Geeks and God

12 comments | Posted: 1 December 08 in Interviews, by Yannick Lyn Fatt

Recently I managed to get in touch with the two gentlemen who host the Geeks and God podcast, Bob Christenson (a.k.a Rob Feature) and Matt Farina (a.k.a MF). I first heard about the Geeks and God Podcast from one of our community members. Since then, I’ve been listening to each episode and have found them very interesting and informative.


Yannick:

Could you tell us a bit about yourselves and how you both got started in Web development/design?

Matt

I got my first taste of web development back in 1996 when the web was nothing like it is today. I built a website for my high school. But, when I went to college I studied electrical engineering and spent most of my time studying or enjoying the college experience. At the start of my junior year of college I started working at an internet service provider where I got more than a taste of where the Internet had come. That’s when I first got into web based programming with PHP and started being a server administrator. Programming was something I had been doing since 1989 so I picked web based programming up fairly quickly.

After college I worked as an electrical engineer for several years doing diagnostic and testability engineering. During this time I was developing websites on the side. As that took over more of my personal time it eventually became what I do full time.

Bob:

I actually didn’t start anywhere near the web design field. I actually started as an audio-guy, working in the recording industry. I had been producing local records since the age of 18 through my college years then, after graduating from Michigan State, I opened a recording studio serving regional acts. From there I moved onto a national studio doing label work…but God called me away from
that business and I started working at a church creating video, graphics, and web for weekly services while also heading up the live tech team. That got my feet wet in web design, but I was still a do-all media guy…not really a web specialist. After working there, I started Mustardseed Media Inc as a way to help ministries to produce top quality media (mostly print design, at that point) for not a ton of money. Over the years my business drifted more and more into the area of dynamic web design and development. Matt turned me onto the Drupal CMS over 3 years ago, and I’ve been designing and developing interactive church websites ever since.


Yannick:

Your podcast “Geeks and God” seeks to educate and encourage technology in Christian ministries, Why do you think some Christian ministries are playing catch up and how can we get our church leaders to see the benefits of these technologies and better utilize them?

Matt:

Should churches try to keep up with technology? To start, there are a number of churches trying to keep up with technology that shouldn’t. In there mission to seek and save the lost it’s not their calling to chase technology. It’s good for them not to jump on the new fads.

Where some churches try to keep up on technology they try to takes what’s being done in the commercial world and fit it to their church. Churches aren’t businesses so this can fail. The way technology should be used in churches is often different than it is in the business world and those differences aren’t taken into account. This leads to them looking like they are behind the ball because their solution is out of place.

One of the biggest factors I’ve seen with church technology, especially in web based technologies, is a lack of training and experience. The developers building the next new fad know the underlying technology and the leaders behind the project have an idea how it fits in with culture and the business world, or they have been able to sell a cool idea for a lot of funding.

The church often will try to clone a business idea that just don’t fit in the church. Or, the developers don’t have the same skill level. This is where I hope Geeks and God can be effective. I would like to empower more people to be able to do good technological stuff where God is calling us to.

Bob:

My first question is, I hope, a convicting one to anyone (including me) who is frustrated by the Church’s inability to keep up: Why are we trying to keep up? Do we ever think about our motive? Is it just because our ‘competition’ (Hollywood, big business, the music industry) is doing it? Are we doing it to look ‘cool’? Or, are we still focused on Jesus and spreading the Gospel and that’s truly what’s causing our frustration.

You won’t hear many technology guys say this, but, I don’t believe that every church should be trying to ‘keep up’. For example, I know of small churches in small towns who shouldn’t waste time, money, or energy on building a Web 2.0 style church website. It just wouldn’t be effective in spreading the Gospel in their situation. Neither would video production, awesome lighting, or any other technological wonder. So, the first thing I ask is “Why are you trying to keep up? Is it going to more effectively spread the Gospel in the mission field God gave you?” or is it because you want cool and impressive toys? That’s the first question to answer.

Beyond that (and to actually answer the question) I think we’ve fallen behind because The Message is too important. Big companies, which lead the way in cutting edge technology, don’t really care about people…they care about selling product. So, when it comes time to leap forward in their technology or their product’s image, they’re bound to leave some people behind. Those people are just causalities of the corporate war. But churches can’t do that. Change management in a church is more crucial because we can’t afford to leave people due to the potential eternal consequences. This means we need to move slower and more carefully when changing anything such as technology, worship styles, our website, or anything else that may shake people up. This thoughtful movement makes us slower, but I think it’s result of lagging behind in technology is better than the alternative: Turning existing or new believers away from Eternity just because we want a cooler website. (but don’t get me wrong…I’m just as frustrated as the next guy)


Yannick:

What tips would you give churches and ministries looking to get started on the web?

