Church Growth and Technology

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When we think of technology and church we generally think church production. We think lights, camera, gadgets, projection, livestreaming… At the consumer end we think iPads. Yet with all our investment in gadgets and livestreaming technology we don’t seem to be gaining traction as the Church. We’re producing for ourselves, we’re not connecting to the world. That is something the Church does a lot. The Church likes to talk to herself. Check out our billboards, check out our radio messages, check out our TV programs… They’re full of Pentecostal jargon. Pentecostals don’t speak English. We speak Pentecostalese. If you’re an outsider you’ll need a Pentecostal dictionary to figure out the things we’re saying.

The reason the Church is not gaining traction with technology is because the Church does not understand the underlying realities of technology. We don’t understand emergent sociology and culture. And these are strange times. In this dispensation there’s a merger of sociology and technology. It’s why we have a hybridized new technology called social media. It’s a landmark technology, a new reality. Like every landmark technology it has produced its own culture – the culture of irreverence. The reason social media is irreverent is because there’s really nothing social about social media. It thrives on depersonalization. I can effectively hide behind an avatar to say anything I want, especially things I cannot say in front of the person I’m addressing. When you dial irreverence to the extreme you arrive at disdain for authority and contempt for the sacred. Everything is thus fair game on social media. What pastors struggle with is not the technology. That is easy to master. What pastors struggle with is the inherent culture of social media – the culture of irreverence. And so pastors are caught in a bind, an unfair bind – it’s either the Gospel or your image and reputation. And yet there’s no other way to connect with the next generation. Radio was the technology of the colonial generation, TV was the technology of the independence generation, social media is the technology of the selfie generation.

Unfortunately that culture of irreverence does not accord with the traditional notion of church. It’s why there are clashes. Church is not interactive, social media is. Yet in his time on earth Jesus was an interactive personality brand. He engaged the people one on one. It’s why he had many direct challenges, both to his authority and to his teachings. They baited him, ensnared him, were outrightly rude to him. He faced intellectual challenges, political challenges, social challenges, religious challenges, ethnic challenges, infantile challenges, moral challenges. Jesus faced it all. Truth is, were Jesus alive today he’d enjoy Twitter!

Everyone has an opinion on social media, everyone has something to say, and people just love jumping into frays, even things they know nothing about. It’s why someone can jump into a thread asking what the thread is all about. He has no idea what’s going on, but he wants to participate. It kind of reminds you of those Ephesians – the ones who jumped into the EMWU trade union row with Apostle Paul. They didn’t know what the fuss was about. They just jumped in. (EMWU stands for Ephesians Metal Workers Union. Their motto is, Great is Diana of the Ephesians). I’m just saying the mob culture of social media is not exactly new. It’s as old as Apostle Paul. Social media allows you to live in Bible times!

Then there are those trolls on Sunday whose early morning preoccupation is attacking what men of God say. They delight in ridiculing God’s word, seek to turn men of God into caricatures of their calling. They can be very insulting. They bait men of God with insults and abuse to rubbish their Christian testimony through provocation. Social media helps you metric the fruits of the Spirit in you. Forbearance and self-control are absolutely necessary if you want to do social media engagement. But the spiritual reality is that social media is the new frontier. Twitter is a battleground. To acquit yourself as a good soldier of Christ you need to get in there.

But social media is also a creative challenge. You must express deep thoughts with sparse words. 140 characters on Twitter. But 140 characters is the average size of a verse of scripture. The Bible is a collection of tweets. You therefore can start your social media foray by tweeting a verse of scripture a day.

140 characters is the average size of a scripture verse. The Bible is a collection of tweets 🙂 Click To Tweet

But why must the church embrace new media? The reasons are not far-fetched. The economics is compelling. Compared to legacy media, social media costs peanuts. Then there’s the efficiency ratio. You can be in over a hundred countries from the corner of your phone. And it’s interactive. You have engagement and instant feedback. And you can measure the engagement. TV is dumb technology. That’s not saying don’t do TV but we must engage media with specific demographics in mind. Right now, the critical generation the church ought to be mindful of is the 20 – 29 year olds. They’re the target generation and they don’t watch TV.

