At home with new media: 

A profile of Seattle’s Quest Church

By Jim Rice
November 1, 2011


This article was written as part of a case study on Quest Church for the New Media Project at Union Theological Seminary. The full report of this case study and more information about all the case study research are available on our website.

Entering the 11:00 a.m. service at Seattle’s Quest Church, the first thing a visitor notices is the homey atmosphere. The lighting is warm, comfortable chairs sit in the front of the room, and a framed painting adorns a side wall lit by a living-room-style floor lamp. It’s a scene that could have been pulled right out of a house in the 1950s Pleasantville suburbs (albeit in living color).

A second glance yanks the visitor back to the twenty-first century. The screen above the altar encourages those gathered to “Check in on Facebook, Gowalla, Google+, or FourSquare.” Every slide in the pre-service rotation includes a digital aspect: “Register for the church retreat on our Facebook page.” “Visit the church website for a list of service opportunities.”

Quest isn’t a megachurch, and to a person, folks here emphasize that they don’t use social media just because it’s trendy to do so or to garner bona fides from the hipsters. Maybe the juxtaposition of the two—the old and the new, the down-home and the cutting edge techno—is a metaphor: people are very much at home with new media. Or perhaps it’s more fitting to note that the use of digital media grows naturally, “organically” is a common way that Questers described it, from the day-to-day habits and rhythms of the body of believers and those called to leadership here.

Founding Pastor Eugene Cho explains that he doesn’t need to intentionally seek out trends in new technology. “It’s just part of the culture that I’m part of,” Cho says. “It is all around me. I don’t necessarily need to do extensive research outside of my normal routine, because even if I’m not looking for it, someone in our church or congregation is utilizing it already. There’s no official meeting with my staff where we say, ‘Hey, should we utilize it?’ It just becomes organically a part of what we’re doing because we see how it’s being used by people in our congregation. It’s another way for us to connect with them.”

Joseph Lee, a twenty-something member of the Quest congregation, uses similar language to describe the church’s use of social media. “As trite as it sounds, a lot of the use of social media at Quest has been organic,” Lee says. “One of the reasons why I like Quest is that it’s not overtly in your face about social media. It’s complementary.” If the church was overly focused on social media in artificial ways, Lee adds, he would be “kind of turned off.” But at Quest, he says, social media is “just a new avenue to engage people in our culture. That makes sense.”

For the Quest community, the point isn’t to be on the cutting edge of anything. Despite Cho’s reputation as a leader in new media communication among younger people of faith (his blog is widely read and respected far beyond the Quest community and the Seattle area) he insists, “I am never the first one [in the church] to adopt any new trend in media or technology.” Rather, church leadership simply seeks to speak to its congregation and beyond using means of communication that people are already using in their regular lives.

Gail Song Bantum, another member of the pastoral staff at Quest, stresses that social media use should not only grow naturally out of the life of the church but that churches shouldn’t try to jump into social media because they think it’s the thing to do. “My encouragement would be to do it out of a genuine need or desire for your particular location and your particular community, and not out of some sort of competitiveness or pressure that ‘this is now the way to do church,’” Bantum says. “You don’t always have to tweet during the sermon. As a pastor, you don’t necessarily have to have a blog like everyone else. I guess it’s the genuineness of it that I’m striving for and wanting to encourage folks with, rather than doing it because everyone else is doing it. Engage social media out of a desire for greater communication, a greater sense of community, and not out of a kind of pressure.”

It’s essential to folks at Quest that such communication doesn’t get in the way of the body’s real reason for existence. Jin An, who works for the church part time on IT issues, says he’s always aware of the church’s central purpose as he’s working with technology. “We never want to rob [congregants] of the basic fact that they’re here to worship God,” An says, “and that will never change, regardless of whether we’re feeding information to your iPad or your smart device, or whether you’re just looking at a church program and your Bible.”

Why use social media?

The leaders of Quest Church, and Pastor Eugene Cho in particular, are well-regarded innovators in the use of social media for religious communities, but they certainly try to keep it in perspective. The use of digital media “is one of the things that I have been known for,” Cho says, but “I don’t know if I want to be known for that, when it’s all said and done. When I meet my Creator, God’s not going to say, ‘Hey, you’ve utilized social media well. Come into heaven.’ I’m really hoping that there are more substantive things.”

