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Does Your Church Need the Cloud? Part 3

Mark Thompson June 12, 2014

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Part Three: The Cloud and Mobility

Do you want a 24/7 church? That’s not a rhetorical question; it’s a stewardship question. And there’s no shame in answering “no”.

For older, smaller, and slow-growing churches, there may be little advantage to giving staff members anytime access to church data or the ability to do their jobs anywhere. Likewise, giving your church members the opportunity to check group and event news on their phones has little value if they’d rather just consult the Sunday bulletin insert on their fridge. Some churches simply don’t have enough going on during the week or enough members and staff to merit going mobile, and their time and money would be better spent on other needs.

For larger or growing churches, however, there’s a rising demand from both staff and attendees for mobile access. The lure of updating your group roster, posting study notes, or printing a list of your contributions all without getting out of  bed is hard to ignore. There are even more practical applications, like sharing files with your congregation during a service or setting up wireless check-in kiosks for kids’ classes. Maybe best of all, members and guests can make offerings at any time using their phones.

If you want the best mobile experience, you will definitely want to go to the cloud. It’s common sense that if your church management data is on the internet, it can be everywhere you are. But before choosing a product, you should know about the two schools of thought currently competing to dominate the cloud programming world.

appsVSrdMerge

The App Model

The first is mobile apps. These are the small programs your members and staff download to their smart phones or tablets that let them access specific records in your church data. They don’t let you do everything you could from a desktop program. You might not, for instance, be able to add members to the roster, track contributions, or print reports. But you can usually at least look up members’ contact information. The upside to apps is that they’re typically low-cost (or free), fast, and easy-to-use. They’re no substitute for a full church management program or web service. But if you have one of those too, a compatible app can tie into it and serve up some of its information to mobile users.

Everybody with a mobile phone has some kind of apps. Many have dozens: from Twitter™ and Facebook to a flashlight app. They’ve have been around since the late 90s (Nokia’s® Snake game is widely credited as the first real mobile app.). They allowed software makers to offer a quick, scaled-down mobile option. They let you retrieve and, sometimes, edit email and calendar events. You could also view stock quotes and weather forecasts.

My company, for instance, had a lot of very widely-used church desktop programs. So, to enter the mobile world, we first created an app that let users see a list of their church members, their contact information, etc.—the data most often needed on the go, and less likely to overtax the light-weight computing power of a phone. Adding new members, setting up funds, creating small groups, etc. were left to the more powerful desktop program.

But the number of apps, both secular- and church industry-based, was growing exponentially. Churches and their members were using combinations of more and more desktop products and mobile apps to accomplish different tasks. There are companies today who do nothing but combine existing apps like Facebook, Office 365™, Dropbox, etc. They then write custom code for individual churches that lets the different solutions share data with each other. Basically, they’re packaging a collection of already-free, non-church-specific apps and reselling them to ministries. With businesses like this springing up, it was obvious that mobility had become very important to some churches.

In that light, my company’s single app that pulled a limited amount of mobile data from our desktop product might not be sufficient for everyone. Likewise, the need to manage all of a church’s data in one place, without forcing members and staff to use a dozen different apps, was just as clear.

Enter “responsive design”.

The Responsive Design Model

Just within the current decade, we clearly saw that some church staff wanted not only to read records, but also create them on mobile devices—truly doing their work from anywhere. Church goers wanted to make their contributions, exchange files, and print their giving histories just as conveniently. Accordingly, we looked into the other mobile model, called “responsive design” (a phrase coined only in 2010). It now forms the basis of our newest product, Realm. A responsively designed website lets you access—via the internet—all of the same data and administrative functions previously available only on a desktop program. You can do this whether you’re using a smart phone, a laptop, or a full-sized computer. Instead of a hard drive at your church, your data is stored on a website, which you access using a web browser like Firefox® or Chrome™. There are no apps or programs to download, no software to update with each new version.

The website detects your desktop, laptop, or mobile device and adjusts to fit your screen (that’s the “responsive” part). As with a standalone desktop program, access to data is controlled by the permissions that are associated with your site login. One staff member can set up funds and post contributions. Another can enter members’ personal data. A group leader can take attendance and post study notes for members to download. Non-staff can only view information and update their family’s personal data.

On the surface, responsive design sounds superior to mobile apps. Why should mobile users not have the same, full-featured experience that others do? Who would want some of their data when they could have everything? In practice, though, there are pros and cons to both models. Responsive design lets you truly do anything anywhere. All you need is a browser. But apps are faster since they only serve up a small segment of your data and usually don’t allow you to add and manipulate records to any large extent. Finally, there might be a free or inexpensive app that already works with your existing church management system.

And while, for the most part, our responsive design solution delivers on that “complete church on your phone” promise, we’re already considering adding some related apps for smaller, faster tasks that don’t require so much processing power. Therefore, despite the promise of responsive design, apps are still very useful. And that’s why mobile computing will probably be a mixture of the two well into the future.

Choosing the Best Model for You

So if you want to go mobile:

Decide how much of your data members and staff need to access on mobile devices. Do they just need member contact information? Then an app will probably suffice. Or do they also want group event calendars, church attendance, finances, and so on? This is responsive design territory.

Also, decide what will be done with that data. If you only want to view contact information, see if your current church management software has an app that fits the bill. Odds are good that it’s free. And you can supplement it with other free/inexpensive apps— like Dropbox that lets you share files.

If you need to add, delete, and edit contact information, or need mobile access to more advanced tasks, like financial reporting, managing groups, and event check-in, look into a responsive design system. Most of these charge based on your church’s size, and can run anywhere from around 30 dollars a month for smaller churches to a couple of hundred per month for really large churches.

Next: Part 4, The Cloud and Involvement

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

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