Christian Ministries: Crossing The Digital Divide

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CROSSING THE DIGITAL DIVIDE

Saturday, October 1, 2011
by Marcus Yoars

Charisma Magazine, October 1, 2011

How the church is spreading the gospel and leading the way in an online revolution

Every April at the Las Vegas Convention Center, the world’s most creative minds converge with a legion of tech-heads to talk shop and plan world domination. The NAB Show, as the National Association of Broadcasters’ annual convention is called, is a utopia for those who work with content production—one of those rare can’t-miss events for Hollywood movers and Internet shapers alike. It’s where 100,000 people gather to find out how to cross the great digital divide in the ever-shifting world of communication and technology, and how to bridge the gap between old-school media and an online revolution that operates at light speed.

It’s also where the church became a leader—again.

Jono Hall, director of media at the International House of Prayer (IHOP-KC) in Kansas City, Mo., has sensed this shift in recent years while walking the floor with industry leaders. And this year’s show placed the body of Christ on full display, especially when it came to one of the conference’s main themes: live streaming.

Hall leads a media team that streams 24/7 live prayer and worship from IHOP-KC. His convergence of technology, communication and spirituality is framed continuously via the ministry’s various online vehicles that stream more than 1 million hours of video each month. What Hall’s team produces online—and the tools they use to create such content—isn’t the lo-fi stuff that critics of the church often clump in with past generations. There’s nothing embarrassing about the technical quality of IHOP-KC’s content, nor is there a hint of miniscule budgets that can’t compete with professional studios.

No, even among the “big boys” represented at the Vegas show, IHOP-KC is leading the pack alongside other ministries and churches. Hall says even vendors and providers noticed how the faith community was leading the way in live streaming this year.

Of course, piloting the technology path is nothing new for the church, which has pioneered everything from the printing press to satellite TV. Hall saw this innovation up-close last year while visiting Heritage USA in Fort Mill, S.C., where Jim Bakker’s PTL Satellite Network once blazed a trail in global communications.

“It was phenomenal what they were doing back in the early 1980s,” Hall says, adding how Heritage USA was completely “fibered” and could operate remote cameras anywhere on site through a central control room. While cable TV was just starting, a handful of today’s cable giants, including CNN, visited the PTL site to glean from the ground-breaking Christian ministry.

“Christianity has always been at the forefront of technology,” Hall says. “Here was a case, 30 years ago, where they were at the forefront of cable TV, they were leading the way. Often we think we need to be at the forefront of Christian media, but I believe the Lord wants us to be at the forefront of media—period.”

To establish that leading position, however, takes resources believers often lack. “Technology costs money, and if you don’t have those resources, you’re not going to be at the cutting edge. At least in the churches I’ve been a part of, money has always been the challenge. As a result, there’s always been a little more creativity on how we actually achieved things technologically.”

That creativity is emphasized more often in the church these days given a digital world in which constant change is the norm and connecting with audiences is king. The common user now understands the seasonal, trending nature of the online arena: how for every Facebook today (yes, even with 750 million active users) there’s a MySpace left in its wake. And like everyone else, believers recognize the great mobile shift occurring: This year smartphones and tablets surpassed PCs in sales for the first time. A staggering 5.3 billion people—77 percent of the world’s population—are mobile subscribers, while the percentage of mobile-only Internet users continues to rise dramatically.

But as the world goes mobile, our faith is changing too—not necessarily the foundations of our faith, but how we live out our beliefs within the context of communities that have URL addresses rather than street addresses. Today the kingdom of God is being established as frequently on Facebook and Twitter as in person—and with results suggesting the harvest online may be the greatest yet. What used to take years of sowing to yield a few hundred lives changed can now “go viral” and, through social networking, affect millions within moments.

“This is the Internet moment in human history,” says Walt Wilson, a former Apple Computer executive and one-time senior vice president at Computer Sciences Corp who founded the online evangelistic ministry Global Media Outreach (GMO). “We have the technology to reach every man, woman and child on earth. We’re the first generation in all human history to have this capacity.”

Amid such astounding potential comes a hopeful reality: The church is regaining its footing as a pioneer on the technological trail, as “the head and not the tail” (Deut. 28:13). Yet as believers adjust to this new environment of innovation, are we ready to fully cross the digital divide for the sake of the gospel?

