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Do You Know When and How to Use Technology?
By: Phil Elmore

Most people wouldn't mistake me for a "techie." Nor would they call me a "throwback" or "luddite" to describe my relationship with technology. Like many church leaders, I have "embraced" my smartphone, e-mail, our church's website, Facebook, and, yes, I even tweet. Certainly, these and other apps, gadgets, and gizmos do much to help pastors and ministry leaders manage information and serve our communities.

For example, recently I saw a demonstration of some incredible worship software that can be controlled remotely with a smartphone. The software and system was fantastic, providing all kinds of flexibility and application, and. of course, it led me to wonder how many different ways I could use it in my own church.

Since, sometimes, the sheer "gee-whiz" aspect of technology gets the creative juices going, before you knew it, I was engaging a group of other leaders in a "what if" exercise aimed at learning about different applications for the latest and greatest solution. This is just one example, but the same thing occurs almost every year.

What I've also found, however, is that inevitably, the shine goes off this or that technological innovation and any associated or potential applications, and I'm left to wonder:

• Will the effectiveness of our communication really change with this new tool?
• Are we communicating in the best way to each and every member of our congregation?
• Are there aspects of the "means" of the communication that are compromising the "ends"?
• Are we spending more time worried about getting the technology right than we are about the message itself?

The last question calls to mind Marshall McLuhan's famous "medium is the message" phrase from the 1960s, in which he argued that the technology, the communication medium itself, influences and can sometime subordinate the message.

I wonder how often that very thing has happened in my own ministry. Is that great announcement we put up on the website obsolete by now? Did we miss 40 percent of the congregation with that last e-mail blast? What about the people who didn't make it to service this weekend?

In the case of the smartphone-controlled worship software, one side of me thought that having such a tool would be wonderful – even "differentiating" (to use a marketing term) – as churches in our region go. However, another side of me said, "Nah. It's a bit of a reach for a stationary church like ours, and I'm just not sure if we really need those features. And, besides, what will I actually be saying differently as a result of using such a tool?"

And then it hit me. What I might be saying through worship software or e-mail or texting or the bulletin or a newsletter or an entry on Facebook or Twitter is probably often heard very differently than how I'd intended it to sound. And that's because with so many of these technology tools, I lose my voice.

I lose inflection. I lose context. I lose the ability to use one of God's principal gifts to me – my voice – in the service of His will.

It's not that I can't write reasonably well. It's rather that much of what I write – especially in text, e-mail or social media – simply does not do justice to the individuals and groups I serve. Elements of my personality, emotion and ministerial skills too often become muted or misunderstood with these kinds of tools. Given the limits of the Morse-code like Twitter and text environments, how do I truly convey empathy, urgency, tenderness, and encouragement?

I'll give you an example. I received a text message from a phone number I didn't recognize. The sender indicated an "urgent prayer need" for a family member. It took four to five text exchanges to begin to understand who the person was – a woman I'd known from a prior ministry – and the exact nature of her request (to pray for a son-in-law in harm's way with an Army unit in Afghanistan).

Perhaps she thought I'd recognize her phone number. Perhaps she thought the "tone" of her text message was understood. I felt awful that it took so long to convey understanding, comfort, and the assurance that our community would pray for her son-in-law.

In another age, she might have picked up the phone or come by to see me. I could have heard in her voice or seen in her eyes the depth of her worry. In the midst of a busy day, much of my understanding was initially lost through our text exchange, delaying the real value of my role in this woman's life: spiritual support.

This is not a diatribe about e-mail and text and social media. Certainly, those are tools that have their places. But insofar as we have a range of communication options at our fingertips, I urge church leaders of every kind to think carefully about the power and presence of the human voice…and maintaining the integrity of that voice and the messages it carries. 

You depend on your voice every day in your personal and professional life. You are known by your voice. People who know you will not have to see you to know it's you. How many times have you received a phone call, and you immediately knew who it was without asking? How many times have you heard someone talking without being able to see his or her face, or heard someone on the radio, and instantly knew who it was? It's the power of the human voice – the power to influence and lead – that makes you so uniquely valuable to your community.

Our influence as church leaders is not fixed. It is not guaranteed. This influence – this "brand" of ours, if you will – is fragile, even perishable.

Why leave something so important to the possibility of confusion or misunderstanding because your voice has been rendered secondary to the means of communication? In business terms, why weaken your leverage through communication that can often lack the emotion, immediacy, and power of your voice?

Amidst all of the wonderful technology available today, please ask yourself the question, "Through which of these tools can I best reach each member of my congregation?" 

It's not that you won't use printed (or electronically typed) text. It's not that you won't delegate some portion of your communications to other church leaders. And, in fact, you may feel you communicate best through your writing, that you are able to best capture your "voice" through your written word.

However, I suspect that most people who know you – the young and old, the rich or poor, the tech-savvy or not – recognize you and your passion, insight, and leadership  through your audible, unique voice.

And, when they can't actually hear that voice in all its glorious nuances and God-given color, are they somehow getting shortchanged? Are you leaving some of the meaning to chance and interpretation?

The word "voice" or "voices" is mentioned over 500 times in scripture. We must be careful not to lose the leverage we have as leaders by allowing technology to replace one of the greatest assets we have be given by our Father. 

We need to speak up. And, when we can't do it in the sanctuary, perhaps we just need to pick up the phone.

Phil Elmore is lead pastor of Fields of Grace Worship Center in Covington, Ohio.

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