Matt:

Look before you leap. Launching your website doesn’t need to happen in the next 3 months. You don’t have to mortgage you church building for funding to buy a powerful sound system. Take a deep breath and look before you leap. Making sure what you invest your time and money in is part of your calling and will aid in your ministry. Technology is meant to help us with the mission of the church and your church specifically. Make sure your investment does that.

Bob:

My number one tip for getting started on the web is simple: Start using it. Too many churches and ministries (and especially church and ministry leaders like pastors) know that the web is important but they don’t really understand how it works. They don’t understand how the web connects real people in everyday life and how this can, then, grow Christian relationship and spread the Gospel of Christ. So, the first step is NOT to jump out and develop your own website. It’s to start using the popular tools of the web in your everyday life. Sign up for Facebook. Start using Twitter. Transition some of your work over to Google Docs to work collaboratively. Using the existing tools and starting to see how they can form real relationship and collaborative results is the only way to start understanding how the web works and why it’s so crucial to the future of ministry. Once you’ve done this for a while, then think about producing something specifically for your church.


Yannick:

You recently had the Geeks and God conference. Could you tell us a bit more about that and how it went?

Matt:

When we put on the Geeks and God conference we wanted to educate pastors and ministry leaders. It was a kind of trial run to see if we could talk to ministry leaders and help them see how technology is affecting our culture and where it might be a helpful part of their ministry.

I consider the conference to be a huge success. It helped us learn a lot more about where church leaders are at and, I hope, it helped them understand where technology is going.

Bob:

The conference we did was sort of a test. We wanted to see if what we do on the podcast could translate well into a meetup in real life. It was a total success and helped us envision where we could take it from there. The goal was to educate pastors and minsitry leaders on why the web (especially the social networking side of it) is so crucial for Churches and ministries now and will be required in the future. It was to help them see how not to get left behind as we propel into the future. It was also an awesome opportunity to connect with our podcast listeners who travelled a really long way to get together…and that was just awesome to meet some of them face to face. We plan on doing more in the future all over the US and we’re looking for churches that want to host it. People can contact us from our website if they want more info on hosting a conference.


Yannick:

You use Drupal for Geeks and God and promote it as well. Could you tell us why you like Drupal and why churches and ministries should consider it as a CMS for their websites?

Matt:

I’m a big fan of Drupal as a platform for web development. It’s not appropriate for everything but for many of your standard web sites it makes for a great platform. I like Drupal as a developer because of its community of developers and its drive implement good solutions taking advantage of the latest technology trends.

I think churches should consider Drupal because Drupal and the available add-ons provide a lot of functionality out of the box you would need to pay tens of thousands of dollars to develop. Couple that with the support companies like Acquia and you have a stable system, backed by support, where the goal is to provide a quality product to content publishers.

Bob:

Drupal rocks. We’re total fanatics about it (but don’t let that discount everything we’re about to say). Drupal is an Open Source CMS which is really more of a framework than it is a closed management system. I always tell my clients that “We can build anything you can possibly dream up” with Drupal, and that’s 100% true. Unlike some other CMS packages, Drupal is intended to be totally open and totally modular which makes building VERY powerful customized websites affordable and solid. Drupal has a huge development community and thousands of plug-in functionalities all at your disposal. This is good for long term support, security and assurance that your Drupal-built website will be supported for many years into the future. Drupal is perfect for churches because it’s so user and community based. It’s developed to be a very user-centric system which means that churches can build very powerful social-networking-style church websites, which is where every church should be headed. Did I mention that it won the Best Overall 2008 Open Source CMS Award for a second year in a row? Yeah. It’s rocks that much.


Yannick:

What are some of the modules that you think might be useful for a church website running Drupal?

Matt:

There are more than a few useful Drupal modules and they depend on what kind of church website you are building. If you are building a community site Organic Groups is a module to consider. The basic modules of Views and CCK will be used on most sites. Beyond that it really depends on what you want to do.

