Adam Smith of Hillsong Technology talks about a different type of church integration | Episode 33

Tune in to the most recent episode of our Future.Bible Podcast with our special guest, Adam Smith of Hillsong Technology!

Adam is the Head of Digital for Hillsong Church Globally. Hillsong Technology exists to empower and equip the church through innovative technological solutions that bring people closer to Christ.

In this episode, Adam discusses what Hillsong Technology is and why it exists, opportunities for the application of digital technology in the church, and some considerations churches should be making as they focus on digital technology to reach people and build the Church.

Get to know more about Adam and his work through their website at hillsongtechnology.com!

Website: hillsongtechnology.com

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TRANSCRIPTION:

Kenny Jahng:    Hey friends, welcome back to The Future.Bible Podcast. My name is Kenny Jahng, co-host of the podcast. You’ll notice that DJ Chuang, my partner in crime is not with us today. He’s out and about actually doing some innovation and meetings but does not worry because across from me, actually literally across the interwebs and across the globe, we’ve got Adam Smith here with us today. Thank you so much for joining us for the show today, Adam.

Adam Smith:    Thank you so much for having me.

Kenny Jahng:    Now the reason why I’m excited to have Adam is a couple of things. One, he is a part of the Hillsong Organization, which we all know has been an innovator in multiple fronts, not just technically the technology area, but in terms of how we do ministry, how we do outreach, how we spread the gospel. And two, Adam is actually part of a group there called Hillsong Technology in Sydney. Well, I’ll let you do it. Adam, why don’t you explain your title, your role, and just a little bit about what you are overseeing theirs at Hillsong Technology.

Adam Smith:    For sure. Awesome. Well, I guess I kind of wear two hats. I have two roles within our organization and one of those is the head of digital sales on church globally. So that basically looks like taking care of all of our websites, apps, and services, databases and systems, social media, that kind of stuff. And the other one, which is the one that I’m really excited to talk to you about today is kind of the role that I play within Hillsong Technology. We have kind of an in-joke at Hillsong where we say we kind of pick out titles somewhat because everybody is doing everything as much as we possibly can. And so there comes a point in time where you need to be able to describe pretty simply what it is that you’re up to. And so that for me, inside Hillsong Technology is what I refer to as the chief evangelist.

Adam Smith:    And I guess if you think about chief evangelist in terms of the tech world, it’s a really easily understood concept in that it’s pretty much the best and most passionate and excited salesperson with the most knowledge about the organization. And then if you think about it in the traditional sense, inside the church, the evangelist is obviously the person that is the best at telling people and connecting people to Jesus. And I really believe that that’s my role in terms of both of those things inside Hillsong Technology is to be the champion for what we’re doing as an organization, but also the champion for what we do as an organization to connect people to Jesus.

Kenny Jahng:    Great. Now that title chief evangelist has been around for a while in the tech world, right? I remember … I’m exposing my age, growing up with the Apple II Plus, Apple II is Guy Kawasaki used to be the chief evangelist for Apple. Today, they’ve got another really sharp gentleman there. Other companies have that in place. I love the fact that you’re taking that and bring that into the church world. First of all, how large is your team and what’s the vision for that in terms of … most of the things that I see Hillsong doing is built in a way that it’s the external focus first and not even internal first, right? It’s not like to serve the Hillsong Church proper. It’s actually built to help other churches out there. Can you share a little bit of that? Like how big is your team and what’s that vision for how that … What’s the split? What percentage do you think the resources and the things that you’re doing are internal focus versus external focus?

Adam Smith:    Sure. I guess one of the things about Hillsong Church is there are some things that we’re really, really well known for. Obviously our worship, it spans across the globe and is really well known. Our leadership in terms of Pastor Brian and Bobbie Houston and the leadership mantle that they carry is really well known. And even just Sunday services, if you show up to a Sunday service anywhere on the planet, you’ll really get a taste for what Hillsong Church is and really quickly understand exactly what it’s like to be part of it. I think that the important thing to note is that we’ve always been and always communicate internally that we’re a local church. Pastor Bobbie always says that we’re one house with many rooms and I think that, that’s always been central to the way that we operate and run the church.

