On a Web and a prayer

Church IT pros looking to help attract parishioners with more interactive services.

"Will you now open your laptops to the Web page in your program and recite the following passage. . . ."

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No, this is not your father's church. This is the sort of thing parishioners at the Granger Community Church (GCC) in Granger, Ind., hear from their pastor every Sunday.

GCC is possibly the most wired and Web-savvy church in the country (read our story about what its technology director provides in the church's blog). It maintains an active Wi-Fi hot spot during services, and parishioners are encouraged to bring laptops along with their hymnals to access Web pages relevant to that day's service or church events.

"We try to be as innovative and as cutting edge as we can, because the culture in this area is looking for it," says Jason Powell, technology director at GCC.

Powell and GCC use network technology to reach out to the people the church is looking to attract: married urban professionals between the ages of 35 and 45, with children, mortgages and other daily household routines, who were turned off by church while growing up.

"People in our area are expecting a certain quality level," Powell says. "How can we be relevant in today's culture?"

Enabling wireless Internet access before, during and after service is one way. Having a Web portal page with links and downloadable PDFs that pastors and parishioners can refer to during service is another.

Yet another is a wireless kiosk GCC deploys for hosting a church management system that registers and tracks children participating in the church's weekend activities. The kiosk locates a match for the parishioner's phone number and prints a unique identifier sticker for parent and child to be presented when the child is picked up.

Granger Community Church sponsors wiredChurches.com, which provides access to information and Webcasts about church-related resources.

Though innovative and cutting-edge, wireless kiosks and electronic missals are not yet wholly embraced by all GCC congregants. Only about six parishioners boot up during service, Powell says.

But this is still an example of how some churches are employing the latest network technology to better serve their parishioners. Church IT officials are also employing blogs, podcasts and other Web-based communication tools to share their experiences and offer tips.

"Our Web presence is integral to our communications strategy," says Clifton Guy, director of IT at The United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan. "We average more than 10,000 visits per week to our site, with 1,700 views of our sermon on streaming video. We have approximately 500 subscribers to our sermon podcast. We also send out a weekly e-mail newsletter to 10,000 subscribers promoting opportunities at the church by linking back to the Web site."

Guy says the church's senior pastor sends a weekly e-mail to the congregation promoting church activities, answering theological questions, talking about his upcoming sermon and so forth. The United Methodist Church of the Resurrection has approximately 60% of its square footage covered by free Wi-Fi.

"The coverage includes our sanctuary, so it is possible for people to use it during worship services," Guy says. "However, we don't encourage it or have any applications making use of it."

Church IT is not unlike that in a small or midsize business. Both have VPN, data backup and wireless LAN implementation issues.

But churches have more volunteers than businesses. Forty percent of GCC's 6,000 weekend congregants also volunteer their time to the church, Powell says.

"We have the same struggles with backup and security, but businesses don't utilize volunteers typically," he says. "If they need information, how do we make it easy for them without opening up giant security holes?"

Some of the technical issues churches must consider when granting network access to volunteers and guests is whether that access is through an SSL VPN or via a terminal service. GCC staff access the church network through single sign-on permissions with Active Directory, but granting such permissions to 2,400 volunteers may open the network to hazards, Powell says.

Another issue is how to limit the amount of information volunteers receive from the church and not deluging everyone with data that may not pertain to them.

"The last place you want to get spam is from your own church," Powell says. "We still haven't found anything that makes it easy to manipulate volunteer data."

Some congregants volunteer for IT duty, Powell says, though not many even though GCC needs people steeped in security, Linux and other open source technologies. Malware also must be extracted from the church's 175 PCs. On one occasion, GCC sought out the expertise of a congregant who was using his Apple Macintosh PowerBook laptop during a service.

"That's our Mac guru," Powell says, acknowledging GCC's need for Mac expertise. "He had his PowerBook open at one of our services so we engaged him."

United Methodist Church of the Resurrection screens IT volunteers carefully because they have access to sensitive and confidential information, such as contribution records, Guy says.

Use of Web technologies in church IT may not be entirely new, but it is growing, Guy says. Two years ago, the church redesigned its site to use an open source content management system. Since then, the site has roughly doubled its active pages to more than 1,200. The church launched its podcast about a year ago.

Guy says the advances employed by church IT make it easier for people to find a place of worship.

"I don't know whether people seek out a wired church, but we do try to make it easy for people to find us on the Web and learn about the church before coming to visit for the first time," he says.

"Frequently people are surprised by how high-tech our church is. They often come with an impression of what church is like from 30 years ago or more and are surprised to discover that leading churches are using technology extensively to enhance church life."

Got an idea for A Wider Net story? An offbeat technology industry-related topic? A fascinating personality we should profile? Contact Executive News Editor Bob Brown atbbrown@nww.com

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