Bob:

One of the most crucial modules for churches to get to know and love is the Organic Groups (OG) module. This module is a great way to build smaller interactive communities on your church website. Each ministry, each small group, or each organization within your church can become a small online network where people can join the group, post content into that group, have it’s own calendar, photo galleries, and much more all in little silos on your church website. It’s a core piece of every social-style church website I build.


Yannick:

You recently redesigned the Geeks and God website. What prompted the redesign and what are some of the challenges you faced and things you learnt that you can apply to other sites in the future?

Matt:

We had wanted to redesign the Geeks and God website for a long time. The previous design came from a 12 hour, mountain dew filled, cram session. The design was filled with bad code, there was design debt from doing things the way Drupal used to do them, and the design was targeted at being a podcast and we have grown into a community. It really felt yucky.

In the redesign we migrated everything to a solid data model. We cleaned up most of the design debt leaving the site fairly clean. In order to do this we had to take the site offline for several weeks. Bob converted the design to one that’s easier to read. In the architecture we added more features to aid the community.

The big lesson I learned is try to do it right the first time. Taking the extra time up front can save you a lot of grief later. And, always have a sound data model to store all of your information.

Bob:

The original Geeks and God website was built, as they say, “Back in the Day”. The site was built back when Drupal didn’t contain many of the most powerful and flexible functionality that it does today. So, by running that older version of the system we weren’t getting many major benefits that is in the newer software. Also, Matt and I were both relatively new to Drupal when we built the original site. We’ve built dozens upon dozens of websites on the platform since that original build so we never stopped learning what makes a better website (in both design and development). We wanted to pour all that knowledge into a redesign.

Most importantly, however, we never dreamed when we first built the site that a community would form around the podcast. We originally envisioned the website as a simple tool for delivering podcast episodes. But, since it started, a massive community has grown up around the show and we just didn’t build the site to support or cater to that. So, we’ve made many ‘community-centered’ changes with the redesign that should offer much more functionality for the awesome people that hang out there.


Yannick:

Could you tell us how you both came to faith in Jesus Christ?

Matt:

I’m a Christian lifer. I was raised by Christian parents in a Christian household. There is no great conversion story in my life.

That being said, I’ve had a few ‘God Moments’ where God revealed himself in some very powerful ways. I’ve, also, had my rocky moments with faith.

Bob:

I’m a ‘lifer’. I was born into the church, into a very dedicated Christian family. To be totally honest, I’m not really into having a “came to faith” story because, in my life, God has moved slow and steady, bringing me up through small and subtle life changes. I didn’t have a conversion moment. I didn’t have a single ‘ah ha!’ moment in my faith walk and I think that can be a very powerful fact if you understand it correctly. I don’t think God always works in a flash-bang sort of way…I think more often than not he works in the ‘every day’…the mundane….to enrich our relationship with him. It takes a lot more work to grow your faith when there’s no ‘new found faith’ or new emotional charge, but I think that’s what also makes my faith so solid and reliable…I’m running a faith marathon with Him running beside me and he gives me what I need to be sustained.


Yannick:

Is there anything else you would like to add before we close?

Matt:

Technology should be used in a way that meets the needs of the ministry in the way God is calling that ministry to be. This means the off the shelf solution for a business is often inappropriate and inadequate for churches because they aren’t businesses. They need a solution that’s different. A solution built to support them in their mission.

Bob:

I think, personally, I want to caution churches when it comes to technology (I know, that sounds counter to what I normally might say). Technology is an amazing tool but also a VERY distracting one (on the caliber of sex or money). I see many churches (and technologically savvy Christians) who think that ‘getting my church to understand and use technology’ is the most important thing. I’m starting to see lots of churches forget what Church is about. I’ve seen technology, media, and fancy production put Jesus Christ and his Message (which is MUCH more powerful than any technology) into the backseat while putting technology in the driver’s seat. I suggest that every church think long and hard about which technology they pursue and WHY their pursuing it. Is it just to keep up with the secular Jonses? Is it just to entertain people so they come back for more whiz-bang? Or, is it being used to spread the already powerful message of Jesus Christ? It’s a question I ask myself, personally, every single day.

Discuss This Topic

  1. 1 Marvia

    Thanks for the excellent information you both shared. And thanks for the interview Yannick. As a pastor with an interest in technology, I recognize the importance of technology and am already seeing the impact on our congregation with the basics nothing flashy or disruptive.