Adam Smith:    We are a local church and we’re focused on local community and building into those people inside those local communities. All of that to say we’ve also inherently always done what we do for those rooms within our house. And the fortunate, by the grace of God, the nature of what we’ve done is that we’ve had the opportunity for that to go global. And so I would say that yes, there’s absolutely an element that all of the things that we do, we’re doing them with a view to being able to serve the church globally. But we always look at things like what can we do that will work for us inside our church? And then if that goes forward and it can suck churches elsewhere, then like we killed it. Do you know what I mean?

Kenny Jahng:    Yes. So I’m actually right at New York City. So Hillsong New York City, Hill Song Montclair, New Jersey. And then Hillsong just recently announced multiple cities across the country here in the states. Are you developing resources for just Australia, for London? Or it’s the global Hillsong footprints? Or is it just Sydney first?

Adam Smith:    No. We’re very, very much a global church at this point. So I was actually just last weekend with our Dallas campus, which is one of the newest rooms in our house. And spending time building with their teams working out some of the nitty-gritty of what systems swig, and we use to actually support what they’re doing. And then some of it just building culture and investing in the people that are somewhat new, I guess to our church there, but that is going to be integral in building that room of the house. So to come back to your original question, I guess the split of my team, the way that we kind of focus things is that we’re obviously the majority of us are closest in proximity to our Australian campuses.

Adam Smith:    And our Hills campus here in Sydney is probably our largest single campus. And it’s the flagship, and it’s the one that we launched first. And it was the first place that Brian and Bobbie came when they got here from New Zealand and started Hillsong Church. And it’s always been that for us, this the main campus. I guess what we inherently try to do is use Australia as a place where we can engage firsthand with stakeholders. And I know here I’m talking in the very kind of business sense of the way that we do things, but I believe that there’s a lot of things that have been figured out outside of the church that we can really employ inside to make sure that we’re running best practice for how we get things done. And so what we’ll do is a lot of in-house research and stakeholder engagement, when we start to figure out what we can do to meet the needs of our church globally. But there’s definitely a unity in terms of the way we approach things and what my team serves for our church across the globe.

Adam Smith:    So a good example of that is we’ve just, through Hillsong technology launched a new app platform that’s called [inaudible 00:07:55]. We’re super excited about it. It’s something we’ve been working on for about 18 months. And like I’ve said, we’ve done it where we’ve used Hillsong Church as I guess our testing ground and what it is in its first iteration is essentially a backend platform that can spin up apps in almost any way that you can imagine. The whole thing is built on a modular backend where you can create new modules to do different functions on the front end. But the one that we’ve focused on because it meant the immediate need that we had as a church was an event app. And we partnered with an organization called Brushfire that’s based out of Dallas in the US and they provide, in my opinion, the best ticketing and events registration systems for churches globally. And what we’ve done is built this event’s app that we’ve actually rolled out at our annual Hillsong Conference, our annual Color Women’s Conference, and at our Worshiping Creative Conference. Both the Hillsong Conference and Color Conference are global conferences.

Adam Smith:    So Pastor Bobbie is on the road right now. She’s done Sydney, she’s just finished London. She’s about to start here. Then she goes to Cape Town, doing this global women’s conference. And that event’s app that we built is going to be utilized in each one of those locations.

Kenny Jahng:    Wow. And then I guess you’re going to then have also data that you can aggregate globally and do all that. That’s pretty interesting, the way you’re doing. Now, just can you speak a little to that philosophy of there are so many tech teams and so many, especially the church where they feel like they need to do everything internally. They need to build and invent everything over again, and you’re partnering with an outside firm. Can you talk to that philosophy of why you think it’s so important that you guys don’t invent everything from scratch and that you’re able to, I would say look at outside influences and see how to piece those things together? Because it’s quite a different design philosophy.

Adam Smith:    Absolutely. I love I guess entrepreneurial and innovative mindset of inventing solutions internally. And it’s something that throughout my career and my involvement at Hillsong Church, which I’ve been part of this church over 20 years and on staff for a decade. I’ve wrestled with in terms of what do we do? How custom do we need to get? What are the needs and requirements? And what I think that … We’ve gone back and forth between the two and in some situations, we absolutely have to do this custom. Because the needs and requirements that we have as an organization are so unique and individualized that the only way that we can produce a product that’s going to make them all is if we build it in-house, versus the thing that we need to do, there’s no point in reinventing the wheel. Like there’s somebody that’s already figured out the best way to do this thing that we need to do. And in that case, that’s where we’ll go and look at it, a vendor or an off the shelf solution.

