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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Churches Bring Custom Apps to Their Flocks

By Emily Glazer

Technicians monitor production at a recent service at North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Ga. The church is developing custom apps for congregants and their children.

Andrea Davis has created a new wing of her church: her car.

When Ms. Davis, 45 years old, has downtime from her job helping manage parking for University of Tennessee-Knoxville sporting events she'll settle in to her Honda Civic to catch up on sermons via audio and video from her church's free, custom-made smartphone app.

"I feel that anywhere you go, you should carry that spirit with you," says Ms. Davis, who holds a second job as a teaching assistant and lives 45 minutes away from Faith Promise Church located in Knoxville, Tenn. "It's like I'm there and not missing anything."

App developers say more than 150 churches across the U.S. have had customized smartphone and tablet apps created to connect with their members. The church apps are a relatively new twist on the broader influx of technology into religious life that includes popular apps for prayer and even making confessions. 

Pastors and parishioners say the technology can enable people to uphold the call to stay religiously involved at all times, not just on Sunday. App developers expect thousands of churches to develop the apps in coming years to meet demand from worshipers.

Looking to confess your latest sin? Or seeking a Jewish blessing for your meal? There's an app for that. Today's worshipers are looking to mobile technology to supplement their faith and are beginning to challenge the norms of religious practice. WSJ's Christina Tsuei reports.

Some specialized apps help parents keep track of what their children are studying in Sunday school and offer discussion tips. Church leaders also hope the apps will entice teenagers to stay involved with their churches and will help provide spiritual guidance when they're away.

"That's their world: their iPhone. If it ain't in their pocket, it's not real," says Tom Wray, a consultant within the Archdiocese of Cincinnati who has promoted such apps to Catholic churches.

So far, mostly large, mainline Protestant and evangelical churches have had customized apps made, developers say. Typically, the apps aggregate information including a pastor's blog, church calendar and sometimes a public, digital wall on which congregants can request and offer prayers.

"We're trying to spread the message and content of each church; get outside of their church walls during the week," says Matt McKee, a former pastor and founder of ROAR, based in Alpharetta, Ga., which creates such custom apps.

A custom app from Redeemer Church in Utica, N.Y., where about 1,700 people attend on an average weekend, has been downloaded about 3,700 times, says Sam Luce, a pastor at the church. A "prayer" tab launched in May of 2010 enabling users to request and confirm prayers has so far notched nearly 14,000 hits, says Mr. Luce. He says Redeemer is looking into building another app for its youth group.
Rick Holliday

Brian Cregan shows his wife Ali, son Teddy and daughter Mia one called 'ParentStuf.'

Pastors and religious officials say the feedback on the apps has been largely positive. But the openness has raised some concerns about privacy and security, especially for small congregations that don't have the resources to monitor activity as closely as big churches with sophisticated, fully staffed media operations.

Rabbi Dan Cohen reads from an iPad and Kindle during services and events at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange, N.J. Although he is working on getting a custom app made for the synagogue, concerns about security, privacy and wary congregants have led him to move slowly, he says.

"I want to make sure we're doing things in a way that's keeping in our values with the community," he says.

At Faith Promise, where about 4,300 people attend weekly, volunteers scan websites and apps regularly to ensure content remains appropriate, says Kyle Gilbert, the church's pastor of communications. Problems, such as when a man posted inflammatory comments about his ex-wife on the prayer wall, are rare, he says.

Companies including Yaptap in Chattanooga, Tenn., and Memphis-based Everchurch, have produced non-customized apps. Everchurch's parent company, Speak Creative LLC, has also developed websites for hundreds of churches.

So far, two small firms that often work together, Mobile Roadie LLC and ROAR, have dominated development of custom-made apps for individual churches. Mr. McKee founded ROAR in January of 2010 and named it for references to Jesus as the Lion of Judah, "and when a lion roars, you can hear it three miles away," he says.

Celebration Church in Georgetown, Texas, was the first church to launch a customized app via ROAR in March 2010. About 60 churches followed in 2010, and more than 90 have created custom apps this year, Mr. McKee says.

Churches pay a setup fee between $500 and $750, plus $35 each month for hosting. Building custom apps in general can cost tens of thousands of dollars, but ROAR charges the churches less, says Mr. McKee.

ROAR instead hopes to make money through partnerships and licensing fees with publishing companies that supply content to churches, such as LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention, Mr. McKee says.

Brian Cregan, 43, uses the "ParentStuf" app on his iPad to stay abreast of what his daughter Mia, 9, learns in classes at North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, which has about 13,000 weekly attendees.

"Now I know what they're doing and what they're talking about," he says. 

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