Thousands of people gather for a Hillsong service held at Sydney Olympic Park. (Supplied: Hillsong)
Hillsong is known for its spirited, communal worship and stadium performances — but you don’t need to turn up at church to be part of it.
Services are streamed online, pastors are available to talk in real-time, and you can even submit a prayer request using your mobile phone.
Now the church is building an incubator to nurture young, talented digital natives who would otherwise look to established tech companies for work.
It’s not the only religious group growing its digital focus: faith-based tech is an area of interest across the religious spectrum.
But, as other faith start-ups have found, competing with established social media companies comes with big challenges.
Building an incubator
Hillsong is, of course, active on the established platforms of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
“We stream our service online and people chat while the service is on,” Rob Beach, the global chief information officer with Hillsong, told RN.
“The pastor is there to talk to them about their problems in real time.”
A year ago, the church also created its own start-up company, Hillsong Technology, with plans to give big technology companies a run for their money.
“I do see secular organisations exploiting that faith market, exploiting Christians,” Mr Beach says.
“I see lots of large companies creating social media because they know us as human beings want to relate to one another and they make money from it.”
Rob Beach wants the church to provide an alternative to existing social media companies. (Supplied)
The start-up is powered by young congregants keen for a career in tech.
“Over the years I’ve watched so many young people with real skills try and bring their gift to the church,” Mr Beach says.
“Because we haven’t created that environment inside the church, they end up taking on jobs with Facebook, Google and Atlassian.
“As individuals come up with these great ideas and turn them into prototypes — something that can actually solve churches’ problems — we want to create an environment where they can set it up.”
Currently, Mr Beach’s team creates apps for their conferences with speakers’ bios, conference schedules and push notifications to alert users to the next session.
Users can also submit prayer requests for ill family members. Those requests are brought to the group setting at the conference and included in prayers.
The ‘quick and dirty’ version
The challenge of competing with global technology companies is familiar to Rachel Flitman, the co-founder of Jewish events app Tribe: Let My People Know.
Without the financial clout of a backer like Hillsong Technology, she and a handful of other volunteers worked on their project in a garage, after hours.
Responding to a gap in the market, they designed the app to collate Jewish events and sort them by interest, according to a user’s age and location.
The uptake was overwhelming, with a few hundred people signing up each week.
Rachel Flitman is open to reviving Tribe if the right person comes along to do it. (Supplied: Ben Williams Photography)
Ms Flitman says the platform catered to the digital-savvy — launching the “smallest, quick and dirty version to get it in people’s hands to see how they would use it”.
But users had high expectations, and competing with existing platforms was trying.
“One of the challenges of competing with more established apps is the way the apps are constantly updated, responding to the needs of its users,” she says.
The team intended to continue to release newer iterations of the platform based on user feedback.
But, Ms Flitman says, shaking her head, “we ran out of budget to do that … there is just so much money required to build an app.”
To add to the team’s stress, weeks before the app’s launch, Facebook changed its algorithm to focus on events.
“That was really challenging for us because one of our key differentiators was that we were purely about events,” she says.
The workload proved too much for the volunteer team to manage on the budget it had.
Today, the future of Tribe is unknown. The team is open to reviving the platform if the right person, with a digital background and funding, came along to do it.
For now, the app is “wandering in the desert, pondering its next steps”, Ms Flitman says.
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