Adam Smith:    Having said that, I believe that there … I’ve always talked back to this concept and it’s kind of an uphill battle to convince people on, that I really believe that there’s a freedom in restriction. And when I say that, that … Well, the way I started to champion this idea was we have built the current iteration of our website, the whole backend is on WordPress. And it’s really highly customized. We don’t have to get too deeply technical, but we use a bunch of custom plugins and have utilized those to build the backend to do exactly what we needed to do. But the idea was that we would have a CMS that was a pretty low barrier to entry, that we could send a few simple training materials around the world and then empower our global campuses and locations to manage their own portions of the website. The feedback that we initially started to get was obviously, “I want to be able to do this and I can’t,” or, “We want to do this, how do we do that?”

Adam Smith:    And I had to keep coming back to this idea of freedom and restriction because what we’re enabling them to do is outwork a global vision and communicate information at a level where there is a global cohesiveness. So that if you were walking in off the street for the first time in any one of our locations and you needed to figure out where we were, what time church was on, what services we offer for your kids, who the pastor is going to be, how are you going to connect with a familiar face. No matter where you were in the world, the experience would be the same from the point that you pull up that website on the phone to the point where you walk in the front door to the church. And like I said, that’s an uphill battle when you have entrepreneurial people that want to be able to do things the way that they want to be able to do them.

Adam Smith:    But at the same time, I really do believe there’s a freedom in restriction. So all of that to say, we are still on a journey. And I think we’re still in the process of figuring out the best way to do some of these things. And the initial stages that we now go through in terms of that research and stakeholder engagement are really key in us being able to determine do we have to invest and go down this long roadmap of custom development or is there an off the shelf solution that is absolutely going to meet our needs?

Kenny Jahng:    It is refreshing to see such a large church and organization like yours to not always feel like you have to do something custom. Because in my work running a digital agency serving large nonprofit and national, and international, I’ve seen in the past that mentality is that our needs are so different than everyone else. And everything we have to do is custom. And then you just go down these paths that just lead to dead ends. And it’s encouraging to see such an open-minded philosophy and design. Now, what do you see as the greatest opportunities for the application of digital technology to church and Bible engagement?

Adam Smith:    I really think that in the most respectful way to privacy and in the individual’s right to privacy and all the considerations we have to make there, that data is the key to unlocking the power going forward in terms of what we can harness digitally, inside the church and for the broad reach and application of what the Bible can do. I think that what we’re going to start to see is the necessity for churches to on board with each other and start to really share in a dynamic way some of their data and information. And like I said, with respect to people’s privacy and all of the things that we need to protect that I think that there is a power … God told us throughout the Bible about taking nations and I really believe that the church is absolutely mandated to take nations, but if we keep thinking inside of this issue of mindset, the only thing we’re going to see is walls and pockets inside of nations that don’t connect and don’t talk to each other. Whereas if we’re going to take a nation, there has to be a unified front to do so.

Adam Smith:    And I really believe that data is going to be central to that unified front. There’s a group of churches that may … none of these kinds of things happen across the world, but they meet in the UK every year and a small group of senior pastors to basically benchmark what their churches have been doing throughout the year and then figure it out based on that conversation and that information and data that they have, what they can do better the next year. And the view is, “I don’t know everything. You don’t know anything. They don’t know anything. But together we can get a lot closer.” And so I think that moving forward we’re going to need to find a way that we can really get churches to interlock and interrelate based around data in order to further the mission of what I really believe that the Bible can do in terms of taking the nations and what I believe the church can do for bringing Christ to, and seeing all of the things fulfilled [crosstalk 00:16:18].

