Churches use technology for outreach
The power of broadband Internet service is expanding the reach of the servants of God.
Increasingly, houses of worship and individuals are using the new generation of Internet broadcasting to reach adherents and those outside their communities, in a trend sometimes called “Godcasting.”
People listen to audio recordings that are converted into a digital format, then distributed and downloaded to portable music players or Web-connected personal computers.
“We want to try to make worship opportunities and learning from the word of God available to as many people as we can,” said the Rev. Marion Arbuckle, pastor of Stonebrook Church in Smyrna.
“It is a way people are getting information and we feel we need to use the same technology for the glory of God.”
These Internet-based broadcasts, commonly known as “podcasts,” connect homebound church members, missionaries in foreign lands and travelers away from their congregations. They also offer people not affiliated with a congregation a peek inside.
In short, every evangelist, church or religious leader, including Pope Benedict XVI, could have the equivalent of his or her own radio show. Some of the pontiff’s homilies have been recorded for podcasts.
Locally, Mosaic Nashville, a Southern Baptist-affiliated, multi-denominational congregation that meets in downtown Nashville, has joined the trend, putting audio versions of services on the Web.
Stonebrook started to do the same a few months ago, manned by church members who handle the church’s audio and visual needs.
Although nascent, the podcasting landscape is growing with an audience expected to reach 60 million people nationwide by 2010, according to The Diffusion Group, a consumer technology research firm based in Plano, Texas.
And religious content is one of its fastest-growing segments, say observers. Lycos.com reported last year religious that programs and sermons are the most popular genre.
While podcasts for Buddhists, Muslims and people who embrace other belief systems exist, Christian podcasts are the largest portion of religious podcasting, experts say.
Not all the podcasts come from churches.
Brian Hardin, a Christian music producer in Spring Hill spends his free time putting online a Bible study program with listeners from Indiana to Islamabad, Pakistan.
Hardin creates 15- to 20-minute shows on his Daily Audio Bible podcast, reading Bible verses and making prayer requests, and sends them over the Internet from his home studio.
Listeners can interact in a discussion forum on Dailyaudiobible.com, a Web component of the podcast.
His virtual Bible study community ranked in the top 100 podcasts worldwide — out of almost 16,000 programs in all genres — on Podcast Alley, which lists and ranks audio feeds. The Daily Audio Bible is one of 1,300 religion and inspirational podcasts indexed by the site.
“I still have no idea how these people find me, but they search for it,” Hardin said before sharing an e-mail from a California woman who rededicated her life to God after she joined the community.
“It is very affirming to hear a girl say she’s a Christian because you read the Bible and share it. I believe I am stepping into my calling.”
Hardin has been offering the service at his own expense.
But, he said, as his site’s popularity has grown, so have its expenses — he has to buy more and more Internet capacity to handle the crowd. Recently, a listener affiliated with Geek Briefs in Chicago contributed extra capacity so the service could continue.
Most churches don’t seek offerings to pay for podcasting.
Some churches find the additional costs minimal, said Nathan Moore, a former member of Belle Aire Baptist Church in Murfreesboro who established its podcast last year.
Many churches already have Web sites. It’s a small step to place audio files on the sites, and another small step to schedule podcasts, which can be received and heard on mobile devices, he said.
“Truthfully, I am always looking for new ways to use media and technology to further God’s kingdom,” said Moore, who now works as a media and tech director at a new Southern Baptist church in New York City.
“I feel that many churches lack the innovation to stay on the cutting edge of progressing technology. This usually leaves churches and ministries playing catch up with mainstream media. I was an early proponent of podcasting when it first started.”
The cost and the ease to create and maintain a podcast make it an appealing delivery medium, particularly for congregations, which cannot afford television time, said Jason Taylor, who oversees Belle Aire’s media ministry.
The addition of newer religion channels and growth in podcast-distributing programs are part of the upsurge, said David Kinnaman, vice president of Barna, a marketing research firm in Ventura, Calif.
One in five Americans owns an iPod or MP3 player. Born-again Christians account for 40% of the consumer technology market, which includes digital cameras, laptop computers and high-speed Internet access at home, Kinnaman said.
Podcasting joins a media universe in which Christian television, radio and magazines reach more people than attend church, Kinnaman said in a telephone interview from the firm’s office.
“Christian media has a broad and deep penetration in society.”
Kinnaman led a study on household technology reliance that was released in February. Respondents to the telephone survey gave their technology habits and ages as well as their religious affiliation. Barna looked for generational and faith-based patterns.
About 3% of all born-again Christians listen to a podcast regularly, compared with 6% of non-Christians, the survey found. He said about 5% of all adults listen to a podcast regularly and “we expect that to grow in years to come as the purchase of the necessary equipment increases and availability of highly customized content such as religion rises.”
Belle Aire’s Taylor said his church is not threatened by podcasting’s potential impact on church attendance.
“I am sure there were people who probably had the same concerns when radio and television came out,” he said.
Stonebrook’s Arbuckle says the technology expands the audience for the Gospel.
When it comes to redefining what a congregation is, he said, “I do not think it has as much of an impact on church attendance as people may think. I know our faithful members will be faithful and come to church no matter what.
“Those who are seeking and searching and thinking about it, the podcast can be at least a way they have exposure to the word of God. It’s actually a good way for a person to get a feel for a congregation without actually coming to the church facility.”