How to enter the digital age

Students at Abilene Christian University are provided with the latest digital technology as part of the university's ACU Connected initiative. Jeremy Enlow/Abilene Christian University

Experts on technology and the church offer advice on how to establish -- or expand -- your organization’s technological presence.

Whether you’re a pastor wondering how a church Facebook page might affect your congregation or a university leader considering upping the “connectivity” on campus through increased use of mobile devices, take a deep breath; you’re already at an advantage. Those who have gone before have already made the fledgling mistakes, and some basic best practices are emerging.

Kathryn Reklis, assistant professor of theology at Fordham University and a research fellow with the New Media Project, has heard the concerns of Christian ministry leaders challenged by the idea of using Twitter, handling a Facebook page and writing a blog in addition to more traditional duties.

Ideally, however, the process is a collaborative one. “It’s not meant to be something a pastor does all by himself or herself. A great church Facebook page may be staffed by four or five people.” Her advice? “Just start.”

Engaging new media, however, can’t just be about the technology. Here are some other factors to consider from those who have been thinking about the church in the digital age:

Mission. For leaders of Christian institutions, it’s important to ask questions about the ways new technology will enhance and advance mission. Rather than just picking the most recent -- or most popular -- platform or device, ask first where you want to go, and then ask which one will help you get there. “You have to ask, ‘What is all this technology really doing?’” said Mark Hamilton, the associate dean of Abilene Christian University’s Graduate School of Theology.

Cost. When Abilene Christian University (ACU) decided to create a high-tech learning environment “without boundaries,” financial commitments had to be weighed against potential outcomes. “You’ve got to really wrestle with the cost of technology,” said John Weaver, the school’s dean of library services and educational technology. “These are sometimes expensive endeavors.”

In addition to its own funding, ACU received support from AT&T, and over time, with the help of documented studies and outcomes, has continued to receive grants. In 2011, for example, the school received close to $250,000 from the Next Generation Learning Challenges program, which is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. The money will be used in ACU mobile-enhanced learning programs at two schools with low-income students at high risk of failing or dropping out.

Potential partnerships. AT&T has provided support for mobile learning research at ACU as well as the university's Learning Studio. In addition, ACU has partnered with CitySquare, a nonprofit that addresses the root causes of poverty in inner-city Dallas. ACU@CitySquare offers living and learning experiences that help students understand issues such as poverty and justice, but it also will offer access to cutting-edge technology to poor people.

“It’s important that you seek partnerships with both for-profit and nonprofit organizations that share your mission,” Weaver said. “AT&T and CitySquare have both been essential in advancing our mission for technology. We could not have done it alone.”

Buy-in. If the goal of new technology is reaching new people -- and better connecting the ones already around -- spend some time figuring out where they’re already active. Communities thrive when participation is organic rather than top-down. In addition, when forging plans and moving ahead, don’t forget to invite all voices to the table -- including the “digital natives.”

“Part of the issue is often that the decision makers in the process are not the digital natives,” Hamilton said. “It’s the boomers. I’m 48, and it’s those my age and older who are making all of the decisions. These kids, the digital natives, don’t remember a time before email. This just is. Talking about the time before is the same as talking about riding around in chariots.”