Kenny Jahng:    I just love that posture. I guess the posture of … you have to have a posture of generosity, but also humility when you as a leader working with other churches to say, “I can learn from you, let me open our doors and share what we’ve learned.” And so that this vulnerability exists. That’s a great call to action for all the leaders that are listening in today. If you look at I guess the considerations that churches should be making right now when they’re focusing on digital technology to reach people, to build the church, to bring more people to a relationship with Jesus, what do you sense it right now, looking forward into 2019 and then maybe 2020? What’s the latest trend? Or what’s one thing or two things that you think leaders need to be thinking about looking at? Is it social media? Is it apps? Is it something else? What would be the recommendation for leaders listening in today? What should they be focusing on in the next year or two?

Adam Smith:    Yes, for sure. I think first and foremost, and it speaks a little bit to the previous question and it’s not necessarily the glitziest almost exciting answer, but I think there’s this concept that’s becoming really, really important, which is privacy by design. And when you think about apps or social media or whatever platforms you’re using to engage with people, it’s putting privacy in their hands and putting the control of data and information in the individual’s hands rather than the organization. We moved from a model with our church management system where we would connect with new people and get their information via a card or a piece of paper or just verbal communication. And then we go away, we enter it into our system and then start a process engaging and following up and contacting those individuals. What we started to see as we did major audits on that data is that huge amounts of it were incorrect. We’d have email addresses that were entered wrongly into the system, phone numbers that were rented wrongly, people’s names. You’d go to do a followup call with somebody and just completely get their name wrong.

Kenny Jahng:    I think everyone in the church well, listening has sympathy for that one.

Adam Smith:    Yes. We’ve all experienced this pain for sure. So we started to move towards a model where we said, “All right, well then let’s start building our church database off of the information that people enter themselves and the information that people are willing to share with us is going to be the information that we deem is necessary to take from them.” And it puts all of that data back in control of the individual. And it puts them on a journey of trust with us where they say, “I’m willing to give this to you and I know how you’re going to utilize it and then that way I’m willing to share it.” Rather than us saying, “We need this from you and we’re going to utilize it however we see fit to get it across.”

Kenny Jahng:    What you’re proposing is a huge obstacle for many churches and ministries out there. What’s the one thing that you … there’s going to need to be some mindset change or shift in the paradigm of how we communicate or relate to our people. What do you think then needs to happen in order for that to be successful?

Adam Smith:    I think it’s a two-step process. I think that what has to be really, really key at the point of onboarding a person is that you have to have fantastic user experience design, centered around that onboarding journey. So if you’re using an app or a website to do so I look to some of the biggest players in the game for how they onboard. If you look at creating an account with Airbnb, even we have a service here called Bement which is kind of like your Venmo, in terms of being able to transfer money between people. And the vetting process there obviously requires personal information from you. It requires very, very identifiable-

Kenny Jahng:    Yes. Sensitive information. Yes.

Adam Smith:    … driver’s license number. Things that they can use to essentially connect you to your bank account so that they can ensure that everything is a complaint about the board because money’s related, right? There has to be a trust relationship there. But the onboarding experience is fantastic. There’s a number of steps in it. It takes a little while, but none of it feels like a friction point because they have nailed that experience. So that’s step one. Step two, which is the most important part is the human connection. Because you can build the best system in the world to onboard people, but if you don’t effectively do anything with that information to create a human connection with somebody, it’s a waste of time. Because you’re just building a database, you’re not building a church. So there has to be a level of understanding from pastoral teams and those kinds of people for what’s required next in a follow-up process.

Adam Smith:    When somebody hasn’t been willing to give you their information, understanding that, that means you’re going to create a connection with them, what do you do with it? How do you communicate with them? And how do you respect the fact that they’ve given you information to contact them now? We don’t want to send them 50 text messages in the first 24 hours.

Kenny Jahng:    [crosstalk 00:21:51].

Adam Smith:    We don’t want to call them at 8:00 PM on a Monday night while they’re finishing their dinner with their family. So there are some of these really practical things that we need to get in place in terms of the process to how we start to build a human connection with people. And then we have to be consistent. You can’t just call somebody as a faceless, nameless person on the phone and ask them to come to church on the weekend and then not be willing to be in front of them and invite them open arms to be part of what you’re doing and what you’re creating for them. If we’re doing this to build community and connect people better to Christ, then there has to be the human connection element and that’s always going to be necessary no matter what digital system we put in front of it.

