The anecdotal evidence is everywhere. People are spending more and more time using apps on their smartphones each year. Research shows a 600 percent increase in smartphone usage since 2010.
Churches increasingly are following the trend of developing apps to serve both members and other people interested in the congregation.
For the Rev. Jerome Brimmage, pastor at First United Methodist Church in Lufkin, Texas, the value of a church app became clear when he visited a church during a family vacation. As he walked in, he received the message that the church had an app that would allow him to see the announcements, follow along with the scripture reading and take notes on the sermon.
Brimmage pulled out his phone, downloaded the app in a couple seconds and was ready to follow along when the service began. When it came time to register his attendance, he returned to the app to fill out the online form and clicked "submit." A similar thing happened when it came time for the offering – he contributed online. When the service ended, the app emailed his notes to him as a pdf.
What the app allowed him to do during that hour of worship provided ideas for fulfilling a deep passion for Brimmage, "We are trying to create new and fresh avenues for people to connect to the church." At the same time he is working to encourage regular financial support for the church "in a new world for giving. Younger generations don't have checkbooks."
Not opening worship and other ministries to the world of the smartphone app user limits the ability of millennials and others in the younger generations to engage with the service and honor God with their finances.
Having also used an app as a visitor at another church, Brimmage saw the convergence of two driving ideas for an app to provide new ways for younger people in Lufkin to connect with the people of First Church.
Brimmage and his team began researching church app creators and eventually settled with Sub Splash. In relatively quick order, they had an app ready for release that incorporated an online bulletin, registration, giving, attendance taking, announcements, sermon note taking and a live stream of the worship service.
The staff launched the app digitally announcing it in their weekly email newsletter. They also used inserts in the paper bulletins that said, "Try our new app," and gave instructions on how to find it on iPhones and Androids.
While Lufkin First Church won't be throwing away the offering plates and the pew pads anytime soon, Brimmage reports there "haven't really been any negative comments," which is a feat in itself for most churches. It is not only the younger members and guests using the new tool. Older congregants are also walking in the door comfortable with smartphones.
"For the most part people are glad that it's on there," Brimmage says. "They find it easy that they don't have to fill out a registration pad or card." And the rise in usage of the app-based bulletin is actually saving the church money as it reduces the number of printed copies the staff creates each week.
The people of Lufkin First Church are following in a long line of Methodist and United Methodist technological innovators. Rather than fighting technology, the Methodist movement has often embraced it with John Wesley being among the first to take full advantage of the printing press and moveable type. United Methodists today follow that example as we use the technology of smartphone apps to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
The Rev. Jeremy Steele is Next Generation minister at Christ United Methodist Church, Mobile, Alabama. He is also an author, blogger at jeremywords.com and a frequent contributor to MyCom, an e-newsletter published by United Methodist Communications.