If you could listen to a sermon over the Internet, would you still go to church?
For most people, the answer is yes.
Although technology may appear to be replacing face-to-face interaction in many aspects of life--this isn't so for faith-based communities.
(Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec)
Beth Wheeler, 19, of Bellwood and Alex Hildebrand, 15, of Altoona relax in the “Living Room Cafe” at First Church of Christ in Altoona. They and other members of the church take advantage of its Wi-Fi connection. Pastor John Collins said members are welcome to text and tweet during the service on subjects related to the service.
Technology, which of course includes social media, is in many churches, bringing congregations closer together.
At First Church of Christ in Altoona, technology and social media play a large part in the church's mission. Sermons are uploaded to the church website the day after Sunday service and email, Facebook, text and Twitter are common means of communication.
"We use it just to network people together," First Church of Christ Pastor John Collins said. "I'm not the one that thinks the Internet is evil. Like anything else, it's the way you use it. It's a great tool, just to stay connected to each other."
The church has a Wi-Fi cafe, and it's perfectly acceptable to tweet, text or post Facebook messages about the service during the service. Some church members have Bible applications on their phones, which they use during church services.
"I welcome it," Collins said. "Here's the thing. We have to change our methods, but we don't change our message. Our message stays the same as far as grace and forgiveness and life in Christ, but we adapt and change our methods. The Internet and social media are things I think we need to embrace."
With the use of social media and technology, churches can connect to existing members, especially younger members, and also attract new members.
"We've had a number of people who have said they've looked at our church on the Internet. They came to our church because of that. I don't know that they stay because of technology, but they came because of it. They stay because of the fellowship, because the Gospel is preached," said Michael Stuart, minister of worship and arts at Grace Bible Church in Hollidaysburg.
Grace Bible Church also uploads an audio file of Sunday's sermon on the Internet, and within the next year the entire service may be streamed live on the Internet. Live audio sermons will be streamed on the Internet within six months, Stuart said.
"I don't think it will keep people from coming to church," he said, indicating the live video stream will allow people to watch the service who are unable to come, or it might attract new churchgoers searching for a good fit.
Pastors also regularly use Twitter, Facebook, texting and email. Important aspects of worship are the video and sound technology used during the service.
Altoona Alliance Church uploads sermons to the Internet on Monday mornings, but the church plans much more for the future, technologywise.
Pastor Tim McGarvey has high hopes after the church moves into its new location at the old Value City.
"The church we're at right now isn't really conducive to doing technology during the services. When we were at the 17th Street property we did use technology a lot," he said.
McGarvey also uses his personal Facebook page to post pictures and information about the church. The church utilizes an email prayer chain, for anyone in need of prayers. Technology will be upped a notch once the church is in the new building, with the possibility of a Wi-Fi cafe and more digital video usage during services.
"Once we get in the new building, we have a technology team at our church. Five or six guys are really into this stuff, and they have some neat ideas," McGarvey said.
Stuart feels technology keeps Grace Bible relevant.
"Our society is so technology-based right now. You have to be very technology savvy with TV and the Internet. Our minds are geared towards a story. We, as human beings, like to hear a good story. We've grown accustomed to hearing stories through video and Internet.
"We try to do the best at sharing a great story and the best story of all is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. You don't ever change the story. You just present it in different ways," Stuart said.
Video illustrations are crucial to services, and Skype even has been used during services to talk to missionaries.
Stuart's wife, Lisa, along with fellow church member Dr. Christine Pascual traveled to Haiti for a mission trip. While there, they were able to Skype during a Grace Bible Church Sunday service.
"We're trying to get that for more of our missionaries to keep us aware of what our missionaries are doing around the world," Stuart said.
Technology helps churches provide moving, relevant services, but it also helps a church become more efficient.
When members are plugged into Facebook, it's a lot easier to get the word out about upcoming events. Canceling an event where 800 people are expected to attend is a lot easier using texts instead of a phone tree, Stuart said.
"It allows us to communicate a lot faster with people. Technology really increases the speed at which we can contact our members," Stuart said.
Then, there's the coolness factor. What better way to reach church members, especially teenagers, than to use tools they love?
Recently, a youth pastor at Grace Bible conducted a Bible study over Facebook. The pastor gave assignments and the teenagers posted comments in response to the Bible passages.
"It worked really well," Stuart said. "I think the demographics of our church is impacted as far as embracing technology. We're a pretty young church. We've got lots and lots of young families. Our embracing technology has impacted our ability to attract young families," Collins said.