Kenny Jahng:    So good. So good. Yes. So I’m hearing we got to focus on user experience with churches. I mean, let’s just be honest and-

Adam Smith:    And we’ve been ignoring it for way too long.

Kenny Jahng:    … and then what you’re saying is we have to humanize our processes and our interactions. Just because this is technology does not mean it needs to be sterile, that we really need to take a humanistic approach to how we use that data.

Adam Smith:    Yes, that’s it. I mean every single person that you know has a mobile device and they’re on it for a good significant portion of their day. So if you want to find a place where you’re going to most easily engage with somebody up at first connection point, do it through their mobile device. But that can’t do everything for you. There has to be a human element.

Kenny Jahng:    Its good wisdom. And I think from that point of view, it’s just a peek into why your teams have been so successful across the board is because of that intentionality, and the thinking behind everything that you guys put out there. Well, I appreciate the time that you’ve had with us today if someone wanted to learn more about Hillsong Technology, do you guys have a website or a landing page or a home base for the resources that your team specifically are putting out?

Adam Smith:    Yes, for sure, hillsongtechnology.com is the easiest way. You’ll get it quick breakdown on what we’re about, what we’re up to and well led by two incredible individuals named Stan Coker and Rob Beach. Yes, that’s probably the best place to connect, I think. There’s an email sign up on there, which isn’t a newsletter that comes directly into my inbox. And so if you put your email address in there, you’re going to be hearing from me.

Kenny Jahng:    Perfect.

Adam Smith:    And the first email you’ll receive, it’s going to be automated, but it’s going to actually ask you some questions about what you do, what your church is up to, what your needs are, and we’ll start a conversation with you that way.

Kenny Jahng:    Oh, that’s awesome. And then if someone here was listening to you, one of the things that we love is we find that people actually get inspiration from leaders like you that come onto the podcast. And we’d like to ask a fun question at the end of the interviews is if we gave you a magic wand with an unlimited budget, unlimited bandwidth, unlimited resources, what’s the one thing you would do in terms of Bible engagement and technology? What’s that dream little thing that’s in the back of your mind that you have?

Adam Smith:    Man, I think it’d have to be applying that to somehow engaging churches to building this data system that interconnects all of these churches and gives them a place where they can start to not only put information in but receive insights back on where the church is at and what’s required and what areas where they can improve and how they can move forward and how they can best facilitate serving the people that willingly become part of what we’re doing.

Kenny Jahng:    That notion itself is so unique. I really haven’t heard many other people thinking about collaboration at that deep of a level. I think that’s something we’re going to have to chew on his podcast and maybe even invite you back in a couple of months to dive deeper into that concept.

Adam Smith:    I’d love to man.

Kenny Jahng:    I definitely think there’s something that we need to think about but just hasn’t been on anybody’s radar. And so it’ll be fun to see what you guys are doing at Hillsong Technology and if you’re willing to come back in a couple of months, we’d love to have you back here again.

Adam Smith:    Yes. That sounds great. I’d absolutely love to. Thank you for having me.

Kenny Jahng:    Adam, just the social media-wise, are you on social … What’s the best way someone can follow you or connect with you on social media?

Adam Smith:    Yes, for sure. You can hit me up on Instagram. It’s just mradm, A-D-M not A-D-A-M because Adam Smith is just the most unique name in the world. So it’s Mr., M-R A-D-M Smith.

Kenny Jahng:    Got you. On Insta, perfect. We’ll have to follow you there. Thank you so much for visiting with us today. Really appreciate and not just you, but all the work that your ministering teams are doing for the kingdom. And for the listeners out here, thank you for joining us for today’s conversation here at Future.Bible. This is the place that we hope you look to find more innovators. I’m sharing what they’re doing for Bible engagement across the globe. We love your recommendations for speakers. In fact, Adam came through one of your ideas and suggestions. We’d love your feedback. We’d love your reviews on iTunes and all the other places that you listen to the audio. Don’t forget, you can get the transcript and more resources at our website at www.future.bible. I’m Kenny Jahng. For next week, we’ll have DJ Chuang back as a co-host, but in the meantime, make sure that you be invested in technology and remember, it starts with you.

