As churches begin to use facial recognition software to track attendance, what’s next for personalized worship experiences?
The 21st Century Attendance Pad
Engadget doesn’t usually have religious content on their technology website, but recently they featured a facial recognition software that is used at multiple (!!) churches in order to track attendees without forcing them to fill out attendance pads or communication cards. From the article:
More than two dozen churches around the world have installed a facial-recognition system that monitors which members of the flock have actually shown up for the Sunday sermon. The system is called Churchix and was developed by Israeli software company, Face-six. It continually scans the religious center’s CCTV feed and matches congregation members to a pre-existing database of their faces — reportedly with 99 percent accuracy.
So how does the visitor or member get their face in the database? From a churchm.ag interview:
We encourage churches to set up Churchix in a registration checkpoint where members are voluntary registering themselves by just looking at a camera. The church can offer members different incentives that will happily make them look at the camera.
Offer incentives…or according to their website, they can upload pre-existing photo albums. Wow.
At least 30 churches in three countries are now using this software–though it is unclear if their congregations know about it. Creeptastic…
…or is it? Churches already track attendance and manually enter such data as in the image above. What Churchix does is just digitize and automate the same process that the ushers do when they take attendance.
But let’s imagine that this technology becomes used more than facial recognition to customization of the worship experience.
I’m reminded of Tom Cruise’s 2002 movie The Minority Report where the advertisement screen scans your retinas as you walk by and they customize their ads to your interests. As facial recognition software identifies people and can track where they are sitting in the worship hall, worship leaders can tailor the worship experience in little ways to connect with congregants.
Imagine attending a worship service for a second time (or perhaps another congregation that shares Churchix data) and the church is able to offer you a customized experience based on your previous encounters.
- Ushers can get a ping to guide you to sit in an area of the worship space where you are closer to people of your similar demographic or family structure…or at least away from the creepers.
- If the church knows you gave online or will give using the app, ushers will receive a ping to not bother you with the offering plate so that others don’t give you the side-eye that you didn’t put anything in the plate.
- If the church knows you pull out your phone and play games during the sermon, a spotlight tracked to your seat will either render that behavior too-exposed…or at least flood the area with light so that the light from the phone doesn’t distract other parishioners.
- Easier to find you in the worship services so that ushers can pass notes about children in the childcare, vehicle lights left on, etc.
- The post-sermon analysis will give the pastor positives for laughter, negatives for bored/no reactions, and the pastor can tailor the sermons to the people who (a) give and (b) react in the majority.
The Future is Now, actually
Those comments aren’t far from reality–we certainly use personal customization in many areas of business and culture now. We customize Google and Facebook ads based on professed interests. We choose to watch only channels that reinforce our beliefs. Target knows you are pregnant before your parents do. Customization and tracking are increasing in all areas of culture–it’s only a matter of time before they are used in the worship space as well.
There’s incredible technological ability to create a personal touch to worship that people may find welcoming. And it’s essentially available now to megachurches willing to put in the money.
Even though a computer can recognize faces, it cannot recognize motives or needs. It cannot tell (yet) whether a person is angry at their spouse, doubting their faith, wrestling with addiction, or the “why” of the people in attendance. Perhaps in Black Mirror it might take place, but for the moment, only personal relationships can properly inform a church why their people are there–not just that they are.
A personal touch?
However, a truly personal touch cannot be replaced by a computer.
The most powerful image I’ve seen in the past week was this one (I can’t repost – click here to view) of an elderly usher with white gloves opening the door for a little girl coming up to attend Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, for the first Sunday after the terrorist attack.
The look from the gentleman’s eyes, welcoming the child in…no computer could ever be more personal than that. No amount of quantitative or qualitative data could replicate the look on the man’s eyes.
That’s all the personal touch we need.
While big data can help congregations, any one that relies on computer power rather than people power will become obsolete. May we embrace technology to assist churches with managing growth, but may we never lose the arms and eyes that are required to embrace in the first place.