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Going Mobile: What You Need to Know Before Developing A Church's Mobile App

The church app takes religion to new places. By ChannelPro

Salvation? We have an app for that. Well, in a less snarky manner of speaking, the app has become the latest element of connected media to infiltrate worship technology culture. Churches are developing and using apps (shorthand for "applications," software developed for highly specific purposes and generally for mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets) for a variety of uses, from the distribution of sermons and other educational content to keeping groups within the church connected.

However, like many technology propositions that have made their way into houses of worship, mobile apps can be complex. App software is very much centered on the user experience (UX) as well as the quality of its content. These, according to Chris Sharpe, director of marketing and business development at Subsplash, the Seattle company that markets The Church App, are two keys to creating successful apps.

"The quality of the content and of the content management are very important to creating a successful mobile app," he says.

That advice applies for apps in any market, religious or secular, such as the companies that Sharpe had worked with in the past, including Microsoft. However, it might be even more critical for worship apps because, from a pastor's point of view, salvation is no mere video game. "If you're just going for the novelty of simply having an app, without meaningful content, it's just not the right thing to do," he says.

Visitors to The Church App website will find what Sharpe calls a blank slate, actually a template that allows users to choose features for their app, such as pause and play buttons for linear content like audio and video sermons, which they drag and drop into the template. Subsplash workers do the actual coding of the app into a working piece of software behind the scenes, as is the publishing of the app, which involves logging it onto the Apple App Store to make it available. Subsplash will also test the app to sure all of the features work properly. Its prices begin at $499 and the basic package includes an advanced audio player with features such as bookmarking, fast forward/rewind and multitasking; a basic video player, 2 GB of hosting, a calendar feature, music player, Bible with audio and reading plans, social network integration, and other features. Other package options, at higher cost, include Apple-approved video encoding for long-play video, and API integration.

Sharpe says this emphasis on keeping the coding part of app creation behind a curtain encourages churches to build app designs that reflect the nature of their own churches. While most base their content around sermons delivered by lead pastors, some churches will include very data-driven extras, such as Bible chapters and verses; others will emphasize graphics and artwork. The resulting app, he says, tends to reflect the esthetic of the individual church.

But apps still need practical features. A pause and play capability is important, as is the ability to download a sermon for playback later, versus only being able to stream them from the church's host server. Content management includes the ability to easily and regularly update content; Sharpe suggests an RSS feed for that to automatically pull in new content such as group meeting schedules, which he says is manageable by almost anyone. "You don't need to know how to code to manage and update content, you just need someone to populate the content, and we provide the software to do that," he explains. "Keeping the content up to date is a must," he says, in order to maintain maximum engagement with users.

Getting At The Truth

Over at Truthcasting, the app service offered by Uniting Truth Media, in Temple, TX midway between Dallas and Austin, founder and president Matt Frazier says their software services grew out of sermons heard in 10-minute snippets on YouTube a half-dozen years ago, which whetted his appetite for a fuller experience, and one more interactive than a simple podcast could produce. After launching the service in 2006, they extended the idea to mobile devices three years later, for both iOS and Android operating systems, and still allowing users from an estimated 1,600 subscribing churches to access archived content for free.

Truthcasting also uses a template that allows users to build their own mobile apps with feature sets offered from the company's website. App construction prices start at about $500, and hosting costs $25 a month, with full-service streaming and archiving costing $175 per month. But Frazier stresses that the model isn't a typical one. "We're not a custom apps developer looking to sell apps," he says. "We're a ministry venture developer that offers apps as an extension of their other free services." And what he's found, he says, is that, "Churches love branded apps."

However, they don't necessarily love having to do a lot of heavy-lifting media work themselves, either because they lack the technical capabilities or have an already overextended media crew. Frazier says that Truthcasting reflects those realities -- churches can capture their services and sermons on digital media and send it to Truthcasting's cloud servers, or stream it directly to them, and the company will store that content and make it available on demand via the custom app using an embedded media player.

The problem in the past was that [churches] had to do all the uploading and embedding themselves," Frazier explains. "What we've done is streamlined the process. That's made it popular with media ministers."

What To Watch For

Truthcasting's Matt Frazier says first and foremost, have a goal for your app asking. "Do you want to transition the church experience more to online? Or is it a conduit to a more localized experience? What's the ultimate goal of the app? Have a strategy prepared before you move."

The Church App's Chris Sharpe says to have a budget in mind before embarking on the mobile app route. "And be sure to realize that an app is an entryway [to church], not an end in itself," he says.

The mobile app shares another characteristic with the wider Web: the Internet's implicit anonymity allows people to drop some of their social inhibitions. Frazier says churches need to be aware that this anonymity can encourage intimacy and lead to emotional exchanges via an interactive app. "I've seen this brought up at a number of church conferences recently and it's a real issue," he says. "People are going to be more transparent emotionally when they don't have to look someone else in the eye. Media ministers need to be aware that the app can open this up, and have the necessary emotional skills as well as the technical skills on hand to deal with it."

Frazier emphasizes a clean, simple interface for church apps, one that encourages use and isn't intimidating to less sophisticated users. "Don't disregard the visual appearance of an app," he stresses. "People have become used to a certain level of user experience and if an app doesn't live up to that, it won't get used. Remember the difference between websites and apps: a website is what you use to help people find you; an app is what you use to engage them."

Finally, Frazier advises, understand that a mobile app can produce engagement effects more quickly and deeply than anticipated. "An app isn't just a laptop and web page," he says. "And it's not just a novelty. It's a new channel. It has the potential to reach new groups of people who are used to connectivity with a community in very different ways than traditional churches are used to. You're going to see lives changed, so understand that as you move into mobile."

This article was originally published by our content partner Tech Decisions

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