(Aug. 29) — Kyle Lewis, 25, missed going to church one Sunday last month. But he did not miss the sermon.
Mr. Lewis, who regularly attends services of the National Community Church in Alexandria, Va., listened to the sermon while he was at the gym, through a recording he had downloaded to his iPod. Instead of listening to the rock music his gym usually plays, he heard his pastor’s voice.
“Having an iPod is a guaranteed way to get the sermon if you’re going to be out of town,” Mr. Lewis said, adding that he listens to the pastor’s podcast at least once more during the week, usually while driving to work, even during weeks he makes it to services.
Mr. Lewis’s pastor, the Rev. Mark Batterson, started podcasting, or “godcasting” as he prefers to call it, last month to spread the word about his congregation. The hourlong recordings of his weekly service, available on theaterchurch.com, have already brought new parishioners to his church, he said.
“I can’t possibly have a conversation with everyone each Sunday. But this builds toward a digital discipleship,” he said. “We’re orthodox in belief but unorthodox in practice.”
Just as Christian organizations embraced radio and television, podcasting has quickly caught on with religious groups. Since the beginning of July, the number of people or groups offering spiritual and religious podcasts listed on Podcast Alley (podcastalley.com) has grown to 474 from 177.
“Basically every church can have its own radio show,” Pastor Batterson said.
Sending spiritual messages over the airwaves is nothing new. The Vatican made its first radio broadcast in 1931 and today offers worldwide programming in 34 languages (and now offers some programs as podcasts, as well). Evangelical Christians in the United States turned first to radio, then to television, to spread their message, and in the process built minibroadcasting empires like the Christian Broadcasting Network of Pat Robertson and the Trinity Broadcast Network.
New technology like podcasting updates the mission, although on a much smaller scale for now. But Pastor Batterson says he believes that podcasting will have an impact on the church as profound as that of the printing press when the first Bibles were printed in the 15th century.
“If you really believe in the message you’re preaching, you want as many people as possible to listen,” he said. He likes the idea of “spiritual multitasking” to keep people connected to their faith throughout the week. Before his podcasts, he also used his blog to connect with the 800 members of National Community Church, who gather for worship each Sunday in two movie theaters, one in Washington and the other in Alexandria, Va.
Odeo (odeo.com), a podcast directory, plans to encourage more churches, synagogues and mosques to use them, said Adam Rugel, the Web site’s director of content. Odeo lists a broad range of religious podcasts, including programs from Buddhists, Muslims and Jews.
Despite the variety of religious podcasts, Christian programs make up by far the largest segment of the category. Shows range from recordings made at the kitchen table to slick broadcasts with pulsing music and crisp audio, like that of “RevTim” (www.godcast.org/categories/revtimPodcast/). The Rev. Tim Hohm, a Protestant minister from El Sobrante, Calif., makes two 15-minute podcasts a week about family and work issues. He said an average of 6,000 people downloaded the program from the United States, Europe, Asia and Africa.
Mainstream religious broadcasting in the United States has long been dominated by conservative evangelicals like James Dobson and Al Mohler. Both men are hosts of daily radio programs and claim audiences of millions, and both now offer some broadcasts as podcasts.
Melissa Rogers, a visiting professor of religion and public policy at the Wake Forest University Divinity School, finds podcasting a good illustration of the entrepreneurial drive behind Christian evangelicals. Nevertheless, Ms. Rogers does not expect podcasts to replace going to church.
“Podcasts provide a way for people who are very busy these days to get their religion on the fly, but for most people this will be a supplement, not a substitute,” she said.
The Godcast Network (godcast.org), which began last October, offers 16 programs of Biblical readings, sermons and Christian rock. “Rachel’s Choice” is a weekly show by 8-year-old Rachel Patchett, daughter of the network’s founder, Craig Patchett, in which she plays a favorite Christian rock song, followed by a reading from the Bible.
Most religious podcasts can be subscribed to using R.S.S. (Really Simple Syndication, a tool for condensing information into a feed), which enables automatic downloading of a new show to the listener’s computer as soon it becomes available. For godcasters who record prayers or psalms, the function is especially appealing, because it offers their listeners easy access to daily devotional readings. Pastor Batterson, for instance, is aiming to attract 10,000 subscribers in the next two years who are looking for doses of spirituality on demand.
One of the most popular Christian podcasts, Catholic Insider (catholicinsider.com), already exceeds 10,000 listeners for each program. The founder is the Rev. Roderick Vonhögen, 37, a priest from the Netherlands, who heard about podcasting from one of his parishioners and has become an avid fan of http://live.curry.com/“>Adam Curry, one of podcasting’s founders.
Father Vonhögen began podcasting during a trip to Rome in February. When Pope John Paul II fell ill he captured reactions in and around the Vatican. Since then Father Vonhögen has done programs on the spiritual aspects of the “Star Wars” films and has discussed the Christian dimensions of the
“I don’t force people to take my view,” he said, to which he attributes his popularity. Listeners have gone along on walks in Rome, through the airport in Dusseldorf, Germany, and across the city square in his hometown of Amersfoort while Father Vonhögen enthusiastically talks about pop culture and religion, and can sometimes be heard eating French fries or gelato while he is talking.
“Podcasting for us has been a resurrection of radio,” Father Vonhögen said. “It’s the connection to a new generation.”