Just outside of Atlanta, in the city of East Point, Georgia, there's a church that wants its high praise to be high-tech.
When the Impact Church was first established in 2007, it held its services in a middle school. The church has since converted a former meat-packing warehouse into a technologically-advanced tabernacle that offers three different one-hour-long services every Sunday. The church has 2,000 IRL worshippers plus another 1,000 via the church's live stream; services are filmed by multiple cameras, one of which is sometimes flying around the building attached to a drone.
Judging from the number of news reports in which it has appeared, one might assume that the church loves media attention almost as much as the holy spirit. Its attempts to stay on the cutting edge of technology and pop culture have led to profiles in CNN, The Atlantic and the Huffington Post, among others. The Atlantic was impressed by lead pastor Olu Brown incorporating themes from the hit TV show Scandal into his sermon. The Huffington Post reported that millennials in the congregation preferred paying their tithes via an electric kiosk in the lobby rather than dropping bills in the offering plate — because who carries cash nowadays?
But it's 2015, and the church doesn't have to rely on traditional media for attention; it can create its own. The church has an Instagram, a Twitter account and a Facebook page. Podcast versions of its sermons are available on iTunes. And the church’s Vimeo account has over 600 uploads. The subject matter of the videos varies. There's a heavy-hitting PSA-style video about gun control in America, which served as a prompt for the church’s scholarship competition, paired with this lighthearted video spoof of a Lincoln Car commercial, used to tell the story of why creating a place that “does church differently” was important.
Andre Barnes, the Impact Church's technology director, has played a major role in these social media deployments. “Most churches are the last place to get technological advances,” said Barnes. But he believes his church's deployments have been a great recruiting tool. He speaks highly of the church’s colorful kids zone, where the walls are painted as bright as suits on Easter Sunday, and the café where attendees can get a latte and watch football highlights on a flat-screen prior to Sunday service. Next up, Barnes says that the church is looking forward to taking advantage of the Google Fiber rollout in Atlanta metropolitan area—one of three areas in the South that Google is expanding to this year.
The church's tech-savvy approach has helped it draw in congregants. "The thing that got my attention was the use of tech," said Vanessa Boyd who has been a member since December 2008. "They use cutting edge technology. Although it's small, nothing looks homemade. Everything looks fresh."
Boyd, who works in the medical-tech field, can still remember her very first time in Impact Church. "They had this awesome presentation on the yearly financials." Boyd exclaimed. "I had never known a church to have that level of transparency. That level of data!"
She said the professional presentation made her feel as if she were at a "Google or Apple board meeting".
When asked if there were any drawbacks to all of this high-tech hoopla in the house of the Lord, Boyd said, "We started out in a middle school, and were at the mercy of their internet [connection]. When we went to live streaming, it wasn't always consistent." But now with the new venue, things are usually smooth. Boyd also pointed out that the church is under the mercy of a self-imposed hurdle, "The downside is that the bar is raised so high, we have to meet that." She said that the church gives people "that wow impression," and now it's a challenge to maintain that.
They're working on it, though. Videos of the church show TV monitors in the bathroom stalls. Movie-theater-sized screens project the pastor in the sanctuary. The facility the church is housed in doubles as an event center; NBC has used it for filming the show Constantine.
One might think this technology would distract people from getting in touch with God, but Barnes says that’s not the case. In fact, he believes that technology has allowed people inside the church to spread the gospel on Sundays. “We ask people to tweet and Facebook in church because you reach more people,” said Barnes during a phone conversation. “During the week, you’re using technology. How fair is it for us to ask you to put it away?”
He says that one of the benefits of this union of religion and tech-culture is a closure in the generation gap within the church. “Younger and older generations are able to worship as families again,” said Barnes.
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