By Jason Thacker
You may read that headline and wonder how in the world someone could ask that question when many churches are still not able to meet in person or are having hybrid services to cut down on the spread of COVID-19.
Technologies like facial recognition seem like such a far off dream that you likely haven’t even considered the possibility of using it in your church or ministry.
But in light of the questions concerning regathering together as the church, social distancing, security, health risks, and even new member assimilation, there will be increasing pressure on church leaders to implement these types of tracking tools to keep people safe and connected.
Prior to the pandemic, there were a few companies, such as Churchix, offering facial recognition technology (FRT) to churches by promoting it as a tool for better member assimilation and attendance tracking.
Pastors and ministry leaders are always seeking to better connect people to the life of their church, and to some it only makes sense to use tools, like FRT, in this way.
Many churches are already using membership programs like Church Community Builder, FellowshipOne, ACS, and others to track various points of data on attendees and members.
So is facial recognition the logical next step? It depends, and that’s okay.
There are obvious advantages to these tools and their use in church gatherings. As Christopher Benek has written, churches have long struggled to connect well with members and first-time visitors.
It’s well documented that welcoming new visitors and helping them connect quickly will encourage them to visit again and better assimilate into the life of the local church.
Since we’re already using FRT in various applications throughout our lives like unlocking our smartphones, going through airport security using ClearMe technology, and even attending the latest Taylor Swift concert, why wouldn’t we just extend those applications to the life of the local church–especially if they allow us to serve our people and welcome visitors more effectively?
Imagine being able to identify a new family as they walk up to your church building and provide them with a first-time visitor kit, map of the church campus, and gathering times for children’s church. These simple touch points could conceivably be automated and digitized, saving time and effort from countless volunteers.
Or imagine another scenario where your security team could identify a criminal suspect or even an estranged family member who is not allowed around a certain family and could cause harm.
The promises of FRT in the church seem to lend themselves to the idea that these dreams will become a reality as this technology becomes cheaper and more accurate.
But as with any ethical question, especially related to technology, the church must be thoughtful and put the needs of people before any potential benefits of these tools. Across our nation, there’s a growing concern over FRT.
Some argue that it feels a little too much like Big Brother is always watching us, and others may fear how these tools could be misused for nefarious purposes.
In Brazil, these tools are already being used with promises of being able to pick up on the frequency of someone’s visits, their mood, and even their age or gender.
Is this too much for our people at a church gathering? Is it too invasive?
It’s important for church leaders to know people personally and to think through how they might perceive the use of these technologies in the church gathering before adopting them in the first place.
Every day, people hear about cyberattacks, server breaches, or even increased racial profiling and bias occurring with the use of these tools.
Part of your role as a ministry leader is to care for people where they currently are in life and also to provide a safe and open space for people to hear the Word of God preached as they gather with his body each week.
Given the increased debates over the role of FRT in our communities, the outright bans of the technology in certain municipalities and cities, and even the personal privacy debates in our nation, I think it is wise to slow down in adopting any type of facial recognition tools in the gathered body until we can have open and honest dialogue with people.
There will likely be countless questions and concerns over how the technology works, where the data is stored, how is it secured, who has access, and even what the local and state guidelines are for the use and capture of this type of biometric data.
A number of evangelical leaders, including myself, recently stated in a set of principles on artificial intelligence:
“Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate.”
This dignity of all people is central to any Christian ethic because it is the basis for how we are called to “love God” and “love our neighbor as ourselves” (Matthew 22:37-39).
But above all of the questions and concerns about FRT is the call for the local church to be a place where people feel loved and cared for as fellow image bearers of our God. We are connected with one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, as the family of God.
Just because these technologies may promise better or tighter community with one another, they are not a substitute for doing the hard work of connecting, loving, and serving one another as fellow church members.
As the church, it’s easy to do a simple cost-benefit analysis or even to be given over to the lofty promises that companies may make if you use these technologies in your gatherings.
But you’re the one called to shepherd your people, and you are the one who knows them better than anyone else.
Seek to embrace the benefits of technology, but also be aware of the potential downfalls, fears, and misuses of these tools because we are called to “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16).
JASON THACKER (@jasonthacker) is the chair of research in technology ethics and creative director for the Ethic and Religious Liberty Commission.