This is a guest post from Fr. Nathan March, pastor of Parish of the Holy Savior in Mexico, ME.
I’ve always been sort of a paradox. Before becoming a priest, I studied Electrical Engineering and worked for about 5 years designing computer chips for companies like Texas Instruments and Motorola. As an engineer, when all my co-workers were rebuilding the pre-amp stage of their home stereo system, I was on a silent retreat in a monastery. In seminary studying to be a priest, while my classmates were visiting the monasteries I was installing Linux on my PC and writing a program to translate my Latin homework. In my life, technology and religion have always been integrated.
Today in the United States religion is often thought of as an intensely private matter. While it is true that a person of faith has a deep connection to God and their faith, that isn’t the whole story.
The Original Social Network
Most religions have a strong community component to them. A vibrant church community with members building connections and relationships with each other can influence or even define one’s spiritual journey. Christians even confess belief in a Trinitarian God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The very content of revelation is the nature of God who is himself a connected and engaged community. In a sense, religion is actually the world’s oldest social network. Facebook recently surpassed the 2 billion user mark. But the Christian Church has been connecting people for two thousand years and at 2.2 billion strong it still has Facebook beat.
But it’s not just about social communication. Religious organizations and churches also form some of the largest networks of social outreach providing charitable works and assistance to many people in need. In 2012, the Economist estimated that if you grouped all the parish churches, hospitals, schools, universities, soup kitchen and homeless shelters, that the Catholic Church in the United States alone had an operating budget of around $170 billion. In comparison, that same year, Apple and General Motors each had about $150 billion in revenue worldwide.
Technology & Communication
Now whereas churches represent some of the oldest and largest social networks or non-profit organizations, in recent decades many churches and religious organizations have struggled to keep up with rapid changes in technology. For instance, last year I asked my Catholic school principal for the email addresses of all the teachers in our school. She gave me a list of emails handwritten on a piece of yellow legal paper.
Meanwhile, technology pervades every aspect of our lives in the 21st century, and that includes our faith! While technology pervades the lives of parishioners, most churches remain woefully behind the times in their use of technology.
Since the 1960’s and the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church has been trying to recover the missionary mandate that lies at the very heart of the Church. If you think about it, there are 2.2 billion Christians on the planet today because 2000 years ago 12 people knew how to proclaim the message or “sell the product,” so to speak. They knew how to find and engage people and how to be persuasive and make a sale.
Movement Towards Mission
In the past 2000 years, the message hasn’t changed. But in every age, it has been the constant challenge for the Church to figure out the best methods, tools, and practices for effectively communicating the message and engaging new members. In recent years, there’s been a lot of talk in church circles about moving from a “Maintenance” to “Mission” paradigm, from a narrow focus on church membership and donor management to parishioner engagement and forming intentional disciples.
Today, the problem with most church technology is that it is built around the status quo. They take for granted membership. They assume membership correlates with participation and commitment. And they assume a kind of membership that is static. Once you are a member, you punch your ticket, pay your dues, and you are all set.
A missionary mindset is built on the notion of conversion, of change and transformation. A missionary mindset proposes a journey, with various stages, with every individual being somewhere on the continuum of faith. A missionary mindset seeks not only to find and engage new members, but also to cultivate and develop existing members, to move them further down the path.
Learn more about how LPi is shifting the paradigm from member management to mission engagement.