Location, location, location

A friend recently asked if I’d seen any churches using location and check-in tools like Foursquare, Gowalla, and Facebook with their ministries. The Google Trend image above shows they are quickly gaining popularly, but personally, I haven’t come across many ministry oriented uses for them.

So far, check in technology seems to be focused on only two things (1) creating a games like collecting badges and points to keep users coming back, (2) creating business opportunities to buy and sell good. Neither of these are really related to the core mission of the church, so right now their use is limited to a few basic functions

  1. Coupons – Foursquare makes it pretty easy for companies or churches to claim their business location and then add specials for people who check in there. My own church offers a 10% discount for the mayor of its coffee shop (which all good mega churches have), and I’ve seen several other places that do the same. Personally, I don’t like the idea of only giving things to mayors since it just seems too competitive. But a coupon for every 5-10 checkins is a fun idea that frees you from carrying around a punch card.
  2. Checkin watcher – There are also API options for displaying checkins to your location on your website. A church, for example, could use http://turnsocial.com/ to display who recently checked into a location. Of course, there are all kinds of privacy problems to address in doing this, but I could see it being fun for certain events.

Beyond those basic ideas, what I would love to see in the future is the ability to add a layer of “meaning” to check-ins. Rather than just saying “I went to this location,” I want to be able to tag check-ins similar to how #hashtags are used on twitter. Here are some examples:

  1. #evangelism – If checkins were tagged with something like evangelism, then it would be easy to make a mapping mashup that could show off where people were sharing their faith with others. More broadly, any kind of ministry could be tagged and it seems like it would be really fun to see that on a map. Again, there are huge privacy concerns, but it would sure be cool to see cities light up on YoungLife nights or little flickers where homeless ministry was going on.
  2. #ebenezer – In the Old Testament, when God did something, people of faith would often build an altar (or Ebenezer) to commemorate the physical place where God acted in their lives. God is of course omnipresent, but the saints of old still distinguished between regular places and what they considered to be holy ground. I’ve been wondering if checkin technology could approximate this somehow. Personally, I would love to be able to digitally mark the place where my wife and I were when we found out that God had answered our prayers to have a child, and then share that marker with others as a testament to his faithfulness to us.

These ideas could already happen using twitter’s newish location tools and the simple hash tags, but it would be cool to see a dedicated “Ebenezer” app someday, too.

So how about you? Have you seen ministries using location technology for something particularly meaningful?

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John Dyer

In my day job, I work at Dallas Theological Seminary, and at night I write Bible software for countries whose leaders could be called "overlords." This one time, I wrote a book about technology and Christian faith. You can find out more about what I'm up to at http://j.hn/.