Points to Consider Re: Mobile Technology for Churches

Mobile technology is certainly changing the way society ingests information, and it’s important for churches to be aware of this revolution. In fact, AdMob Mobile recently reported that “smartphones accounted for 48% of worldwide traffic, up from 35% last year. In absolute terms, smartphone traffic increased 193% over the last year.” Furthermore, with the launch of the iPad, the use of mobile apps will not only solidify but skyrocket. Thus, churches should carefully consider the impact this technology will have on their ministry. For any church considering developing with any type of mobile technology, here are a few points to consider: 1. iPhone app or mobile version of your website: Churches often wonder if they should build a mobile version of their website or a dedicated iPhone app for their church. A mobile version of your site is great to have. Most mobile browsers can handle full websites but the drawback is that most church content is Flash-based. Having a landing place for mobile visitors makes a ton of sense especially when paired with a more immersive and engaging native iPhone or Android app. With a mobile app, there is potential for richer user interface, higher quality animations, and offline interaction. All of these aspects enhance the personal connection, user affinity, and the likelihood that people will continually engage with the church’s content. That is what we like to call, in Web 2.0 terms, a “sticky” experience.

2. Developing an iPhone app in-house or using a third party: Developing in-house offers flexibility and can seem free... however it often comes with a cost. You can customize your app to meet the needs of your church and develop it to embody certain functions of the website. However, there are two downsides.

First, you need an expert on-site. Objective C is unlike most other programming languages and working with Apple provisioning, testing and submitting to the App Store is enough to make a grown man cry. Additionally, the lack of standardization amongst platforms like Android, iPhone and Windows Phone 7 increases overhead and is ultimately less economical for one church to produce across all platforms. Second, companies like Apple are notorious for changing standards and imposing new restrictions on their platforms. Basically, tech support doesn’t exist, good luck talking with a real person, and lastly, they retain the right to reject your app for many reasons. In general, Apple is extremely close-handed about the developing platform.

We love developing for Apple, but they can present many challenges for any developer. Apple makes things appear very easy from a user standpoint, but when you become an iPhone developer, the whole game is changed. Most recently, Apple has changed it’s SDK agreement to eliminate cross platform technologies like Adobe Flash. Thus, using a third party can mitigate some risk associated with developing on these platforms.

If you are a church considering a third party developer, here are some red flags to watch for:

1. If a company offers to build your church an iPhone app for free or “almost free,” be weary.  You usually get what you pay for. Support may be spotty or the apps may contain ads—both of which may be out of your control.

2. If a third party doesn’t have any examples of previous work, strongly consider other development shops. If you are using a third party, you want to ensure that they can deliver the quality you want. With over 150,000 apps available, many are third rate, sub-par apps that only contribute to the white noise of the store-both in terms of stability, usability and design.

3. Make sure that your content remains yours. Steer clear of people who want to own or sell your content, but it's common for a third party to maintain ownership of their code. Software as a service is a great option and that would include services like Basecamp from 37 signals, Dropbox, and Beanstalk.

In summary, mobile technology will significantly impact the Church. For churches who are ready to adopt the new technology today, they should carefully consider the the costs and benefits of building a mobile version of their site compared with those of an app. Churches should also be aware of the challenges of developing iPhone apps in house and potential red flags when considering third party developers. For churches who are still on the fence, please consider engaging in the mobile dialogue. Understanding the importance of mobile technology is imperative for remaining culturally and technologically relevant.