SPECIAL REPORT: High Tech Faith - WTVM.com-Columbus, GA News Weather & Sports

SPECIAL REPORT: High Tech Faith

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As part of the Bible Belt, we have hundreds of churches in the Chattahoochee Valley and tens of thousands of churchgoers.

Some are attending church without leaving their couch, thanks to services streaming online.

Nowadays, many people use iPhones and iPads inside what you might call iChurch, but are the gadgets replacing God?

We went behind the scenes at several local churches to dig deeper into this "High Tech Faith."

It's your typical service at The Ridge church in Columbus. The same music and sermon are also on the church's app, more proof that technology is changing the way many people "do" church.

On Sundays, Pastor Jimmy McIlrath even encourages those in the congregation to follow along in their online versions of The Bible.

"We live in a very high tech world, so if we're going to reach those people, we need to be able to speak their language - Facebook, email, blog, apps," said Pastor McIlrath.

Pastor McIlrath said more people visit the church before they actually ever walk onto the campus itself, thanks to their church's website and app.

"Somebody came up to me and said, I'm so glad we have the app because we've had to be out of town."

"My cell phone is now my mode of getting into the Word. I use our Ridge app during the service and after the service at home."

Pastor Quinn Hardnett founded New Destiny Church International six years ago, and says in that time, high-tech gear has become a much bigger part of what happens in the house of God.

He argues if churches don't get on board with technology, they could lose a whole generation.

"You'd be shocked by the number of people who've actually come and visited and joined, just by seeing us on Facebook or Twitter," said Pastor Hardnett. "I even use it during the service. I ask them to get their phones out and actually tweet a quote from the service."

He preaches every Sunday with an iPad and smart phone by his side.

Large screens, fancy lighting, an updated audio board, video editing equipment all can be costly for churches like Cascade Hills... but Joel Warder, the production manager for their services, says the payoff is worth it - more people showing up and hearing God's Word. Social media can provide that first impression.

"We may have live Twitter or Instagram feed scrolling on the screen, people sharing what Cascade Hills means to them," Warder said.   

It's not for everyone. Some in the older generations don't like to see so many gadgets in church. More than a third of people believe churches are becoming too much about technology, and eight percent say it goes against tradition. Many still bring their physical Bibles.

"I want to hold the Word in my hand," said Daniel Burnett, church member at The Ridge. "I've studies the Bible to 10 years and like my Bible."

But about three out of four church members read Bibles electronically, on an iPad or their smartphone, and overall, 41 percent of Americans read the Bible online. The YouVersion Bible app just recently hit 100 million downloads, offering 617 versions of the good book.

"It's got the same stuff in it," said Pastor Hardnett about his iPad and Bible. "We're not diluting the Gospel, but we're simply adding flavor to it."

The Ridge's pastor remembers when they held church inside a dark movie theater.

"I could not see anyone until I said let's look at our scripture for the day and all of a sudden, their faces lit up," said Pastor McIlrath.

"You see a wide range of that glow of tablets, smart phones, as well as people bringing their Bibles," said Warder.  

"And if we can get them to disconnect from Candy Crush for an hour and then use their phone as a source for God's Word, they have a Bible available to them at all times," said Pastor McIlrath.

Pastor Quin Hardnett puts all his sermons on a tablet, and he says teenagers who attend their church tell friends about their pastor using an iPad in the pulpit.

"We are drawing a younger demographic," said Pastor Hardnett.  

"As technology spreads and becomes more and more part of our daily life, it, to me makes sense for the church to tap into that to reach the people using those technologies," Warder said.  

Another priority is high quality video of your church service. Cascade Hills uses at least 4 or 5 video cameras, one swooping above the churchgoers, while Bible scriptures and lyrics are displayed on big screens.

Pastors say they also use technology to connect people within the 4 walls. Some encourage tweeting from the pews.

"There's a way you can actually do a (Twitter) poll while sitting in the seats and you get instant results on stage," said Pastor McIlrath.

And for those who can't be in church, like soldiers deployed or elderly shut-ins, they can usually watch the service online, from anywhere.

"A pastor can stand in Columbus and be simulcast across the world," said Pastor Hardnett.  

One argument against all the technology is the need for face-to-face interaction. Pastors agree, but say these gadgets are sometimes the only way to reach people.

They also say not having a Bible used to be a barrier for new people to church, but now everyone can follow along on apps.

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