    Now here is my challenge – I can’t seem to convert the youth (notice I didn’t say the elderly!) of the congregation to go beyond Social Networks and online chats to actually get interested in managing the website the church is on my case to put up. I don’t want to have to be manager for that too. Any suggestions as to how I might win them (even one) over?

    Thanks again.

     
  2. 2 Deborah

    Thanks for the great interview Yannick. I enjoyed reading how Bob and Matt got started in web work, and especially liked their comments on church’s use of technology. I didn’t know Bob was in Michigan!

     
  3. 3 Tim

    Wonderful article they have just found a new listener!

     
  4. 4 Robert

    First off, great interview!

    I’m not sure I quite agree with some of the statements that allude to the fact that the Church shouldn’t try and keep up with technology, to some degree.

    In my view, the internet is another language to use to spread the Gospel Message and to disregard it, because of Church size, to me, doesn’t seem the right course of action.

    Today’s youth speaks and listens to technology; it’s their language and one which you can reach them by.

    Perhaps I might have misunderstood what was intended.

     
  5. 5 Steve K

    I have listened to Rob and Matt for some time and this interview offered a new perspective to what they have done – excellent info!

    This interview touched on things I find I need to check myself on, from time to time. The shiny new stuff that can be done with technology can be distracting and lead us away from delivering the message and continuing the work of Jesus Christ. I have to remind myself that we are in ministry and using technology, not trying to adapt our ministry to the technology.

    As for Robert’s comments, I think the message Rob and Matt are trying to get across is the message is more important than the messenger. Each of us and the churches and ministries we support has a unique community we serve. Look at what makes sense in your situation and reaches your community.

    The Internet is a ministry field and a communication vehicle. But, even with 1+ billion people on the Internet, that still leaves 3-4 billion people that aren’t

    Blessings!
    Steve

     
  6. 6 Robert

    Steve K: I totally agree that the Message is more important than the messenger. However, it was not my point that technology should be the focus, instead of the message, but rather that technology is a language to use to speak the Message.

    Technology today is akin to a Natural Spoken Language. It is the youth of today’s vernacular. IMHO, to simply not speak it, when you can, isn’t an option. IMHO, it would be like John (the Apostle) saying I can speak Greek, but I’m not going to speak to the Greeks in their language about what Jesus did for us.

    I give an example, using my Church. It is a small Church with almost every member being well over 60 years old. It’s a very traditional Church and hardly uses technology at all – they have typewriters instead of computers. Here’s the problem, there is a total of 3 people who are under 60, and if something isn’t done, this Church will die when the members pass on to heaven.

    I worked to get a website up for the Church and some SEO for it. We are now getting younger members in, because they found the Church via our website. However, not one person in our Church – before our new members – would have benefitted in any way from adding any type of technology.

    So, my point is, yes, we should look to support our unique community, but don’t ride off technology just because the current congregation has no need for it. There just might be people out there that your “technology” can reach to bring them into your Church.

     
  7. 7 Steve K

    Robert – your example is perfect.

    Technology was not applied for the sake of technology, but for the sake of the ministry. You saw a need within your congregation (reaching out for new members), identified a way to reach them (online communication) and had a goal you could measure (young people joining your congregation). Another significant factor is how your 60-somethings reacted towards the new 20-somethings attending your church. They need a common language, apart from the technology realm, in order to sustain their relationships.

    Technology by itself does not change lives, it only enables change for those who use it.

    If you were to have simply said “I will create a web site for my church because this is the 21st century and we have the technology” – that is an approach that puts the technology ahead of the ministry. To extend the language concept, if you found a way to reach and attract new members that only spoke Spanish, but when they arrived the rest of the congregation only spoke English and the entire worship service was conducted in English, you have not been successful in reaching those new members.

    Technology certainly has a place in your ministry, but it is only part of your overall plan. You need to be deliberate in choosing which technologies to apply, how to apply them and supporting the people and relationships to strengthen the community of believers.

    Peace!

     
  8. 8 Robert

    Steve K: Maybe that is where I misunderstood what was said: “Technology was not applied for the sake of technology…”

    That I completely agree with, but not just for Churches but for anything, including business and seems like a such a common sense thing to me.