Meet Me at the Crisis Point

Few churches value innovation in technology like Edmond, Okla.-based LifeChurch.tv. A multisite church that relies heavily on satellite video teaching, LifeChurch.tv has been a giant among innovative churches for the past decade. In 2006, it was the first church to hold real-life worship services within the online game Second Life, exposing millions of “avatars” (and the people behind those virtual beings) to the gospel. Two years later, the church introduced the world’s most popular mobile phone Bible software, YouVersion, which has reached an astounding 13 million people and still ranks among the top-10 most downloaded apps on Apple’s iTunes.

Through all its innovation, the church hasn’t veered from its mission of sharing the gospel anywhere it can; in fact, the digital arena has simply opened up ministry avenues never imagined before. In December 2007, for example, LifeChurch.tv began running Google ads amid pornographic search words. “Looking for pornography? God has a better plan. Try Church Online,” reads one of the text ads that shows up amid a list of smutty sites. Once clicked, the ads take users to a live videocast of a LifeChurch.tv worship service, as well as a lively chat room with volunteers who are ready to answer questions, pray and lead people to Christ.

“We’re trying to connect with people at a point of need, a point of hurt, a point of searching—literally on Google—for something that we know is trying to fill something in their lives that’s just not going to do it,” says Troy Steward, LifeChurch.tv’s pastor of technology.

This year alone, more than 2 million people have visited the church’s website via the ads, with 9,000 people responding to the gospel as a result. The ads, which also appear in searches related to divorce, suicide, depression and similar crisis topics, run only during live worship services, and between two to 15 volunteers monitor and participate in the chat room.

“That type of intelligent interaction or intersection is something that couldn’t even exist in ministry five or 10 years ago,” says Bobby Gruenewald, pastor of innovation at LifeChurch.tv and the creator of YouVersion. “That ability to intersect someone in the moment of sin or in a moment of temptation … in that moment they can obviously be presented with the gospel and with truth.”

A tech industry veteran, Gruenewald is a rock star among Christian media leaders, having made Fast Company’s “100 Most Creative People in Business” list earlier this year. Yet his kingdom-minded approach to technology and innovation doesn’t just stand out in secular circles, it’s also a common denominator among those leading the church’s transition from old methodologies to new vehicles of delivering the Good News.

Serving the Nations

At the height of the dot-com boom, Tim Jenné couldn’t have had it any better. The IT manager had been a part of several fast-growing companies and, in 2001, was on his way to being the chief information officer for a $60 billion bank in Seattle. But after God captured his heart through a Jack Frost “Father Loves You” conference in Toronto, Jenné moved to tiny Redding, Calif., and, following years of consulting for Bethel Church, became the church’s media director.

Few congregations have crossed the digital divide as successfully as Bethel. Only three years ago, the church leapfrogged an entire generation of technology, moving from tapes and CDs straight into HD cameras, on-demand videos and live streaming. Using his entrepreneurial experience, Jenné created a $450,000-investment business plan that took Bethel, a community that had already spawned a global movement, to a new level online. iBethel.tv, which streams Bethel’s services, conferences and the like, launched on Dec. 14, 2008, and by the end of the night already had 100 subscribers—with 100 more added each day for the following weeks. Today more than 95,000 subscribers a month log in to join live worship or view archived content.

Yet Jenné is quick to point out that the message and mission of Bethel are what people connect with, not technology itself: “Technology is like the Roman roads: They were built for commerce, but the gospel went out on them. When it really needed to be there, we didn’t have to build roads, they were there. The same thing is true with the Internet; it was built for us. And social networking was built for us.

“It’s easy to get bogged down with the details, as important as they can be,” he adds. “But we’re serving the nations, we’re hosting the nations—and we don’t want anything to get in the way of that.”

To remind his media team of that truth while they labor in the trenches, Jenné will often share healing testimonies—a major part of Bethel’s corporate culture—that relate directly to iBethel.tv. His favorite involves a wheelchair-bound woman in Alaska who had, among other major diseases, multiple sclerosis that had left her paralyzed and unable to go to church. As she watched iBethel.tv with a friend one night, the friend felt led to pray for her, upon which she was instantly healed—and later proved this by traveling to Redding and standing onstage next to Bethel Senior Pastor Bill Johnson.

Even a missionary couple in China who work with “castaway” disabled children—from catatonic to quadriplegics to mentally disabled—said they couldn’t continue their ministry if it weren’t for iBethel.tv.

“All they need is a little pinhole, and I can get life to somebody,” Jenné says with tear-filled passion that’s rarely found in someone so heavily entrenched in the tech world. “All it takes is a little Internet connection and they’ve got it.”

