Pastor puts faith in Internet outreach

Competing against Rusty the narcoleptic dog, comedian Judson Laipply’s evolution-of-dance routine and enough other video vignettes to stretch from here to eternity, Milwaukee Pastor Mark Jeske’s earnestness seems a bit of an odd fit for YouTube.

It’s not exactly the kind of digital neighborhood where one would expect to find a conservative Lutheran evangelist hanging out, offering two- or three-minute video messages of faith and hope.

But then, normality is a moving target these days.

Inspired by the immense popularity of YouTube, which Google recently bought for $1.65 billion, Christian entrepreneurs launched GodTube in August. It offers online chats by topic and free sharing of amateur videos, church videos, music videos and movie trailers. It was the fastest-growing Web site in the United States that month and claims more than 3 million unique views each month.

Little Girl and Psalm 23.

GodTube’s most popular video, of a girl reciting Psalm 23, has tallied almost 4 million views. Its next most-viewed video, with nearly 380,000 views, is “Baby Got Book,” a faith-oriented spoof of “Baby Got Back,” Sir Mix-A-Lot’s 1992 hit in praise of women with big derrieres. Only in this case, instead of talking about booty, the song opens with a woman exclaiming in a Valley girl voice, “Oh, my, goodness, Becky! Look at her Bible. It is so big. She looks like one of those preacher guys’ girlfriends.”

Jeske, pastor of St. Marcus Lutheran Church near N. Palmer St. and E. North Ave., doesn’t draw even a fraction of those views, but he is a multimedia kind of guy who reaches far beyond his church’s central-city neighborhood. In addition to the YouTube videos, his Time of Grace ministry offers an Internet blog, podcasts, daily e-mail devotionals and streaming video and audio from its Web site. The ministry mails more than 10,000 booklets or magazines monthly and, as a cornerstone, records weekly, 30-minute Bible-study messages by Jeske in front of his congregation for broadcast.

That television ministry, already in nearly 20 U.S. markets, has expanded within the last two weeks to become available across the U.S. and around the world on cable television and satellite-dish systems over the Daystar Television Network.

“My passion is to connect people with Jesus in a way that makes sense to them on their turf, in their home, on their computer, wherever they like to receive religious information, without the stress and fear of having to cross a threshold and enter a room full of strangers,” Jeske said.

Real Hope – Time of Grace with Pastor Mark Jeske.

Most of his half-dozen YouTube videos have drawn about 60 views apiece, with one on “real hope” getting about 400 views. They are a small part of his efforts, but others have found that this medium – YouTube streams more than 100 million videos a day – packs the potential of a mustard seed.

YouTube videos with Wisconsin roots include:

• Senior Pastor Mel Lawrenz of Elmbrook Church in Waukesha County impersonating Johnny Cash and singing “Ring of Fire” at a congregational meeting. That’s garnered almost 5,200 views.

• Children at an Elmbrook camp clapping and dancing to the song “We’re All in this Together,” from “High School Musical” (about 785 views).

• A performance by the award-winning Sanctus Real band at Fox River Christian Church in Waukesha (more than 10,570 views).

By comparison, Laipply’s gyrating demonstration of the evolution of American dance styles, widely cited as the most-viewed video on YouTube, has more than 60 million views.

Pastors using traditional broadcast models are mainly symbolic on YouTube, said Lynn Clark, director of the University of Denver’s Estlow International Center for Journalism and New Media.

“It seems to me that a thing like ‘Baby Got Book’ has more legs, in the sense that it really fits with the YouTube sensibility, because it’s all about the pass-along, tripping onto something, (thinking) ‘Oh, you’ve got to see this,’ and you forward it to 40 of your friends.”

At Time of Grace, Jeske likes YouTube’s potential to reach unchurched people. With the average U.S. church attracting fewer than 90 adults on a typical weekend, according to Barna Group research, Internet and broadcast audiences that are small by commercial standards can still greatly leverage a pastor’s impact.

That was part of the idea in 2001 when a group of businessmen who worship at Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran churches gathered $500,000 in start-up money in hopes of making Jeske the nation’s most visible spokesman for conservative Lutheranism. Six years later, the private nonprofit ministry has grown from one employee to five and cites at least 200,000 viewers a week.

Jeske’s Time of Grace program airs in the Milwaukee area at 8 a.m. Sundays on WVTV-TV (Channel 18) and draws about 15,000 viewers in southeastern Wisconsin.

“Americans, in spite of the shame brought to my tribe, the televangelists, by some real boneheads . . . still really want to receive religious information through mass media,” Jeske said. “And so I would like to be there to . . . help people enjoy getting into Bible study, just find the fun of it, and really enjoy a relationship with God, one that’s not based on fear and guilt, but one that’s based on really enjoying the love that God has for people.”

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