But even while recognizing the limits of technology and the dangers thereof, Cho and others at Quest express a clear appreciation for the benefits of social media for their congregation and beyond. They list a number of interrelated ways that social media have helped further the work of the church and other reasons for using social media:

• Getting to know the congregation

“One of the job duties of pastors is to know our congregations, to know the flock that we’re ministering to,” Cho says. “Social media, in part, is a platform by which people are sharing about their lives. It’s been very helpful on numerous levels. The last thing I want to do is to hide behind my pulpit, where my exchange or interchange with individuals is just once a week behind the pulpit. Social media has helped provide a place where I get a chance to check into people’s lives throughout the week, here and there.” 

Cho says that it’s “both good and bad” that he learns “more about some of the major things that are going on in their lives through Facebook” than via other avenues. If it wasn’t for Facebook, he says, he simply wouldn’t have the option of knowing that level of detail about his congregants’ lives.

• Meeting people where they are

Derek Sciba, a member of the congregation who works at the Seattle-based Christian development organization World Concern, argues that social media are important tools for Christian outreach. “As Christians, we need to reach people where they’re at, and this is where people are going,” Sciba says. “Most people spend their time at night surfing around on the Internet, on Facebook. These are the venues where they’re interacting, where they’re building relationships. I think it’s up to churches to try to meet people in these areas and be relevant to that.” Cho echoes the importance of social media, particularly for a church like Quest, “where we have a lot of younger folks who are probably 95 percent on some form of social media, particularly Facebook.”

• Attracting new people

One of the most common ways people find a church nowadays is through electronic media—Google searches might top the list, but social media help many people connect up when they’re looking for a new church. Lee, a web designer, says that Cho’s blog helped draw him to Quest and that “a lot of my friends that have found Quest have done so through a Google search” or through Cho’s Twitter feed or Facebook page. “It’s definitely a different landscape as to how people find churches now and how people get connected to churches,” Lee says.

Sciba is another for whom the Internet was helpful in finding Quest. “I’m a good example of somebody who came to the church because of its online presence,” Sciba says. “When my wife and I were looking for a church in Seattle, we searched online for certain terms, and Quest Church came up in those searches. Because of the optimization of its website and resources available on its website, we were able to get a good feel for where the church stood on certain issues, such as the church’s drive for social justice, its compassion for people who have few means, before we ever walked through the doors.”

Sciba emphasizes that social media is especially important in attracting younger and “non-traditional” churchgoers. “This newer media aspect is playing an increasing role in drawing in people who may be outside of the realm of traditional church shoppers,” he says, “people who may not necessarily have been looking to attend a church, but were drawn in by the message.”

• Disseminating information

New media, of course, can be useful tools for getting information out to members of the congregation. “Facebook is one of our main means of communication, so we ask folks to check our website and Facebook,” Bantum says. “That’s where we create group pages for activities and events. It’s to the point I can’t imagine how we’d function without that.”

Social media tools are useful for reaching out to people in the church beyond Sundays as well. “I don’t want to allocate teaching, mentoring, friendship to just one sermon a week,” Cho says. “Facebook allows me to distribute information about ministry, worldview, convictions, and values.” And these new tools can aid the teaching ministry of the church. “You could say that it helps us more regularly engage in teaching,” says Cho. “We can use media as a means of teaching, whether it’s showing videos, posting sermons, or sharing devotions throughout the week, and know that people are engaging it on some level or another.” Cho adds that it’s not all about the big picture. “I’m not just distributing larger information,” he says, “but I’m also sharing my story—it does give people an opportunity to hear about things in my life, for better and for worse.”

• Telling our story

Narrative—telling stories—is an essential part of being church. “Theologically, one of the main things that I would see supporting the usage of new media is the ability to communicate story and narrative,” Cho says. “That’s probably the most important thing. One of the ways that God created us uniquely as human beings is the ability to process stories, to narrate stories, and to live a better story.”

