A Church, iDistributed

Northland reaches out to the iPhone generation, preaching to the mobile masses.



No one would ever accuse Northland, a Church Distributed, of being behind the curve of technological innovation. Especially when it comes to trying to rope in the most elusive and sought-after demographic in organized religion: tech-savvy young adults with frenetic lives and little patience for sitting in pews.

The Longwood mega-church already is known for its high-energy services featuring Christian rock music and light shows. Northland’s $32 million sanctuary is wired with thousands of feet of fiber-optic cable, enabling it to stream its services live on the Internet as well as project services from other churches on the church’s interior walls.

Now comes the latest: an iPhone application that allows users on the go to watch both past and live services on the cell phone’s 3½-inch-wide display. Northland, with 12,000 Central Florida members and a few thousand worshipers via the Web, has posted on its blog a step-by-step guide instructing other churches how to stream their own services on the iPhone.

Much of the new outreach effort is aimed at young people —always a challenge for traditional congregations—offering what consumer consultants call a “point of entry” for new potential members.

“Our hope is to reach some of these demographics that are not now in the church,” says Nathan Clark, Northland’s 30-year-old director of digital innovation (a title not listed in many church staff directories). Clark led the team that developed the iPhone app. “It makes sense to also help people worship where they are,” he says. “It’s really imperative for us to start with the most ubiquitous technologies.”

Some within the evangelical community are skeptical of Northland’s move to connect with parishioners via iPhones. “There aren’t any purely technological solutions to any spiritual problems,” says Quentin Schultze, author of High-Tech Worship? Using Presentational Technologies Wisely. The Christian church, Schultze says, has always believed that “worship is best done by the in-person gathering of believers.’’

But Joel Hunter, Northland’s senior pastor, says the new application is a supplement, rather than a substitute, for communal worship. Hunter says his goal is to multiply small church groups in places that don’t have churches available. “The cell phone can extend beyond even the reach of the Internet. Churches will not be confined to a church building in the future.”

In the New Testament, the Book of Hebrews (10:25) warns, “Forsake not the assembling of yourselves together, as is the habit of some.” Citing this passage, Hunter says, “This will not be the end of the church but the extension of it. This is a temporary means of worship for those who can’t get to a church assembly. But it is also the delivery of worship for others who want to start a small assembly church group.”

Next up from Northland, for the more mature set: services via BlackBerry.