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Does Your Church Need the Cloud? Part 1

Mark Thompson June 10, 2014

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Part One: Where the “Revolution” Stands Today

There’s a lot of hope in cloud technology. And there’s just as much hype, with no end of businesses promising to transform your humble ministry into a bleeding-edge Internet church with ipad orchestras and hip, virtual coffee shop prayer groups. But you know better than anyone who your members are and how they live. You alone will have to decide which of these new tools is a godsend and which is a money pit. This article will try to familiarize you with the latest technology and help you decide which, if any, is worth your consideration. We’ll start with a brief history of cloud computing in the faith world, then explain what you need to know about security, mobility, and social media before deciding if your church needs the cloud.

What is “The Cloud”?

If you’re late to the game, let’s catch you up. Cloud computing is any computer software or service that resides somewhere besides the machine you use to access it. Facebook is a perfect example. You can open your Facebook page and edit it on your computer or phone. But all the text and comments you see there are stored on computers possibly hundreds of miles away. The programming that makes the page update based on your input, the images in Candy Crush, the photos of your friends and family—all of these are stored and processed on computers owned by the company and might be spread out all over the country or the world. Cloud computing is nothing new. iPhone® apps, Gmail™, Dropbox, and iTunes® all use technology that “lives in the cloud”.

By and large, cloud computing is just Internet computing. Instead of downloading programs to your computer, the programs stay on the Internet. Instead of saving the records you make to a hard drive, you save them on somebody else’s, much bigger hard drive, via the Internet. You don’t think about where the programs and records are; they’re just out there somewhere. They’re “in the cloud”.

It’s a certainty the people in your church are already using it. Your staff probably uses some cloud services, too. The question facing churches now is whether or not to trust all of their management functions and member records to cloud-based computing.

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Churches Have Adopted a Cautious Approach

A 2010 survey of Protestant churches found that only 12 percent of them were using web-based church management software (cloud computing), leading LifeWay® Research to conclude that “very few churches are thinking about ‘the cloud’ as anything more than fluffy, white vapor hanging in the sky.”

But in May of that year, the Catholic International Education Office (OIEC) signed with Microsoft® to provide cloud-based software, Office 365™, to its millions of Catholic students worldwide.

And, in November of 2012, ACS Technologies, the largest maker of church management software (and—full disclosure—my employer) introduced its first completely cloud-based entry to the market.

By 2013, a new survey found that 80% of large churches and 55% of small churches were using some form of cloud computing. Also, churches using the cloud reported a 75% increase in giving. These findings have been cited over and over in web posts and faith-tuned pitches to convince churches that the cloud age is passing them by.

However, digging into the numbers, I noticed last year’s survey shows the trend toward the cloud is far less explosive than it’s been spun. For most of their needs, including payroll, finances, membership management, conferencing, and banking, well over half of all churches still use non-cloud solutions. For some categories, the figure is closer to 20%. And the inclusion of email as a “cloud technology” (and what other kind of technology could it be?) seriously skews the overall numbers.

In other words, if somebody says “you have to get to the cloud”, don’t panic. There’s plenty of time. Slow down, do your research, and shop around. In the end, if you decide to wait, that’s fine too.

My company sells both cloud-based and non-cloud-based software. So we can afford to take a slightly more objective look at the pros and cons of web-based computing. Our cloud-based solution has taken off, meeting and sometimes exceeding sales expectations. But the majority of our customers are content with their non-cloud, desktop software. They, understandably, reason: “why give up something that works and that we understand”?

So in 2014, while a lot of church technologists are finally buzzing about the cloud, and many are using cloud products like Office 365, Twitter™, Facebook, and the like, many others haven’t jumped in with both feet. They’ve decided they aren’t ready to manage their membership, event, and contribution data online. Plus, the cloud hype and options for faith-based organizations have multiplied to the point of confusion. To sort it out, let’s look at some of the benefits and concerns associated with cloud computing and ask if it can serve your church.

Next: Part 2, The Cloud and Your Security

Mark Thompson is a tech writer for ACS Technologies’ cloud offering, Realm.

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