    I tend to think that every Church should have a web presence because you will never know who is looking for a Church, where you are. It can be a one pager with your main details, etc. To me, it’s like having your number in the Phone Book, it’s just a given because there are seekers out there that you can reach and never know they were looking.

    So, given that, and my view of it being common sense to not use technology just so you can say you are, probably led me to misunderstand some of the interview.

     
  9. 9 Rob Feature

    Hey Guys!
    First, thanks to Godbit for doing this interview. It brought answers out of both of us that, even we, didn’t know we’d give. I think it’s a way that The Spirit has been moving in Matt and I (and Geeks & God) lately.

    This interview is partially responsible for inspiring an upcoming episode of Geeks & God which, after December 15, 2008, will be found over at http://geeksandgod.com/episode103

    On that podcast, we mention this article (and probably didn’t properly thank Godbit) and talk all about this issue of technology’s role in the church. Thanks again for the opportunity to have this conversation!

     
  10. 10 Matt Farina

    Thanks for the interview Godbit. This interview really got us thinking which is usually a good thing.

    Robert: Here’s a tough question and one my grandmothers church is struggling with. Should the church with almost all of its members being over 60 try to adapt to bring in a younger crowd? I think this is a tough question for us to ask, especially if we are honest. When I think of the mission of the church it’s to go and make disciples. This doesn’t necessarily mean we try to alter a church of older members to make it him and cool. I don’t think that would do anything but make it hard for the older members to worship.

    But, I don’t think its good to do nothing either. I recently learned about a church with much older members that saw their congregation was going pass with them. Instead of trying to make the place young and hip they decided to take their resources and fund a church plant right where they are at. They are bringing in a younger pastor who can connect with younger generations and are going to try and resource him with what he needs.

    This is an entirely different approach to the same problem. One I imagine will be more successful. It’s an example of out of the box thinking centered on the mission of the church and not on the local churches membership numbers.

    In many cases one church can’t do this. I could see a city where 3 or 4 churches worked together to fund something like this.

    This is an example where we need technology to be a tool. We start with a goal or problem. Then we move to a strategy followed by a solution (or proposed one). Then, and only then, does technology come in where it’s appropriate to be part of that solution.

    I, also, think of the 20 somethings at the church. Would it be best to create a website for them to communicate online? Maybe. For a generation that is immersed in technology it may seem like the go to thing. But, would it be better to do a group on facebook or have it on your church website? Or, would it be better to do something all together different?

    Some of this reflects my current state of thinking with church web stuff. We are too quick (myself included) to clone what the commercial world is doing and try to bring it to the church. Instead, we should have real solutions to real problems with strategies outlined and then use technology to aid in that. This is radically different from what I experience.

    Thanks for reading my rambles and for this opportunity in this interview.

     
  11. 11 Robert

    Matt: I definitely agree about not recreating the wheel when it comes to already available tools that would work well enough. In fact, I personally am not terribly found of projects where they take an existing application and put a Christian slant on it.

    However, I’d disagree with the notion of not looking at how one can build their own Church. What’s the point of a Church if you don’t participate in reaching the lost? Churches are not meant for only the saved, but also for the sick. It was Jesus who said, “I have come for the sick” and it’s my belief that we really should be focused on reaching the lost.

    A very simple way of doing this is making your Church known to your local community. A website, even if it is just a simple one HTML page, is a great way to tell people who are looking that, ‘Hey we have a Church here and would love to have you join us!’

    If we just hide, and keep the lost out, what’s the point to all this? Christ’s work on the Cross wasn’t meant to be secret and Churches should be doing whatever they can to let people know how to get there. It’s not about congregation numbers and never should it. It’s about preaching the Gospel and trying to reach as many people as you can.

    Why hide the Church just because the congregation may not use the website? My Church, all over 60, never go the website and it was not created for them. Instead, it was created for the people who are looking for a Church, making it easier for them to find one.

    My whole point is that it’s not always just what serves the congregation, but how can we spread the Gospel Message beyond just our congregation.

     
  12. 12 Robert

    I should restate, that technology isn’t obviously the only avenue to reach the lost. However, in a world that is entrenched with it, it’s a pretty good place to start at a very low cost.

    I just don’t agree with the notion that technology shouldn’t be considered because the current congregation may have no use of it. However, I do agree that there is no need to make the current congregation adapt to something that is unnecessary. A website (which is my main argument) does not require the current congregation to adapt to anything.

     

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