Metro churches use new tech to reach beyond their pews

Nicquel Terry
The Detroit News

Brandon Smith has been in and out of the hospital for the past 11 months, but he’s remained connected to his faith.

The 40-year-old from South Lyon credits technology, saying the weekly livestreamed sermons at his home church, Brightmoor Christian Church in Novi, have been a savior.

“I absolutely am so thankful for it,” said Smith, who has had six surgeries for a leg injury. “The church is our second family, and not being well enough to be there … we are still able to hear The Word from our phone or from our tablet.”

Smith said lately he accessed text from a Holy Bible app on his phone while in the hospital.

Experts say technology, especially mobile devices, are changing the way people learn and connect with their spirituality or religion. It’s introducing a new way of hosting a church service with everything from livestreamed sermons and internet church campuses to donating online or by text.

Americans are also turning to their mobile devices for inspiration through digital content, according to new research by AT&T’s Inspired Mobility movement. The company found 70 percent of the respondents used their mobile devices to access faith-based content such as inspirational stories and quotes.

Much of this material is circulated through memes on social media.

For example, Daniel Wallace of Detroit said he regularly shares messages and quotes from sermons at Perfecting Church in Detroit on his personal Facebook and Twitter pages.

His friends and family members will retweet or share, and then tell him how much they were inspired, Wallace said.

“It reaffirms that there is an appetite for the Gospel on social media,” Wallace said. “We live in a world where everything is so mobile right now. And sometimes people cut out church because they are trying to fit other things into their day.”

Internet church

Jason Caston, a Dallas-based faith and technology expert, said he has helped hundreds of churches across the country adapt to the evolving digital world since 2010.

Caston is growing social media platforms for churches and developing online interactive churches where people can tune in to livestreamed services, chat with others who are watching, share notes from the sermon on Facebook or Twitter, give offering or tithes and even become a church member.

One of Caston’s projects was at The Potter’s House in Dallas, led by famed pastor, author and filmmaker Bishop T.D. Jakes. The church’s website allows people to become e-members and calls it a “virtual church experience designed to cater to those that are not able to join the service in person.”

“The whole premise is to take the message to the people,” said Caston, who has helped AT&T with its Inspired Mobility movement. “And I think the response is that they feel like the church and their overall faith experience is becoming more of a part of their life.”

Caston said he has convinced many churches that there is nothing wrong with using iPads instead of paperback Bibles, or allowing members to give online as opposed to putting money in the collection plate.

He’s helped megachurches grow even larger audiences through mobile viewing applications and Twitter, Caston said.

“The message continues to stay the same, but the method continues to evolve,” he said.

The Archdiocese of Detroit has a few dozen parishes using technology such as podcasts and livestreams.

Joe Kohn, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Detroit, said some churches with older parishioners haven’t yet adapted to the concept of internet church. And priests in the catholic church traditionally use paperback bibles, so you likely wouldn’t see an iPad in the pulpit, Kohn said.

However, Archdiocese leadership does encourage the use of technology.

“From the top down, there’s a great push to embrace new media,” Kohn said. “So there’s always a willingness and always an impetus to try new things.”

Brightmoor Christian Church has nearly 200 viewers every Sunday on its livestream of the service, which is accessible on the website or the church’s mobile application.

Each sermon is archived so anyone can watch them anytime, said Jimi Herr, Brightmoor’s technical director.

Herr said church members also regularly pull out their iPads and phones during church to take notes and search bible verses. The trend has reached not only millennials, but older generations too, he said.

“Everybody’s got a smartphone in their hands, and it’s what they spend most of their time on,” Herr said. “It’s making (church) accessible in any way possible.”

Virtual followers

For Debra Mijal, the Brightmoor livestreams have been convenient for her when she misses church because of work, vacations or illness.

She recently missed a Wednesday night service because she had to work late, but was able to listen to the livestream on her computer.

“I love it,” said Mijal, 56. “I leave it running in the background while I have my other work going.”

While Mijal believes using her mobile devices in church service is a distraction, she downloaded three different Bible apps to read when she’s at home.

Area church leaders are beginning to recognize the growing presence of virtual followers.

The speakers at Kensington Church in Troy are now making it a point to directly address their livestream audience during services.

Peter Pelletier, digital strategy coordinator, said the church wants to make viewers at home feel included in the sermon.

An average of 1,000 people watch the service each Sunday and many are viewing it on their mobile phones, he said.

Inside the sanctuary, Kensington uses screens to display bible verses, song lyrics and upcoming events for the congregation.

The church also polls the congregation for volunteer opportunities allowing them to text a designated number to sign up.

“I just think people are engaged in a very visual world,” said Caryn James, communications director for Kensington.

Digitally engaged

On any given Sunday, the Rev. David Roberson pulls out his iPad Pro for notes, bible verses and PowerPoint slides as he preaches to his 2,000-member congregation.

He transmits the main points of his message to two giant white screens hanging near the pulpit, so that his members cannot only listen, but follow the text.

This method of preaching isn’t something Roberson practiced when he first started his career at New Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Southfield 25 years ago. But as the world adapts to new technology, he believes the church can, too.

“Digitally speaking, they are engaged,” Roberson said of his congregation, adding that many churchgoers use the Holy Bible app and take notes on their smartphones or tablets during service. “And you have to keep them engaged.”

Internet church, however, does have its disadvantages, Roberson said.

Roberson said he has been reluctant to introduce livestreaming at his church because he prefers to meet his members — and visitors — in person and build a relationship.

“How can I minister to you if I never see you?” he said. “I can’t fellowship with you, with you in your house. To fellowship with you, I have to see you. ... I have to know who I’m dealing with.”

Twitter: @NicquelTerry