In a recent essay in New York Magazine, English author Andrew Sullivan states that “the greatest threat to faith today is not hedonism but distraction.” He criticizes how churches have traded their places of sanctuary and contemplative prayer for “spaces drowned with light and noise” and “emotional spasms.” He praises solitude and meditation as a balm for those who are drained from constant web interaction.

The quiet retreat of a contemplative church might draw what Sullivan calls “a frazzled digital generation” to its doors, but that doesn’t mean churches can expect to reach the app-addicted without having an online presence. According to Darrel Girardier, digital strategy director at Brentwood Baptist Church in Tennessee, churches will indeed have to start asking themselves how they will provide solace from those who are overly connected, but they can’t deny the impact they have when they become part of a person’s daily digital habit. “Whether we like it or not, this is going to be the future,” Girardier said. “We have to figure out how to get there.”

For two churches in Valdosta, Georgia, however, apps are the future they’re embracing right now.

The Virtual Gathering Place

Building an online presence for CrossPointe Church in Valdosta, Georgia, was never a question for its leaders. According to the church’s communications director, Janetta Oni, if there were simply one physical place in town where everyone gathered, the church would need to go there to meet and minister to people. The space to be right now, however, is virtual.

“All the media on people’s cell phones—Facebook and Instagram and apps—it would be irresponsible of us not to take the gospel there,” Oni said. “It would be negligent, actually.”

According to Oni, taking the church online is vital to keeping their established community close as well as connecting with newcomers. Having a mobile app, in particular, benefits the church population in a number of ways. With Moody Air Force Base nearby, families and individuals who once attended the church can relocate and still stay in touch with CrossPointe. The church’s app users can stream live videos of sermons, listen to podcasts produced or endorsed by the church, and keep in touch with their Bible study groups.

Offering a mobile app, she said, also gives smartphone users a practical way to engage with the sermon.

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“Not everyone brings a pen and paper to church,” said Oni, “but everyone brings their cell phone.”

Justin Crenshaw, the youth and college pastor at Valdosta First United Methodist Church, said he has seen a huge increase in giving and other community engagement since the church began using an app two years ago for their contemporary worship service. The app was so widely used that the church has expanded its reach to the entire congregation, which consists of about 900 members.

“We’ve had a definite spike in people listening to podcasts, connecting to small groups, and giving,” Crenshaw said.

After seeing the data, Crenshaw said it’s critical that churches get online to be effective in reaching people. However, Crenshaw and Oni both said some of their older congregants still want printed copies of the weekly bulletin and information about upcoming events. They make sure those printouts are still available, so no one is left out.

The days of folding sheets of copy paper in the church office may not be over, but Crenshaw doesn’t see those days making a comeback, either.

“Everything is online,” he said. “You pay your bills online, and hardly anyone writes a check anymore.”

Appealing to the App-Savvy

Gino Padua, CEO of the mobile app platform Mobile Roadie, said his company began working with churches in 2010, just a year after officially launching at South by Southwest. After working with musical acts, academic institutions, and businesses, the company identified another niche market: religious groups.

Mobile Roadie is just one of several mobile app development companies to recognize that churches are essentially looking for ways to engage with an audience—and an increasingly tech-savvy and tech-dependent audience at that.

Padua noted that churches have unique needs and requests when it comes to communal technology. In addition to keeping churchgoers abreast of church-related events with calendar functions and daily Bible readings, church-specific mobile apps can alert the entire congregation of emergency prayer requests and allow people to tithe or donate securely and privately.

At Valdosta FUMC, online giving has been popular with members who use the church’s app, said Crenshaw. Over at CrossPointe, meanwhile, Oni estimated that the church has had at least 1,000 apps downloaded to date; Sunday attendance at both CrossPointe campuses combined averages 1,300. CrossPointe has worked with its current app for four years, and they’re getting ready to upgrade to an app designed specifically for churches.

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Before a sermon series begins, Oni runs a statistical analysis to discover what is and isn’t working online. She said tracking the data and discussing the interactions on the web at leadership meetings could sound “unspiritual” or like a marketing campaign, which is why it’s addressed upfront whenever ministry teams discuss strategy.

‘Every Number Is an Actual Human Being’

With all the charts and graphs that CrossPointe leaders use to expand their outreach potential, remembering the personal aspect behind it all is important.

“Every number is an actual human being,” Oni said. “Every new follower we make on Instagram is a soul maybe one step closer to coming to church and getting to know Jesus.”

For Crenshaw, having a daily presence online is important, too. Regularly scheduling posts about what God is doing in the church attracts people searching for a way to “plug in” to ministry. He said that in the Valdosta area, people often look for church activities for the children and students in their lives—even if they don’t intend to go to church themselves.

“We’re reaching families through their children nowadays,” Crenshaw said. “It’s not the other way around.”

In the last three years, more than half the families that began attending Valdosta FUMC initially connected through the student ministry. The majority of those found out about the church through social media outlets like Instagram and Twitter.

“Just like Jesus was able to use culturally relevant things of his day—parables are a great example—we use things that people can understand and relate to for furthering the gospel,” Crenshaw said. “Social media is something that we can redeem for the sake of the gospel.”

Crenshaw doesn’t think people are going to check out a church on Sunday morning without having done some searching online: which is why the leadership team at Valdosta FUMC has no reservations about being intentional with their online communications and presence.

“The more they see and the more they hear about good things God is doing in our churches online and by word of mouth, [the more likely] they’re going to check us out for themselves,” said Crenshaw.

Throughout her time as communications director at CrossPointe, Oni has received all kinds of questions submitted online through emails and the church’s social media pages. Some are easier to answer than others. When someone asks what the church is like or checks on event details, it’s one thing. When someone has personal questions or wants to know about CrossPointe’s stance on a controversial topic, it’s time to invite that person to grab coffee for some one-on-one conversation.

“We don’t want to keep people in the web atmosphere,” she said. “We want to bring them to a physical place.”