Technology and the megachurch

On Road Trip 2009, CNET News reporter Daniel Terdiman stops at the New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colo., to talk about how it implements technology.

Inside the control room at the New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colo. Thought to be one of the most powerful and important megachurches in the United States, its lead pastor says that if churches don't embrace new technologies, they'll be left behind. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo.--If you're in charge of what is thought to be one of the most powerful, influential and important megachurches in the United States, if not the world, how do you make sure that your message is reaching the largest possible audience?

To Brady Boyd, the lead pastor at the New Life Church here, the famous, 10,000-plus member nondenominational church that's directly across Interstate 25 from the Air Force Academy , the answer is technology.

It's not that the New Life Church is light years ahead of anyone else--in fact, it may well even be slightly behind some other churches--but to Boyd the key is that he and his large support team are philosophically open to technology.

As part of Road Trip 2009, I stopped in at the New Life Church for an interview with Boyd. I wanted to know how this megachurch uses technology, and just how important tech is considered. The short answer? A lot.

"Churches have to stay current. We're in the communications business," Boyd told me. "The whole purpose of a church is to communicate a message of truth....We have to stay informed and we have to realize that most of the world is rapidly advancing in their ability to communicate."

In particular, Boyd pointed to Web 2.0 technologies like Facebook and Twitter. He said, in fact, that he Twitters constantly and recently maxed out his number of friends on Facebook.

"Advancing with the culture"
It may surprise some who think of churches as musty, behind-the-times institutions that a place like New Life Church, as well as others, are putting so much emphasis at staying on top of Web 2.0 and other technologies.

Indeed, Boyd even alluded to that point himself, suggesting that there are plenty of pastors out there who have fallen behind the times.

"Pastors have to embrace this," he said. "It's a generational gap. A lot of pastors over the age of 50 cannot embrace it, and they have stopped advancing with the culture. I think it's a mistake."

Boyd said it's crucial that someone in his shoes listens closely to what's going on in the world of communications, especially as that world is evolving so quickly. To that end, he said, he has people who give him monthly updates on where technology is going so that he, and New Life Church, don't fall behind.

The New Life Church, in Colorado Springs, Colo. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

One technology Boyd is fond of is podcasting, a medium he has been using to gain a global following of tens of thousands of listeners.

"I have to be aware, when I'm speaking, that I'm not just speaking to the people in front of me," Boyd said, "I'm speaking to people from all over the world, from various cultures, who are going to be listening to me through this Web technology."

But producing such podcasts--both audio and video--is expensive, and Boyd said that worrying about such costs may be another thing holding some churches back.

"It's very expensive, so I think what happens with churches sometimes," Boyd said, "is that because technology is so expensive, churches sometimes stay put. They stop advancing, because cost-wise, it's just so difficult to keep up with the latest technology."

He pointed to the costs of converting New Life Church's video cameras from analog to digital. He said that operation was extremely expensive, and had to be done piecemeal, over time. In addition, the church recently added a 70-foot high-definition screen to the back of its sanctuary that cost more than $100,000, something that had to be planned and budgeted for.

During big events inside the New Life Church, the atmosphere is much like a rock concert--and sometimes it is a rock concert. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Next up, he said, will be getting to the point where every New Life Church event is live-streamed to the Web. Other churches, he admitted, have already gotten there, so he knows he has to play a little catch-up.

And while an institution like New Life Church, which has thousands of congregants and visitors from all over the world, may be able to afford such a move, that's not necessarily true for other churches, even ones that fall under the category of megachurch.

"Especially in the economic downturn," Boyd said, "I think churches are challenged" with keeping up technologically.

And there's no time to waste, he suggested. Churches, he reiterated, are in the business of communications, and cannot allow themselves to stop spreading their message, no matter what the economic circumstances are. "We have a message that has to be communicated," he said, "and we have to do it well."

Living in fascinating times
As someone who has taken his message on the road, Boyd said he's been amazed watching how technology can help people in the ministry get their word out, and into the most remote places, so much quicker than in the past.

"We're (at) the point now where real-time communication is possible just about anywhere in the world," Boyd said. "I was in a remote place in Africa this past year, and there were people with cell phones out in the bush getting real-time downloads. So for the church, I think we're living in a fascinating time. We used to have to send missionaries around the world and it would take three months by boat to get to the country, and it would take them 20 years to reach every single person in the country. Now we can do that in a matter of minutes and hours."

While Boyd touts the virtues of being up-to-date with technology, no one is claiming that institutions like his and others are breaking ground no one else in the message-spreading business--whatever the message might be--has covered. A case in point is the music industry, where the technology in play at live concerts by big-name acts would put even a megachurch like New Life Church to shame. The same would be true of the film and television industries.

Then again, those industries have catering budgets nearly as big as what almost anyone else can afford when it comes to technology. The point, really, is that each type of business--film, music, news, churches--has upper limits of what's possible economically, and what's important to them is to be as efficient as possible.

"The American church can't measure its success now only by who...comes on Sunday," Boyd said. "Our message is being broadcast more and more through digital means, and they may not ever come to our building, they may never sit in a chair in our church. But they are certainly listening and receiving ministry because of the technology that's available. So the scope of your influence is really unlimited if you're willing to invest the time and money."

Click here for the entire Road Trip 2009 package.

 

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