Perhaps the reason we love TV is because the model feeds into the current church culture of one-way communication from the pulpit. Social media on the other hand is interactive. The danger in our one-way system is that the people will come to church no doubt but the pastor may not really know the state of their wellbeing, spiritual or emotional. The 3D medium called church service does not support heart diagnostics, except the people come for counseling. Which then defines the church as a problem paradigm. If there’s no problem there’s no intimate interaction. In our current church system there’s no volunteer of thoughts, opinion or personal information outside a problem framework.

What new media has done is show us up as a group. You see, we’re more comfortable being Essenes and operating outside of society, or on the fringes of society. But we cannot evangelise the world running away from the world. If we want to fulfill the great commission we must engage the world. Our Essene mentality is why we’d rather invest in starting a TBN than owning a CNN. Yet it’s the CNNs of this world that shape the CONTEXT in which the gospel is preached, not TBN. And so TBN by default is a subset of the CNNs of this world since CNN provides the context. We forget media is not really about technology. It’s a marketing platform for ideas, ideologies and values. That’s not saying it’s wrong to set up a TBN or any faith channel. They have their uses. But they’re primarily internal organs of the Church. Just as TBN is an order of magnitude in forward thinking from the days of the Apostles so the concept of omni-media which I’m advocating is a forward propulsion of the original vision of Jesus to evangelise the world. There’s retail evangelism but there’s also cultural and policy evangelism. Cultural and policy evangelism is how you influence politics and governance, influence values and culture. The Gospel of Peace is preached in an atmosphere of peace. We need to create the atmosphere.

The vision of Jesus for the Church is for the Church to fill all things and to serve as the nucleus of society. We’re told in Ephesians 1:23 (MSG): “The church you see, is not peripheral to the world; the world is peripheral to the church. The church is Christ’s body, in which he speaks and acts, by which he fills everything with his presence.” And so the Church is meant to be felt in every dimension of society. That’s what the Bible says. The Apostles could not accomplish this vision because they were laying the foundation of Christian faith. The foundation has been laid. The question is, what next? The apostles accomplished so much without technology. Relative to us they lived in primitive circumstances. Given all the technology at our disposal shouldn’t we accomplish more? When people for example say Christians should not be involved in politics it’s a lack of appreciation of historical relativism. Provincialism is not God’s vision for his church. As long as we run a peripheral strategy we’d never make a big impact on the world. And you can’t want big impact shying away from big impact technologies. We need a bold and radical vision.

Unfortunately, the Church has always struggled with technology. We struggled with TV in particular. We called it the Devil’s box. We could not intellectually distinguish platform from content. We’ve always been late in adopting technology. Because we’re late to social media it was colonized by tribes dedicated to cross-dimensional abuse. They formulated its rules and culture. Despite that you can define your parameters of engagement. We chose to do wholesome stuff for instance. We decided to strengthen marriages, prevent marital catastrophes, mentor young people, build up businesses, promote good works and preach an intelligent gospel. We have different platforms for these objectives. You don’t need to participate in the ugly fest. Facebook and Twitter can be used to impact lives, and to present a logical and cogent Christ point of view.

Two years ago, I was invited to speak to a gathering of pastors under the aegis of an umbrella body. A few minutes into my presentation I mentioned a verse of scripture and I was shocked to see thousands of iPads whipped out, just to read that scripture. That’s the retail limit of our adoption of technology. Yet if we understand the potential of social technology we would be developing apps. There’s nothing preventing us. Imagine an app that makes sure church doesn’t end after service on Sunday, makes sure the fellowship continues, that there are conversations going on. Such a conversation can be moderated by a social media pastor. The app will facilitate discussion of the day’s sermon. People can weigh in with personal perspectives, experiences, discuss implementation strategies and challenges, and learn from others. The pastor can weigh in as well, providing deeper insight into his sermon. We always assume people understand the sermon but that’s our one-way mentality talking. Gadgets are not our problem. Our problem has always been mastering the culture spurn by technology. If we can’t grapple with the culture produced by social media we’re in danger of losing the next generation to secular humanism and new age doctrine. We will thus end up being mere genealogical analogue appliances that cannot transmit the oracles of God to the next generation in a digital age. Yes, new media has its cultural ugliness but the upside is that we can reach people who ordinarily will not come to church.

