Churches in Bend reflect trend toward technology

BEND — When Phil Kooistra and his wife felt called to launch a church in Bend, they planted the technological seeds months before loading a moving truck.

From Port Angeles, Wash., the pastor not only created a Facebook page for the new Grace Bible Church, he also took out ads on the social media site targeting Central Oregonians based on their "likes": God, Jesus, family, certain colleges, pastors with similar styles.

Kooistra also started a Twitter feed and focused on getting Grace Bible Church to pop up first on search engines.

By the time the Kooistras moved to Bend in August, they had already established an online network. Grace Bible Church within months grew to about 70 regular congregants, who attend Sunday services at Innovation Theatre Works in Bend.

"Social media is our initial doorway," Kooistra said. "I'd say 95 percent of people find us through Facebook or Twitter."

Like many enterprises in today's marketplace, churches and other religious organizations are finding it increasingly critical to go digital for both internal and external outreach.

For some, like the fledgling Grace Bible Church, the Web is the web that builds and binds congregations.

Other churches are juggling both the new way and the old.

Keeping up, said Greg Bolt, youth pastor at Bend's First Presbyterian Church, is a decent amount of work.

Some people want a paper newsletter, while others want an email. Parents like to read about the church's youth group on Facebook, while pastors must communicate with teenagers via text message.

"We are living in that world where we have one foot on either side of the fence," said Leanne Woods, communications director for Westside Church in Bend. "We've got one foot in technology and one foot in paper newsletters and programs for those who don't want to use technology."

Yet as people become more and more comfortable in the online world, churches will also strengthen their Web presence, said Mara Einstein, an associate professor of media studies at City University of New York who studies the marketing of religion.

"Churches are really no different than anyone else in how they market themselves," she said. "They go where the people are. And where people are right now is online."

The question that remains is whether the Internet will also change the nature of faith. Einstein said the Web offers tools that perhaps change the packaging, but the product remains the same.

"You're not changing the fundamental beliefs of the faith," she said.

Courtney Campbell, a religion professor at Oregon State University, said the key will be whether people continue to gather together or if they feel they can fulfill religious needs from a screen. The latter, he said, is depersonalized.

"Religion," he said, "like so many other social institutions, is adapting and trying to maintain its integrity in a society driven by technology."

Today an online presence is almost necessary in building a religious community.

Brenda Brasher, an academic and author of the book "Give Me That Online Religion," said being on the Web today is just the latest way to show society that a church is firmly rooted.

Centuries ago, the way churches communicated this was with an impressive cathedral or steeple, Brasher said. Now the Web is more important than a phonebook entry or a roadside sign.

"The contemporary way to say 'we're here' is to be on Facebook," she said.

For Kooistra, the Web is the place to connect with young families like his own.

He asks newcomers how they found Grace Bible Church. The majority say they asked friends and looked online, or they cite the Internet exclusively. They also have listened to several sermons posted on the church's website before deciding to attend a service.

"We didn't do the traditional stuff, like fliers and door hangars," Kooistra said.

Those who type into Google "Bible church, Bend" will see the results of Kooistra's legwork.

"We might pop up faster than a church that's been here for 20 years," he said.

Kimi Miller recalled that when she and her husband, Pastor Dave Miller, started the Bend Christian Fellowship 22 years ago she took her children to parks, seeking to meet people who might be interested in trying a new church.

Now the fellowship, which already posts sermons online, is revamping its website.

"We definitely believe the website is the greatest tool we have, besides one-on-one connection," she said.

Another reason churches must seek out new membership online, several academics said, is the changing loyalties in our culture. A young couple new to town is less likely to seek out a Lutheran church just because they were raised Lutheran.

One called it "picnic spirituality."

"It plays into the consumer model of our culture," Campbell said. "We're a culture that wants to have choices about virtually everything, including where we worship."

Bolt said this will continue to be true with younger generations, like those born to Baby Boomers typically called Generation Y or millennials.

"For millennials," he said, "it's about how faith calls them to live, not about what 'club' to be a part of."

Local congregations are also using technological tools to take religious contemplation beyond Sunday services, another step in helping make faith about more than the Sunday club meeting.

Bolt said First Presbyterian will post a snippet of video slated for use in that week's service on its Facebook page to prime parishioners on what is coming up.

Likewise, the church posts thoughts of the day during Lent on its Facebook page, generating dialogue among parishioners even when they aren't in the same room.

"We're really seeking to continue a conversation," Bolt said. "It allows us the opportunity to share these stories more easily than in the past."

Campbell called this a democratizing of religion, giving a forum for discussion that "might not have taken place in a traditional worship setting."

For large congregations, using technology has become essential in maintaining an intimate atmosphere amid numbers.

Westside Church in Bend counts a congregation of approximately 2,200 adults, with 150 of those regularly attending services at a satellite campus on the city's south side.

Woods, Westside's communications director, said the church makes use of myriad technological tools, from Web-based calendars for internal scheduling to online dropboxes for music to a YouTube channel for videos.

Sermons are available in podcast form on iTunes and as MP3s.

And Woods said the church records sermons on video and broadcasts them at both of its sites. Those attending service at the south campus, for instance, see a video about 70 percent of the time. That way the message and themes are united every week across the congregation.

Woods said Westside Church sees using Web tools as critical to its core.

"For us, it's reaching the next generation," she said. "So if they're on Facebook, we're on Facebook."

While amassing Facebook followers might build prestige, it's still not the goal for area churches.

The ideal remains building interpersonal connection and loyalty to the faith.

"If there aren't people in our pews, who cares how many likes we have on Facebook?" Bolt said.

Donna Jacobsen, youth pastor at Trinity Episcopal Church in Bend, said technology can help get teenagers' attention but they will soon see through it if it's just a veneer.

"They do still need to know that you're really there on the personal level," she said.

And religious communion, Campbell said, has historically been a tactile experience, complete with standing, kneeling, singing and praying among your neighbors. The online world can't re-create that.

Einstein said churches need to work to convince people that they need that physical experience.

She said about 25 percent of Americans regularly attend Sunday church services.

"That's not to say people aren't religious or don't have faith," she said. "They're just going other places to find it."

Einstein also referred to the Internet as the door for congregations, more than the glue.

"Anybody can get anybody to come," she said. "Are you providing a service that people find value in once they get there?"

For all his Web savvy, Kooistra said the Grace Bible Church wouldn't have grown so quickly if it didn't offer meaningful communion.

"It's the supplement," he said, "not the replacement."

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