Wireless internet access is becoming ubiquitous. In many settings, it’s just expected that Wi-Fi will be provided. Personally, and this is quite possibly a generational thing, I won’t consider going to a hotel that doesn’t offer free wireless internet access, and when I go to a fast food restaurant or coffee shop, I expect to be able to connect to their network for internet access. Mayo Clinic, where I’ve been doing my CPE internship this summer has free Wi-Fi for visitors. In some municipalities, public internet is available throughout the city.
If you’re looking for a specific product recommendation, my church installed Wi-Fi throughout the building this year. We purchased this Ubiquiti Networks UniFi System 3-pack and it’s been fantastic. It’s easily the lowest cost solution (we paid around $200 for the 3-pack) we could find that made it easy to seamlessly hop between access points to cover the entire building.
So, should churches offer free, public wireless internet access?
I think so. There are a number of valid reasons why offering wireless access is beneficial for churches.
Pros: Why Churches Should Have Wi-Fi
First, offering wireless is welcoming. 56% of American adults own a smartphone, including an astounding 81% of 25-34 year olds (source), so many of the people who come into the church already have internet access in their pocket. However, data access through a smartphone plan is both more expensive and slower than through a Wi-Fi network, so most devices will automatically use Wi-Fi if it’s available. If people are using the internet in the church building anyway, why not make it as simple as possible?
Second, having Wi-Fi available makes it easier for church members to share about church online. I’m automatically skeptical of terms like “Twitter evangelism,” there is a trend towards pastors encouraging congregations to live-tweet parts of the message during the service, or right afterwards. Here’s an article about live-tweeting church. If your church has members who use location services like Foursquare (and you probably do!), then having internet access encourages them to check in at church, which is a great way for them to subtly invite their friends to visit.
Third, having wireless available enables attendees to access your church’s website and social media platforms. In her recent book The Social Media Gospel, church communications and social media expert Meredith Gould writes, “Social media success is undermined when…WiFi has not been enabled throughout the church, or access to it is limited to a few leaders.” (Pg. 93)
A few pages later, she writes that the free-flowing nature of social media “frequently shocks leaders who have traditionally had the authority to monitor and often control the flow of information. Historically, church leadership has been privileged with this authority, but if you have it, please do not use it to shut down internet access or banish social media.” (TSMG, 103)
At this point, in 2013, I think it is getting to that point where not providing wireless access begins feels to visitors like the church is shutting it down, banishing social media, or trying to censor visitors. I don’t think there’s any question that Wi-Fi is becoming ever more ubiquitous, and that its increase is irreversible.
All of that said, my home church – and, I suspect, the majority of churches – does not grant wireless access to anyone but staff. And there are legitimate reasons to not have Wi-Fi available in a church.
Cons: Why Churches Should NOT Have Wi-Fi
I think there are two common reasons for churches to not offer public wireless access: fear of distraction and fear of inappropriate use.
The first reason is fear of distractions during worship. People have enough trouble listening to sermons and retaining information. The world is a busy place full of electronic distractions. Shouldn’t worship be the one place in the world where we can just be present, where we don’t need to be entertained and distracted by entertainment media and ads?
In my mind, there’s a lot of validity to this argument. If I’m preaching, I want people to be listening to me, not checking Facebook. That said, it’s a well-proven fact that doodling or fidgeting helps people to listen. Do they need internet access to doodle? Probably not – the bulletin still works. However, when you see people on their tablets or phones during worship, don’t assume they’re not paying attention. There are tons of online and offline Bible apps and note-taking programs that are highly relevant to what’s going on in the service.
I saw a young girl in church recently who had her iPad out, and my first thought was “How sad! Her parents are just trying to distract her with electronic devices.” How judgmental! Then I looked closer, and saw that she was following along with the reading in a Bible app. Clearly, she was paying more attention than I was.
There can be valid uses of electronic devices and the internet during worship. And I know this is a dangerous path to go down, but what does it say about the quality of our sermons and services for us to be afraid of competition from electronics? People have already made the conscious choice to show up for worship. Shouldn’t we trust them enough to not try to censor their use of media? For lots more discussion on using gadgets in church, check out the Social Media Sunday (#SMS15) group on Facebook.
The second major object I see to open wireless networks at church is inappropriate or illegal use of the internet. Obviously, you don’t want someone downloading porn at church, or pirating music. As a church, we don’t want to be contributing to someone’s negative habits or addictions.
However, there are ways around this. No, we don’t want the church to be liable for anyone’s illegal behavior. But there are many companies that offer public access, such as McDonald’s and Starbucks, and they’re not liable for what people do with it. There are ways to make browsers agree to terms of service before they connect, releasing the host from liability.
As far as porn or “immoral activity,” there are a variety of options for filtering out adult content from the network. I’m not going to go into detail here, but a quick online search gives options like Umbrella from OpenDNS, or Untangle. These two aren’t free, but there are non-profit discounts, and there are free solutions available as well.
I think this objection can be overcome. Here’s a good Church Tech Today article about some technical approaches.
I can see both the pros and cons of open Wi-Fi at church. Unsurprisingly, I come down in favor, but I recognize that there are valid objections. This isn’t a new topic. Here’s an unscientific survey of about 300 respondents that found 70% of churches have some form of public Wi-Fi available. Here’s another survey that found 54% have it. However, both of these surveys were originally posted a few years ago.
Today, I think having Wi-Fi is equivalent to having a phone line available. As a church, we don’t try to censor people’s phone calls. We might hide the phone inside the office, but it’s available if needed. Should Wi-Fi be any different?
Again, if you’re looking for a Wi-Fi solution that’s simple, but makes it easy to link multiple access points to cover the entire building, my recommendation is the Ubiquiti Networks UniFi System 3-pack.
What is your congregation using?
Does your church offer publicly available Wi-Fi? Why or why not? Share your thoughts in the comments!