WILLMAR - The church is an age-old institution with strong roots in traditional practices. Perhaps because of its ancient origins, many people might not associate the church with modern advancements in technology or with social networking trends, such as Facebook.
But several churches in the Willmar area don't see that as the case. In fact, instead of dismissing technology, they're using it as an opportunity to engage with their members in a more direct, informal way.
First Presbyterian Church in Willmar, for example, has a Facebook page, "First Presbyterian Church of Willmar, MN." The page has nearly 40 "likes" from people in the community.
First Presbyterian established its Facebook presence about six months ago, said the Rev. Richard Underdahl-Peirce, pastor at First Presbyterian.
"It's still an experiment for us," Underdahl-Peirce said. "It's one more tool for communication. There are people who live and breathe Facebook and use it daily, and we can reach them on there."
Earlier this week, the church used its Facebook page, along with its email list, to inform people of cancellations to its Lenten programs due to weather.
In the past, First Presbyterian has used Facebook to post pictures from church events and communicate with people about prayer requests and concerns.
"We're very pleased so far with our Facebook page," Underdahl-Peirce said. "Facebook and email have really made a difference in our communication efforts."
Another area church, First Baptist Church in Willmar, is also exploring how technology and social media can enhance communication between the church and its members. First Baptist has a Facebook page, along with a newly redesigned website that includes videos of past sermons and a blog, "Resolution Journey Blog," for the church's Men of Courage group.
"We have a desire to use anything available as a tool to grow people in God's way," said David Lanning, First Baptist's minister of music and worship, who is a driving force behind the church's online efforts. "It's another means to connect with people, so many of whom are already using this technology."
The church's more streamlined website, along with its blog and social media presence, are a natural progression from what the church has been doing for many years, Lanning said. For example, rather than distributing event calendars, bulletins and newsletters, First Baptist can include all of that information on its website, Facebook or blog, Lanning said.
"This technology allows people to stay connected," Lanning said. "They don't just hear something and then forget about it right away. The web is certainly not the only means of communication, but it is a means."
Underdahl-Peirce at First Presbyterian said it's important for the church to think of how it can integrate new technology into its old traditions. He knows of other churches that encourage texting or emailing the pastor to ask questions about sermons. While he has considered the idea, he plans to retire this summer and didn't want to implement the practice before he leaves.
"If I planned to be here longer, I may look into that," he said. "I think it's a great idea. The problem with sermons is that people can hear me, but they can't respond. Texting or emailing is a great way to interact and follow up on something. I've made a note of that for the next pastor."
Lanning said that First Baptist will continue to think of ways that it can connect with the congregation through technology. Although the church is very much based on tradition, he said that it's important to always be thinking of new and different ways to bring people to God.
"The church sometimes has a reputation for being behind the times," Lanning said, "but God's message is relevant today, and we want to be able to communicate it in a relevant way. God can and will use anything to bring people to Him."