For Cho, this connects to the larger story of our faith. “Certainly for us as Christians, let alone pastors, we are part of a larger narrative that I consider to be the greatest story, the greatest narrative,” Cho says. “This isn’t just a means for us to engage in pop trends but also to utilize this to communicate the larger narrative of God that has been personified in Christ. That would be probably the strongest theological reason why I engage in new media as another form of communication that is revolutionizing the way that we do such things.”

• Nurturing community

Digital media has proved to be very helpful in building community at Quest. “The community aspect of the church—getting church members to become a community and not just a church attendee—is probably the biggest area of improvement that I’ve seen with social media,” says Sciba.

A concrete example of community building comes through the church’s 25 small groups, which use Facebook as a means of connecting members to one another, encouraging one another, and sharing information. “New media helps us more deeply engage in community,” says Cho. “It’s certainly a way for us to build intimacy—not just broadly in community but intimately—for sharing prayer requests and concerns.”

• Mobilizing around social issues

“What we’re trying to do is to take our ministry beyond our walls,” says An. Social media provide “a great means by which we’re able to create energy and momentum for certain mobilization. You could even call it evangelism,” Cho says. “There’s a certain power of evangelism that is doable” as a result of social media, he adds.

“We’re able to rally the larger church around a cause, to create a stir, to inform as well as to call people to action in a way that I don’t think we were able to do as effectively maybe 10 years ago,” says Bantum. “It continues to bind the church, more broadly speaking, in particular ways. Justice and compassion are probably the most tangible ways that [social media have] been the most effective.”

• Pastoral care

Social media can complement the in-person outreach by members of the pastoral staff. Using social media, “we’re able to see how people are doing,” says An. “We’re able to see if people are hurting, because that’s how some people will convey that. We’re able to see what’s going on in people’s lives.”

Through social media, Cho explains, “I’m not just sharing my story, but learning to listen and hear other people’s stories.” And that listening process is a key element in pastoring a church. Cho tells of an email dialogue he had recently with a woman in the congregation whose father was ill. “After this dialogue,” Cho says, “after not seeing this [woman] in church since February, I saw her in church this past Sunday.” She expressed to Cho how encouraging it had been to her to receive a Facebook note from one of the pastors, expressing concern and support as she went through the difficult time with her father.

For Cho, the exchange “communicated the truth of the fact that we all want to be seen and heard. New media, social media, allow us to engage; by engaging, we’re not simply shouting from the rooftop about boring church news, but also to have a posture of listening as well. It’s just hard as a pastor of a growing church to feel like you get a chance to hear everybody. I certainly can’t meet with everybody. New media allows us to do that.”

• Calling out gifts

Some of the greatest resources for any congregation are the people themselves. Most needs of the church can be met by drawing on other members of the body—there are many gifts and one spirit. The challenge, at times, is simply calling out those gifts. “With all the ways that people are connected, that’s probably the biggest black hole: that the community is not able to draw on itself for answers for help that it could and should be able to,” says An. And while technology can’t solve that, it can help facilitate connections between people.

“From a technological standpoint, social media definitely helps with that,” An adds. “That’s one of the ideals that I’ve always had as a technological professional. I’ve always felt that our communities, the people that we know, are our best source of information, our best connecting points. That goes back to the whole ‘six degrees of separation’ concept. You don’t have to be a part of a social network to understand that per se. When I’m able to ask questions on Facebook and get answers within 30 seconds, that’s it coming together.”

“For the most part, people are willing to help,” he says. “But sometimes that isn’t present in our church community, and I’ve always wondered why. We have forums on our website for that. That’s probably the greatest thing that could come from it and that churches should try to push toward.”

• Marketing 101

An believes that the church at large has a lot to learn from the world of marketing, in particular doing a better job of communicating in interesting, attention-grabbing ways. “The public gets bored!” An says. “And like it or not, our congregants are part of the public. They are people. They’re subject to all the bells and whistles that nonbelievers look at.” Thus the church must be intentional about what sparks interest and motivates people, just as are those who market secular products.

