5 Lessons on Using Digital Technology in Church

Shortly after my third child, Joslyn, arrived my wife and I decided to acquire a backyard playground set. Unlike the rickety, “V”-shaped contraptions of my childhood, kids now have the luxury of elaborate redwood and cedar forts and commercial-grade equipment. If you have seen large, wooden background structures with colorful roofs, then you know what a “play system” is. While we appreciated the increased attention to safety, we were a little less enthusiastic about the price tag. A modest system costs upward of $4,000, and top of the line units cost over $30,000!

One day I discovered a Costco offering a redwood, prefabricated playground, made at the same factory as the high-dollar ones, for “only” $1,300. It said “Assembly Required.”

I thought, how hard can it be?

I started work on it the Thursday before Easter. Let’s just say that Christ died, was buried, and rose again while I was outside matching slot A to tab B. It was like putting together discount furniture, but ten times worse. My power tools ran out of juice; my toddlers confiscated various bolts; I got sunburned; it rained.

Through it all I kept at it. In spite of the trouble, good tools and good instructions allowed me to keep my eye on the bigger idea of creating a fun outdoor place for my kids to play on at home.

Here are five things my project taught me about using digital technology in church:


1. The focus isn’t on the technology.

Over the course of the project I used a number of tools of varying quality to accomplish the task at hand. Occasionally, I even used things not intended to be playground-building tools: a butter knife, a pair of scissors, a pocketknife.

But here’s the thing:

Except for the first time I squeezed the trigger of the power drill, I don’t think I once stopped to marvel at the tools I was using. The focus wasn’t the tools.

Similarly, technology is neither the purpose nor the reason for the visual arts in worship, nor is it the most important aspect of the ministry.


2. The focus is on creativity.

Since the beginning of film, inventive storytellers have used makeshift means to create other times and places. In the early 1960s, a teenage Steven Spielberg created a feature-length war film using amazing special effects tools such as two-by-fours and mounds of dirt. Even as studios now spend incredible amounts of money on computerized special effects, digital media is becoming democratized. At local churches, I have seen incredible storytelling from youth groups who were using nothing more than a cheap digital video camera and free editing software.

So jump in. Don’t wait for the prices to come down or the technology to get easier. These are excuses that short-circuit the world from hearing the gospel in indigenous language.


3. Don’t let the tail wag the dog.

I almost gave up on the playground when my power drill’s battery expired. It is devastating to lose your only good tool in the heat of the project. That was, until I began poking around and discovered a few old, beat-up tools that served the same purpose. If one tool causes the shutdown of the entire project, the tail is wagging.

I sometimes read media trade magazines and surf technical forums online to keep up with the latest trends and developments. In one issue, the feature article proclaimed with huge, edgy type: “Content Is King!” That writer’s epiphany may seem obvious, but he had simply fallen into the trap so common to technology users, the trap of putting media technology before the messages that it is designed to send.

Often, new technology is a solution without a problem. Make sure your purchases are driven by your vision, not the other way around.

Most of the time, technology doesn’t drive ideas. Ideas drive technology.


4. Technology is never really state-of-the-art — but it’s never obsolete, either.

The playground utilized a neat synthesis of old and new technology to fuse together its parts. Standard screws were housed in plastic casings, which could then be inserted into preset indentions in the wood. This enabled me to access the screws while the unit was partially assembled; yet it concealed them from view when it was done.

As with these inventive casings, digital media is always a synthesis of old and new forms, both conceptually and pragmatically.

While I was an intern at CBS Television City Hollywood in 1995, I was amazed to see the original, 2″ videotape technology still in use. The first videotape machines were wall-sized units that required extensive manual threading to operate. These ancient video machines were being used for a special archiving project in the basement of the facility!

There are usually other uses for existing technology. As the first wave of equipment purchases slowly gets replaced with newer technologies, reassign the old to new uses: use it as a training device for youth, or as a mission project to enable work-program recipients to become literate in digital media.

If nothing else, put it on eBay and make a little money on it.

On the other hand, the fact that old stuff usually continues to work doesn’t mean your church should neglect to budget for new technologies. Although there are times in which technology is a solution without a problem, there are times in which the problems exist for a long time without a specific solution. Many congregations will allocate special dollars, such as a grant, for equipment purchases, but fail to include media as a viable ministry item for budgeting.

The expense of digital media is the cost of doing business in this culture.


5. Cost Is Relative.

One of the ongoing things you hear from a congregation contemplating digital media is its cost. Professional video users sometimes compound this perception by referring to the equipment professional studios are purchasing.

Two principles apply: a) advancements in technology are always initially expensive, and b) as more users purchase the technology and it mutates through various revisions, the cost of production drops dramatically.

The Wired Church 2.0

So, yes, it costs some, but those costs are relative to where media has been, and to the costs of other ministries.

This is one of the greatest benefits of pursuing ministry in the language of the culture. It does not take rocket scientists to produce media, and they don’t need NASA’s budget, either. Democratization of knowledge and technique is good. The B-side to this, however, is that certain technological basics must be met in both the production and presentation of media in worship.

Get the whole book, The Wired Church 2.0, at any book reseller, such as Amazon.

About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).