There’s an oft-repeated concern that new technology leaves out older church members, but experience and data show that older members actually become more connected through faithful innovations in worship. For example, newer technologies can bridge needs that older members have for support in many areas of accessibility. Churches even have some long-standing tech that we take for granted. For decades, many congregations have used assisted listening devices to help members hear the sermon. A pastoral colleague of mine told me that before the pandemic, her older members ended up appreciating a move from printed hymns to projected hymn slides. The slides used a large font that made it easier for members to see the words and sing along with one another.
More familiar, already accepted innovations like these become part of the church culture, but newer tech can present a hurdle for ministry teams to introduce. That’s when we start hearing that concern about who will be left out, and the type of online ministry that the pandemic ushered in brought those concerns to light in deeper ways. Yet, what we have seen over this past year is that digital ministry has tapped into the already existing way that the vast majority of Americans of all ages use technology.
Reaching an already connected older community
The number of tech-connected older adults in the US is significant. As of 2019, Pew Research reports that 96% of Americans own a cell phone, and the age breakdown shows that 95% of those 50-64 and 91% of those 65 and older own cell phones. Both of these groups show a high rate of Smartphone usage, making an instant, handheld connection to Facebook, YouTube, and other social media channels possible for 79% of those 50-64 and 53% of those 65 and older. In addition to connection via a Smartphone, 88% of those 50-64 and 73% of those 65 and over have home internet.
These numbers appear to be promising, but what do they look like in practice? In my time serving a rural two-point parish, I saw these numbers come to life with well-attended virtual council meetings, digital coffee hours, and online services held over Zoom or Google with a mix of older members joining via telephone, Smartphone, and home computer.
The opportunity for tech to help connect members also brings together generations. When you factor in that some households contain more than one generation and many grandchildren spend time with their grandparents, you can see the incredible potential for a church to reach people online. I experienced this first hand with teens and children—many who did not attend church before the pandemic—joining in for online worship by taking their Smartphones to their grandparents’ home and streaming the service together.
Connecting to people in assisted living
There’s another population of older adults who are often unreached by church due to accessibility. Many in assisted living and group homes did not have a way to physically go to a worship service before the pandemic. Streaming services, prayer meetings, and Bible studies open up new possibilities for those in assisted living. I reached out to nursing homes in the two counties I was serving to find out if they had a public computer that could be accessible for people to watch services. While the staff may not always be able to accommodate this request for every type of online service, working with group homes and assisted living complexes to bring digital offerings to people is worth pursuing. Activity directors can help your church set up ways for people in assisted living to become more connected through tech.
Church tech for all
Despite the fears that can arise around using newer tech in church, it turns out that the pervasiveness of social media, cell phones, and the internet mean that we actually end up serving our existing populations when we faithfully innovate. The majority of our older congregations are already engaging in online spaces. If we as a church don’t reach out to them online, we may actually be missing out on meaningful connections. In fact, older adults often want more tech in areas like online giving, devotions, uplifting Facebook content, and virtual services. When it comes to adopting and using new technology in church, older populations end up being reached and supported.
Which of your older members are active on Facebook or own a Smartphone? Today, try finding an uplifting, visually-rich image like this prayer and share it on your church’s Facebook page. If you’d like to explore more about digital ministry, take a look at this free chapter from Grace and Gigabytes.