“Part of the website is not for your congregation,” says An. “It’s a marketing tool. Let’s be honest about that. When we first planted Quest, I was 25, having been involved with Eugene on our previous ministry. I come from the business world. I was so floored by how churches didn’t want to use the term ‘marketing.’ It was almost like, ‘We don’t market here.’ But you are! You have to! You’re appealing to the same people that Best Buy is competing for.”

• Staying relevant

Churches don’t really have a choice in whether or not to innovate, according to An. “Innovation has happened,” An says, and yet a segment of the church “isn’t risking anything and wants to stay where it’s comfortable. That’s detrimental to the church because the people that we serve are moving forward; they’re looking for these things.”

An recognizes that “it’s hard to stay on the cutting edge right now because there are so many people doing everything all at once.” But he argues that if churches want to stay connected to their congregations, they have to keep up with changing technologies. “It tests churches in their ability to stay invested in their congregation beyond Sunday,” he says.

Blurring boundaries and other potential dangers

While people at Quest Church have adopted new media in creative and helpful ways and recognize its benefits, they also are very clear about the dangers. “When I shared some of the positive things about the influence of new and social media in my life as a pastor,” Cho says, “every single one of those things, if we’re not careful, could also become very dangerous as well.”

Several of the people I talked with at Quest emphasized balance in the use of social media. “It’s really important that we’re not selling ourselves to one extreme or another,” Cho says, “but utilizing these things for what they are: good tools!” But Cho expresses his awareness and wariness of how easily electronic media can take over one’s life. “One of the great dangers of new media—all forms of media—is that it has certainly very much blurred the lines of what a 9-to-5 job looks like,” Cho says. “Ministry before media was never a 9-to-5 job, but it has made it even that much more complicated.”

Cho says that he realizes that “the boundaries I once had have become blurred because of social media. I’ve been much more intentional [about dealing with this], not because I feel like I’m in a danger zone but realizing that it’s not just about my boundaries. There are also boundaries that I need to respect in a communal sense as well.”

Bantum says that, with new media, there’s “a greater demand for access, and a greater expectation of response. For pastors and for leaders of the church, it’s more pressure to keep up with the different avenues of communication.” She says that sometimes the sheer volume, over various new media channels, can be frustrating. “There’s a lot more to manage and administrate. Congregants feel that they have greater access to us and have an expectation to have interaction more frequently.”

Congregation members express sympathy for the busy lives that their pastors lead, but they also articulate their expectations of ready access very well. “I believe that culturally new media has greatly reduced the time in which we would expect a response,” says Sciba. “Ten years ago, if you were to talk to a pastor at church one Sunday, he might check in with you the next Sunday. Now, in this time frame, it would not be surprising to get some other touch in new media because it’s just so easy to reach out.” Sciba admits that such expectations aren’t entirely realistic. “Granted, if you have your whole congregation expecting that, you won’t have nearly the time to do this.” In the next breath, though, he points out that new media make it simpler to answer in a timely manner. “I believe that [new media] should afford a pastor some increased flexibility to communicate because of the easiness in reaching people. I think that it is definitely up to pastors to step up and enter this new way of communicating with your congregations.”

While the use of new media can facilitate a higher degree of communication and connection among people in a church, the Quest pastors warn that it should never replace actual human connection. “We should look at new media as a means of how we can continue to express pastoral care and carry out our calling,” says Cho, but “the danger is that we hide behind it. I see that as a growing temptation.” Cho continues, “One of the reasons why I have great admiration for the apostle Paul, despite some of my theological angst over some of his interpretation, is that the guy was out and about, meeting and engaging, befriending and contending. Not to say that you can’t do those things [with social media], but we should never replace live human interaction with new media.” Pastor Bantum adds, “I can’t help but think of it sacramentally. Sacrament can’t happen outside of incarnational presence.”

Leaders at Quest expressed their commitment to ensure that the use of new technologies in church communication wouldn’t leave out those who haven’t adopted new media. Being sensitive to full inclusion is especially important given the particular history of the church. Quest was founded a decade ago as a church plant and soon connected to the Evangelical Covenant denomination. In the past five years, the church has merged with an older Covenant congregation called Interbay Covenant Church, and the members have been working and worshipping together as one body since. Many of Interbay’s members were significantly older while Quest before the merger attracted a large number of people in their 20s and 30s. The church today still has a high percentage of younger members—a demographic that generally has a higher comfort level with new technology and with new media in particular. The mix of the old and the new—and the young and the old—requires a special sensitivity in using recently introduced forms of communication to ensure that no one is left out or left behind.

