Here is a very simple tutorial for onboarding members with low-tech literacy but still with access to smartphones, tablets or laptops.

Behind the cutting edge and waiting

For tech professionals in 2021, burning DVDs and setting up dial-in systems may not seem like very cutting-edge work. Using older technologies isn’t likely to scale or attract droves of new users, but this work matters more than you realize.

Remember, even with older technologies, you are still engaging in a design process to serve a specific group. Your skills in solving problems are just as needed here – and can grow just as much – as in any ‘cutting-edge’ area.

During the past year, I found the work to be vitally important for helping a small church stay connected and stay on mission. The simple tools we put in place and, most importantly, the time invested in training individuals helped the church move into a new chapter. After months of working to keep people connected, that small neighbourhood church was able to hire a new lead pastor, a major step in replanting the church.

Is trying to connect people with low tech literacy to a church really worth the effort? If a little bit of innovative tech sustained a church for future ministry, that surely seems worth the effort. What new works might God have yet to do in and through this church?

Most of all, I found my awareness of and love for unseen members in the church grew through my encounters with the tech-challenged. Serving the less visible parts of the body is a gift and a blessing that builds up the whole church. As Christians serving in tech, let’s use our perspective, voice and talents to help the church ‘wait for one another’ when we gather.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require.

But God has so composed the body, giving greater honour to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. (1 Corinthians 12:21–26)

Anthony Diehl

Anthony Diehl is a designer, creative technologist and a founding partner of Colours & Shapes, an award-winning, multi-disciplinary design firm based in Vancouver.

Since 2020, Anthony has been working with small churches, church plants and churches in transition to foster wisdom in their use of media and technology. You can learn more and contact him at www.anthonydiehl.ca.

Learn more about FaithTech at faithtech.com.

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