The Mission Field Redefined

If fact, it’s that simple Internet connection that is altering the global church’s expansion. About 2 billion people use the Internet, yet because 90 percent of the world now lives in places that are accessible to a mobile network, more than half a billion people go online using a mobile device. Even in rural areas, where mobile coverage drops to 80 percent, Internet connections often run faster than in the U.S., thanks in part to pure fiber optic connections (and the lack of legacy systems).

Clearly, the mission field is no longer just physical locations, but an online landscape that could yield the greatest spiritual harvest in history. According to Global Media Outreach, 2 million people a day go online to search for spiritual truth or guidance. The online evangelistic ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ recognized this and established a lofty goal: to reach the entire world with the gospel by 2020.

Using more than 100 different websites, GMO presents a basic gospel message to those already searching. The ministry recruits volunteer online missionaries—a worldwide army now 4,300 strong—to correspond with those who make a decision for Christ, answering questions they may have and helping to connect them with a local church body. In this sense, every Christian can establish his own ministry and mission field—a concept GMO says is revolutionizing the way the church views evangelism. Last year GMO reported more than 15 million decisions for Christ.

“This is one of the most exciting things I have ever been a part of in my 40 years of ministry,” says Joel Hunter, senior pastor of Northland: A Church Distributed in Longwood, Fla., which partners with GMO. Hunter’s church has long integrated online worship and community as part of its own corporate body life. In fact, of its 15,000 members, a full one-third attend a service each week via the church’s website, smartphones, Roku set-top boxes or Facebook.

In March 2010, Northland launched the first live-church Facebook app, which allows users to invite Facebook friends to join in a streaming service with a single click. The megachurch was also the first to create a dedicated channel for the Roku set-top box, an open-platform device that allows users to access exclusive Internet-based television channels. Northland holds entire services on Roku, which has been uniquely used to establish and resource house churches.

“The motivation behind these tools is to take the church where people live,” says Robert Andrescik, Northland’s director of public relations. “Our hope is that online worshippers will join a community with other believers … or start one.”

Viral Church

If the church hopes to follow the lead of innovative congregations such as Northland and shine a light in every corner of everyday life, we must fully realize—and seize—the opportunity for unprecedented exponential growth that technology provides. For example, a recent evangelistic crusade in Anaheim, Calif., with Harvest Church Pastor Greg Laurie drew an impressive 115,000 people to Angel Stadium over a three-day period. Yet online, the outreach event was viewed more than 1.3 million times in all 50 U.S. states and 63 countries, marking a 500 percent increase over the previous year.

What made the difference? The church’s concerted marketing effort to tell an online audience about the event. Within one weekend, 26,000 people “liked” the Facebook promotional page, which means 26,000 visitors posted a promotional video and poster on their own Facebook walls for all their friends to see. Paul Eaton, pastor of communications at Harvest, estimates that 12 million people had access to see the promotions, which may have resulted in the number of people who viewed the event.

“People are spending a lot more time looking at their computers as opposed to looking at their televisions and other areas of media,” Eaton says. “It has really grown, and we recognize that. As we see people going into this space, we’ve really been motivated to go in to the space too.”

That space is no longer a single medium. The smartphone age is upon us. As of this summer, 12 percent of American adults owned an e-reader such as Amazon’s Kindle or Barnes and Noble’s Nook. And the tablet era is emerging—Goldman Sachs estimates almost 80 million tablets will be sold in 2012.

For IHOP-KC’s Hall, such rapid and sweeping technological changes naturally bring to mind a prophecy IHOP-KC founder Mike Bickle received almost 30 years ago. In 1983, Bob Jones envisioned people in Asia carrying “unplugged TV sets in their hands and even on their wristwatches” who would be able to watch “songbirds” from the Kansas City prayer community.

With its 24/7 streaming of prayer and worship, this has not only been fulfilled in Asia, but throughout the world—including areas previously impenetrable with the gospel.

“Before, people might get a CD and be able to listen to us,” Hall says. “Now, no matter where they are in the earth, they can actually link in. It’s pretty amazing for us to see that. Because it’s one thing for someone in Kansas City to feel a bit lazy one day and, rather than coming into the prayer room, decide to watch us online; it’s another thing to have people tuning in from Muslim nations and see their lives transformed.

“The message hasn’t changed, but the way we communicate has definitely changed. And if we’re burning with the Great Commission and we want to reach the world for Jesus, then we’re going to find creative ways of reaching audiences.”

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