Another danger of social media, according to Cho, is how quickly a message can be sent out, sometimes without the needed aforethought. And he stresses the importance of discretion. “We’ve all seen how sometimes, in certain emotions, we can write something that, before you know it, goes out to all those places,” says Cho. “We see this impacting people socially, in marriage, politically, even in church as well. We need to realize that in this instant-gratification culture, while we’re able to respond to something instantly, we still need to be thoughtful about what we’re saying and writing.”

Cho continues, “On a micro level, I’ve seen instances of people sharing something, writing something or posting a picture of something that may not have been the most appropriate. We’re seeing examples of this coming back to harm people, whether it’s job interviews or in other ways. There’s a lot of wisdom for churches and pastors as well to be wise in how we utilize new media.”

One key aspect that requires discretion, according to An, is the question of what should be kept confidential, or shared only among the congregation members, and what is appropriate to share more broadly. “Churches need to be very mindful about the fact that what they’re conveying is not for everybody, and it shouldn’t be for everybody,” An says. “I think it’s always a juggle to know when you should focus inward and when you should focus outward. On our website, we’re clear as to what areas we focus to just our community and what areas we use to appeal to the broader public.”

Bantum feels that some of the problems are culturally rooted. “I wonder, 10 years from now, how this is going to turn out, especially among the younger generation,” she says. “I wonder how much of the social media rage feeds upon the Western desires for individuality and anonymity, yet wanting our voice to be heard, without being accountable to anybody. What’s happening in this space, where words and thoughts and ideas are being put out there, and how is that affecting the daily life of those who profess in Jesus?”

Cho echoes that analysis. “New media plays off something that is part of our human nature,” he says. “It plays off a sense of narcissism. There’s a part of me that is narcissistic. You don’t have to tell me that new media brings it out of me. It’s part of my engagement with my flesh. There’s something about narcissism and egotism where we want attention, we want people to look into our lives.”

Bantum worries about the tendency of social media to create what she calls a “false sense of community,” as well as a “false sense of presence.” She asks, “What does it mean to be a community of presence? It’s so easy for us sometimes to just rely on social media and conversations and ideas, but what does it mean to really be present for one another? This is really important for us pastors. Social media cannot replace our tangible presence. I think social media can enhance what’s already here, but it can’t replace who we are in this place.”

For all her concerns, Bantum recognizes both the benefits and the dangers around the use of new media. “Social media is such an integral part of what we know and almost who we’re becoming,” she says. “I’ve had to learn what it means to do ministry in this context.”  For Bantum, some of that entails a tricky balancing act. “There are many times when Jesus, in his life of ministry, preached and performed miracles to the masses and the crowds. But there are probably more moments when he stepped back and chose to be with the one, whether it’s the Samaritan woman or one of his disciples. So what does that look like to us as church leaders to not get so caught up in the masses? Sometimes social media can tend to focus on the self. So how do we become people that are inclusive of the body of Christ and speak to the body? I think it’s a very tricky balance.”

In the final analysis, Cho feels that technology is, in effect, neutral—it can be used in both positive and negative ways. Human ability, he says, gives us the capacity to use it for good, or potentially for bad as well. “But having said that,” he adds, “I know that we’re still in the early stages of social media. Christians have certainly adopted it. There are many that are struggling through it. Calling and challenging and inviting pastors to think more theologically about the impact and ramifications is really important. I find myself thinking about these things very much recently, particularly as I hear about more and more children struggling with the consequences of addiction to technology, with insurance companies now beginning to add addiction to technology as one of the things that they’re covering. Those are big, big issues. I am curious as to how not only the church but the larger society will evolve with these matters.”

Jim Rice, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is editor of Sojourners magazine in Washington, D.C.

The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact newmediaproject@cts.edu.

Nav