But to grapple with the culture we must query our concept of church, reconfigure our concept of the pastor, reexamine our relationship with the next generation. You cannot believe in the next generation yet stymy their creativity. As it is, we’re undermining the creative potential of the next generation by banning them from social media. We’re turning them into generational islands and digital orphans. And it’s all about our fears and religiosity.

The pillars of the new culture are interactivism and realism. Realism is why we have so many reality shows. We’re in the age of nakedness and shamelessness. It’s therefore imperative you’re direct with this generation. The culture of the age demands it. The youths want direct. They are not ashamed to express their issues and situations. They just say them. But through self-indictment they qualify themselves for God’s grace. You’re going to see an abundance of grace on this generation.

But they will rather deal with a human than with a mannequin of a pastor. The mannequin pastor is not human. He has no flaws, no defects. He’s a perfect man of faith, never even has headache. Nobody wants to share their problem with a mannequin pastor. As long as pastors are unwilling to share their humanity they cannot connect with this generation. As it is pastors are too isolated from society. We need to come down from Mount Sinai. These kids want a man of God who can come down to their level and interact with them. If you want to maintain your “image” and “dignity” you have to stay on Mount Sinai. You can’t go to the virtual spaces where the needs are. And these kids are hungering for spirituality. Besides there’s a lot of hurt out there, there’s a lot of pain only the Church is uniquely qualified to ameliorate. I want to share some statistics with you but first let me give you the background to those statistics.

I publish three blogs every week on social media. Every Saturday I publish two letters on relationship – one to a fictional Jack and the other to a fictional Jil. I publish a Bible exposition on Sunday. It’s called Illuminare. We came up with that title because we found out one of the top searches by young people on Google was how to join the Illuminati. So we decided to provide the right mystic enlightenment. The Bible after all talks about the mystery of godliness.

JacknJil became a sensation. We started with serialization on Twitter and then built a website to archive past letters. Then we proceeded to Facebook. You’ve got to find your own subject on social media and apply the grace bestowed on you. And you’ve got to be dedicated and consistent. I tweeted the blog like chapters of the Bible, you know verse by verse. That was novel when we started and it didn’t go down well in certain quarters because of the incredible amount of retweets. Those retweets gave us dominance, took us into 82 countries. I get mails from over, as far as Canada and the US. In the last three years I’ve answered well over 7000 mails. But then we noticed the mails began to include contemplations of suicide. It soon became obvious we needed professional help and so we identified 12 Christian psychologists and asked for their help. They volunteered their professional expertise. And thus began the JacknJil therapy platform. Everyday people go online to book a therapy session with any of those 12 partner psychologists. The testimonials are huge. It would interest you to know that addiction to porn and masturbation are the most presented cases. It’s a Christian problem for obvious reasons.

Before we created the therapy platform however we had started receiving heart-wrenching emails from people in horrific marriages and relationships. Many could not move on from bad emotional experiences. So we decided to hold an offline program called Moving On. I didn’t know the format to follow. There was no precedence for what we had in mind. I just knew we had to hold the program. We rented a wing of a brand name hotel in Lagos, restricting access to maintain confidentiality. When we announced for people to register for the program we were expecting a maximum of twenty. But we were so inundated with requests to attend we had to edit the quota, finally settling on 140 of the most difficult cases.

I came into the auditorium, introduced myself and asked for introductions. But the people chose to introduce themselves by talking about their problems. And that was how the stories began. There were stories of extreme pain and trauma, stories of disappointment and disillusionment… This wasn’t your regular stuff. This was horrible stuff. And people began to weep. There was so much repressed hurt, sedimentary layers of anguish compacted like a topographical feature. The psychotherapist we invited to observe began to cry too. And we soon ran out of boxes of tissue. We had to order extra boxes. The floor was carpeted with tissue. My wife couldn’t take it at some point. She ran to the bathroom and wept and wept and wept. The volunteers from our company couldn’t bear it either. Some left the auditorium. We were in that auditorium from 10am till 8pm, no one ate.

However, I saw God’s deliverances. I saw Isaiah 53:4 activated. I saw the reality of the atonement. God delivered those people. And then the miracles began to happen in individual lives.

