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Faith communities use new technology to connect with members

Published: Sunday, April 21, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Sunday, April 21, 2013 9:34 a.m. CDT

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The Rev. Ken Gibson has grown accustomed to leading worship services with video projectors and pulldown screens that didn’t even exist inside the Grace Lutheran Church in Woodstock a few years ago.

Parishioners at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church in Crystal Lake were encouraged to take out their smartphones during a recent Ash Wednesday Mass and register for the church’s new Flocknote service, a multimedia messaging system that allows churches to communicate with members.

Elsewhere in Crystal Lake, First United Methodist Church has begun initial talks about developing a mobile app that would feed information about the church directly to members’ phones and tablets.

“If you are putting the gospel in a format that people are understanding, you have to put that information in a technological perspective,” Gibson said. “It doesn’t do any good if you are not reaching out to how people listen now.”

Technology, from smartphones to social media, has forced congregations across McHenry County and the country in recent years to reinvent the traditional ways churches connect with their members.

Nearly 69 percent of 11,000 congregations across the country said they actively maintained a website, up from 33 percent in 2000, according to a national survey released last year from Faith Communities Today, a multi-faith group of religious researchers and leaders.

In the same survey, 90 percent of congregations said they embraced email, up from 35 percent in 2000. Nearly 40 percent of the surveyed congregations were on Facebook, a social media tool that wasn’t readily accessible to religious organizations until the late-2000s.

At St. Thomas in Crystal Lake, leaders have tossed out the traditional paper bulletins and have relied more on social media to connect with members. The church actively promotes its Facebook page and Twitter account through a link on its homepage.

Following the unveiling of Flocknote last month, the church now has 1,000 members registered to use the messaging service that allows officials at St. Thomas to send information about programs and events instantly to members.

“They would go to Mass, pick up the bulletin and scour it, but no one does that anymore,” said JoEllen Gregus, assistant director of evangelization at St. Thomas. “We aren’t trying to use [social media] to seem cool. ... We knew we weren’t getting to everyone, and this does that better.”

Likewise, First United Methodist Church of Crystal Lake features a website bursting with multimedia content. The church posts audio and video versions of services and podcasts of sermons.

Inside the church, pastors use video screens, projectors, YouTube clips and movie segments to tie their messages into the different themes of worship services.

Worship Director Katrina Jackson said the church has fully embraced technology partly because it’s easy to access and use.

“We did it because people here are visual as well as audio learners, and we want to keep relevant with younger generations,” Jackson said. “Technology just enhances the message.”

In Woodstock, Gibson now presides over a traditional and contemporary worship on Sundays. The latter service incorporates PowerPoint displays, projectors and videos.

Grace Lutheran Church started offering the contemporary worship as a way to engage the church’s tech-savvy members, Gibson said. But he admitted that the traditional service is still the more popular one.

The church also uses its website to attract new members and inform current members of programs and services. The site features links to the church’s Facebook page and audio clips of sermons.

Since the site’s initial launch, Grace Lutheran has welcomed 20 new members a quarter, Gibson said.

Facebook allows the pastor to connect more easily with younger members. But the church’s older members who populate the pews often dictate how quickly Grace Lutheran embraces technology.

“I wouldn’t call us trailblazers with technology, but we aren’t stuck in the ‘50s, either,” Gibson said. “We are using what’s available and seeing what is appropriate for us.”

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