Ten evangelism and IT lessons from one of America's biggest churches

Ten evangelism and IT lessons from one of America's biggest churches.

How did Dallas' Fellowship church become America's fifth largest church in less than 15 years?

CTO Terry Storch has the answer: information technology investments designed to attract a new kind of churchgoer that other churches were ignoring.

Who said IT doesn't matter? Certainly not the people running this church.

Every weekend 18,000 to 19,000 people walk through the doors. Thousands more watch on the church's TV or radio shows.

Brian Bailey, Internet technology manager, heard I was in town and invited me over to see the secrets behind this church's massive success. Hey, I'm a technology evangelist and I wanted to see how the professionals do it

Even before I got in, I could see this church was something different. The only thing visible on the side of one of their two huge buildings, from the freeway, is the church's URL. Even in Silicon Valley I haven't seen that approach taken on a church sign. Lesson one: make it easy for everyone to learn about you — on their terms.

Coming in the doors I noticed something else: plasma screens everywhere. I felt like I was in a rock concert, or a sports event.

That's on purpose, Bailey told me. The church knows it's competing against video games, rock concerts, mass media like ESPN, and sporting events, he said.

When the church started, they decided to appeal to a new generation of chuch goers who feel uncomfortable in the traditional churches most of us attend. So, they invested in video, audio, computers, multimedia, and making the end-to-end church experience better than their competitors. “Our services are a lot like attending a concert,” Bailey told me — he handed me some DVDs so I could check it out for myself. Lesson two: make it easy to experience your product's special attributes.

You'll see this investment in all areas, from the time you walk into the church and are registered by one of the volunteers manning 50 computer stations. Plus, massive investments in audio, lighting, video technology — this church has an all-digital sound system that is better than many rock shows have. Lesson three: to get word-of-mouth advertising you need to be remarkable.

If you are bringing kids, the volunteer will guide you to the right room (and, will print out a name tag and a receipt that guarantees that only you will be able to take a child out of the classroom).

They custom designed the system (yes, it's a multi-tier .NET app written in C# and backed by SQL Server) to be extremely efficient, even in a noisy attrium with thousands of people talking “we only need the last four digits of your phone number,” Storch said. Why a phone number? They found that was easier to understand than asking someone to spell their name. The screens are touch-screen and a volunteer can be taught the basics in minutes. Funny enough, though it sounds like it treats visitors like a number, the end result is that each person gets paid attention to and has individual attention that they couldn't get in such a large church without IT investments. Lesson four: use IT to efficiently get close to your customers and take care of their needs.

The atrium, by the way, doesn't look like your traditional church. A baseball or football fan would feel right at home here. In the middle is circular information desk surrounded by eight plasma screens. “The minute the service starts we switch four of them to the service,” Storch said. The rest of the time there's a set of information screens that play (different ones on each screen). All high-definition. Lesson five: if you want to be better, make sure you're better from the first minutes of someone's experience.

Speaking of HD, this church was the first in the world to film all of its services in high-definition TV format. They worked with Sony on their HDTV system and, Storch says they learned so much that now the church is consulted on HDTV projects around the world. Lesson six: if you want to be seen as bleeding edge, invest to be bleeding edge and do so throughout your company.

The church's store also uses plasma screens throughout the store to display information and to set the mood. Of course there's WiFi available in the attrium and other parts of the church (not in the main worship hall, though. “We haven't yet pushed the edge there,” Storch admits, but says they are looking into it). He said they invested in WiFi because they wanted to give church members a way to hang out at the church during the week and be able to stay in touch with work and family. Lesson seven: extend the usefulness of your plant.

Other IT investments they've made? A sizeable fiber-optic network that was designed to take the HDTV video load, not to mention the church's Web traffic, and other needs (there's computers in nearly every room I toured, including the children's play areas). Plus, they designed the network for future growth — the church is now working on building satellite campuses that will share video feeds. To do that, they needed to make sure their network would never go down and have a good backbone to allow for future growth. Every system has redundancy, too (there are two digital sound boards, for instance, in case one goes down). Imagine what would happen if the computer system went down on a Sunday with 5,000 people arriving for the next service and trying to get their kids into the right classroom. Lesson eight: design your systems so they never go down and can expand for future growth.

Several years ago, the church almost went with a database back end from Oracle, but switched to Microsoft several years ago because of Microsoft's special non-profit pricing, which saved the church tens of thousands of dollars, Storch said. Plus, they liked the quality, performance, and productivity that they got with Visual Studio and .NET. “We're extremely happy with Microsoft and .NET,” Bailey said. How happy? Well, one of their staff members is 15-year-old James Reggio — he's been programming for more than five years and is working on multimedia applications for the church's TV studio. Amazing kid. I asked him “so, are you the next Bill Gates?” Answer: he has bigger goals. He says that .NET lets him get a lot more done for the church than other programming environments.

While most of the computers at this church are running Windows, there are a couple of Macs (their radio show engineer was editing on a Mac when I was given a tour), most of the video is running on a Windows front end, but the back end is an SGI set of computers, along with a stack of computers running Linux that do the hard-core video rendering. “Why did you use Linux for that?” I asked. Storch answered that most the bleeding-edge video rendering apps were designed for Linux. Lesson nine: don't be religious about technology, choose what gets the job done best for the least amount of money and staff time.

By the way, now the church is selling their software that they wrote to run their church. Named Fellowship One, it looks to become as successful in helping churches run themselves as the church itself is. Lesson 10: when you become successful, bottle up what got you there and sell it to others.

I asked why he went with Windows for their network architecture (Exchange runs their email, Active Directory keeps track of domain, .NET apps do nearly everything from logging their cash, to signing volunteers in. Microsoft Great Plains and SBS keep track of the business). He said they choose Windows because most of their congregants know Windows, and there's a good pool of Windows developers and IT support people to help out too and because there's one company to deal with for support needs.

The next time someone tells me that IT doesn't matter, I'm gonna take them to church. After all, isn't that what an evangelist should do?

Update: Brian blogged about my visit too[Scobleizer: Microsoft Geek Blogger]

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