But here’s the catch: 99% of the people in that auditorium were from brand name Pentecostal churches. And then I knew something was wrong with our conception of church. I realized we were not interactive enough. Or most of those stories would have been volunteered. After all we connected with all those people on social media. If a church claims to be technologically savvy but the people aren’t connecting with the ministry on their real issues you have a pretentious use of technology. What technology ought to do is facilitate a network of lives, a network of dreams, a network of aspirations, a network of solutions, a network of answers, a network of healings. It’s not about Twitter, and it’s not about Facebook. It’s about people, it’s about lives. And it’s about the great commission.

We held a second Moving On program. Same pattern, same issues, same deliverances, same testimonials, same God.

As for Illuminare, this was hard doctrinal stuff. It deals with difficult subjects in Christianity. It’s not for nothing the motto is Sapere Aude. It means, “Dare to know!” Horoscope and stars, reincarnation, alcohol, sex, salvation by grace, when Jesus was born, purgatory, transubstantiation of communion bread and wine, historicity of Jesus, origin of the Bible, evolution, cosmological timetable of the creation of the universe… Questions young men and women are asking in their hearts to which our standard response will always prove inadequate… Illuminare deals with these. I didn’t think young people were that interested in spirituality until I saw the statistics. They are humbling. Let me share those statistics with you now:

Twitter Stats (January to September, 2016)

#Illuminare Impressions (number of times people saw #Illuminare posts): 437,345,110

#Illuminare Reach (size of audience): 6,775,795

#Letr2Jil Impressions (number of times people saw #Letr2Jil posts): 459,672,719

#Letr2Jil Reach (size of audience): 7,058,191

#Letr2Jack Impressions (number of times people saw #Letr2Jack posts): 491,271,727

#Letr2Jack Reach (size of audience): 7,978,197

Facebook Stats (January to September, 2016)

Jack & Jil Page

Impressions (number of times people saw Jack & Jil posts): 3,417,044

Reach (size of audience): 1,741,517

Engaged users (people who share, like and comment): 113,876

Leke Alder Page (The spiritual stuff)

Impressions (number of times people saw Leke Alder posts): 2,476,004

Reach (size of audience): 1,383,480

Engaged users (people who share, like and comment): 91,282

Social media changes everything, even our rules of church. We used to legislate people should not bring phones into church. We deemed that a sign of disrespect of the Holy Spirit. But Psa. 68:11 (MSG) says, “The Lord gave the word, thousands called out the good news.” They call out the good news by retweeting the sermon. In this dispensation everyone is a publisher of the good news, everyone is a broadcaster.

But why does God release these technological breakthroughs? It’s not Satan releasing the technologies, it’s God! If you take time to study your Physics you’ll discover these “technologies” are secondary explorations of electromagnetism. Electromagnetic force is one of the four fundamental forces of nature. It’s what made civilization possible – your microwave, light bulb, MRI scan, radio, TV, airport scanner, xray, infrared rays, computer, mobile phone…All these are explorations of the electromagnetic spectrum. In essence these technologies are explorations of God’s essence. The electromagnetic spectrum is light. God is light. Surely God is not releasing knowledge of the technical exploration of his essence so people can have easy access to porn. Or so people can abuse each other on Twitter. Or so people can have shouting matches across digital balconies on social media. Why does God release all these knowledge? The releases are explorations of light for the propagation of light. They’re for the illumination of the world, the conveyance of God’s essence, his mercies and loving kindnesses. I’m just saying social media and modern communication devices are configured for the gospel not the devil. The Church ought to be at the forefront of technology adoption. Meat belongs to the children.

When a new technology is released the Church ought to ask herself, what can we do with this new revelation of God’s essence? There’s a technological wave coming after social media. And it’s coming from right under it. If we’re struggling with legacy technology, how are we going to embrace cutting edge technology?

We need to reimagine the church. The age of the remote church is upon us. That’s one implication of our livestreaming. The concept of the pastor has to change too. The pastor has to become an interactive under shepherd, just like the Chief Shepherd. Or how are we going to look for the sheep lost in technology hinterland? We can provide digital pasture through social media. May the Lord bless our understanding.

Thank you and God bless.

© Leke Alder | talk2me@lekealder.com

  • Peniela Akintujoye

    Every Pastor and Christian leader in Nigeria needs to read this. It’s time we redefine our approaches or else our Lord’s mission will be an utter failure while we remain busy with the conventional.