Adam Smith:    Thank you, Kenny.

HIGHLIGHTS:

04:55 We are a local church and we’re focused on local community and building into those people inside those local communities. All of that to say we’ve also inherently always done what we do for those rooms within our house. And the fortunate, by the grace of God, the nature of what we’ve done is that we’ve had the opportunity for that to go global. And so I would say that yes, there’s absolutely an element that all of the things that we do, we’re doing them with a view to being able to serve the church globally. But we always look at things like what can we do that will work for us inside our church? And then if that goes forward and it can suck churches elsewhere, then like we killed it.

08:04 Hillsong Church as I guess our testing ground and what it is in its first iteration is essentially a backend platform that can spin up apps in almost any way that you can imagine. The whole thing is built on a modular backend where you can create new modules to do different functions on the front end. But the one that we’ve focused on because it meant the immediate need that we had as a church was an event app. And we partnered with an organization called Brushfire that’s based out of Dallas in the US and they provide, in my opinion, the best ticketing and events registration systems for churches globally. And what we’ve done is built this event’s app that we’ve actually rolled out at our annual Hillsong Conference, our annual Color Women’s Conference, and at our Worshiping Creative Conference. Both Hillsong Conference and Color Conference are global conferences.

14:05 I really think that in the most respectful way to privacy and in the individual’s right to privacy and all the considerations we have to make there, that data is the key to unlocking the power going forward in terms of what we can harness digitally, inside the church and for the broad reach and application of what the Bible can do. I think that what we’re going to start to see is the necessity for churches to on board with each other and start to really share in a dynamic way some of their data and information. And like I said, with respect to people’s privacy and all of the things that we need to protect that I think that there is a power … God told us throughout the Bible about taking nations and I really believe that the church is absolutely mandated to take nations, but if we keep thinking inside of this issue of mindset, the only thing we’re going to see is walls and pockets inside of nations that don’t connect and don’t talk to each other. Whereas if we’re going to take a nation, there has to be a unified front to do so.

18:44 We’ve all experienced this pain for sure. So we started to move towards a model where we said, “All right, well then let’s start building our church database off of the information that people enter themselves and the information that people are willing to share with us is going to be the information that we deem is necessary to take from them.” And it puts all of that data back in control of the individual. And it puts them on a journey of trust with us where they say, “I’m willing to give this to you and I know how you’re going to utilize it and then that way I’m willing to share it.” Rather than us saying, “We need this from you and we’re going to utilize it however we see fit to get it across.”

19:47 I think it’s a two step process. I think that what has to be really, really key at the point of onboarding a person is that you have to have fantastic user experience design, centered around that onboarding journey. So if you’re using an app or a website to do so I look to some of the biggest players in the game for how they onboard. If you look at creating an account with Airbnb, even we have a service here called Bement which is kind of like your Venmo, in terms of being able to transfer money between people. And the vetting process there obviously requires personal information from you. It requires very, very identifiable-

20:39 … driver’s license number. Things that they can use to essentially connect you to your bank account so that they can ensure that everything is complaint about board because money’s related, right? There has to be a trust relationship there. But the onboarding experience is fantastic. There’s a number of steps in it. It takes a little while, but none of it feels like a friction point because they have nailed that experience. So that’s step one. The step two, which is the most important part is the human connection. Because you can build the best system in the world to onboard people, but if you don’t effectively do anything with that information to create a human connection with somebody, it’s a waste of time. Because you’re just building a database, you’re not building a church. So there has to be a level of understanding from pastoral teams and those kinds of people for what’s required next in a followup process.

21:51 We don’t want to call them at 8:00 PM on a Monday night while they’re finishing their dinner with their family. So there are some of these really practical things that we need to get in place in terms of process to how we start to build human connection with people. And then we have to be consistent. You can’t just call somebody as a faceless, nameless person on the phone and ask them to come to church on the weekend and then not be willing to be in front of them and invite them open arms to be part of what you’re doing and what you’re creating for them. If we’re doing this to build community and connect people better to Christ, then there has to be the human connection element and that’s always going to be necessary no matter what digital system we put in front of it.


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