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Virtual reality at church: sermons delivered in HD definition

July 22, 2008 | Chris Payatagool

High tech tools let growing number of congregations meet in satellite sites

By Ann Rodgers, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Church_HD.jpgSilhouetted against giant projection screens, worshippers at North Way Christian Community's satellite church in Oakland watch the Rev. Doug Melder's videotaped sermon, "Colossians: Re-imaging the Gospel in an Image-Saturated World."

The preacher at North Way Christian Community's Oakland campus wanted to show how materialism has been burned into American brains, and called for corporate logos to be projected on the church wall beside him.

Looking right into the eyes of people seated before him, he told them to yell when they recognized a symbol.

A swoosh appeared and a few voices called "Nike!"

"Good. Nike. But I need a little more participation," the Rev. Doug Melder said.

The trouble was the Rev. Melder was no more "live" than the projected logos. He had delivered the sermon the night before at North Way's main campus in the North Hills and was recorded in high definition. Now his life-size HD image was being projected onto a speaker's platform in Oakland.

At North Way-Oakland, the music is live and a there's a real pastor who cares for people's souls. A children's ministry meets downstairs. But the sermon is virtual reality.

It is part of a growing movement of "satellite ministries," in which smaller offshoots revolve around a bigger church, sometimes hundreds of miles away. Some, like North Way, see themselves as "campuses" of one congregation. Others are separate churches networked with a powerhouse congregation.

In a study of 1,210 Protestant congregations with attendance of more than 2,000, the number of those with satellites grew from 5 percent in 2000 to 27 percent in 2005. Another 27 percent were considering satellites, according to the study done by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.

Another study, by church growth expert John Vaughan, found that half of the 100 largest and fastest-growing non-Catholic churches in the U.S. had satellites. The record is currently held by Christ the King, a church near Seattle, with 38 campuses for 12,000 members, Dr. Vaughan said. Movie theaters have become such popular venues that major chains are now building them with rooms to use for Sunday schools, he said.

Unexpected benefits

The movement started as a low-cost way to expand seating. But congregations that tried it discovered other advantages, including the ability to offer hymns and prayers in a variety of languages and musical styles. Satellite locations also kept members closer to home, where they were more likely to become involved in weekday activities and service outreach.

Although a few multi-site churches like Life Church in Oklahoma City, which produces weekly live satellite simulcasts to its 12 or so outlying locations, use live feeds, most use pre-recorded DVDs because they're more reliable, Dr. Vaughan said.

The illusion is so effective at North Way-Oakland, said Nazari Dorosh, 20, that a visitor sitting in the back with him was shocked when the preacher ended by vanishing.

"He said, 'Where did that guy go?' He thought it was real," Mr. Dorosh said.

North Way-Oakland drew 200 young worshipers to its service last week and averages more than 300 when the nearby universities are in session. North Way, which has a combined weekly attendance of 3,000, plans to start five satellites in different parts of Pittsburgh over the next five years, said the Rev. Mike Arnold, the North Way-Oakland campus pastor.

He makes sure that the sermons originally aimed at an older, suburban congregation are relevant to college students in urban Pittsburgh.

After the Rev. Melder's video sermon on dreaming of the world as God wants it to be, for example, the Rev. Arnold spoke briefly of college students who want to change the world, but lose that enthusiasm after graduation.

"Think about it, and ask God, 'What is it you want me to do with my life?' " he said.

The sermon made an impact. As the worshipers went into a time of prayer, one young man in a back row prostrated himself on the floor as he sought God's will.

In an effort to keep a connection between the two campuses, the Rev. Arnold preaches once a month at the main church. But the fact that he rarely has to prepare a sermon allows him to do perform other ministerial duties.

"This frees me up just to be with people and talk about things that are going on in their lives," he said. "You can do that when you're not spending 20 hours a week locked in your office preparing a message."

In some ways the sermon is the most traditional aspect of the Oakland campus. Housed in a former restaurant, it's lit like a music club, its ceiling crisscrossed with metal beams for the multimedia system. Its seats are packed with young men, a group often missing from traditional congregations.

That's tied to the club ambiance, said Andy Bussey, 40, a consultant on the integration of digital media and church architecture, whom North Way hired.

Clubs "are where most of these guys are hanging out. We are creating an atmosphere that is like what they are most comfortable with," he said.

"We need to utilize technology in a way that's subtle enough not to disturb people. If we do our job wrong, everyone knows we're here. If we do it right, they leave saying, 'What a great time of worship.'"

Many people at the service said they were surprised that they didn't dislike the electronic sermon.

"You get used to it and forget it's a video," said Steve Thorpe, 27, a medical resident at UPMC.

Help for startups

The church that pioneered satellite congregations locally is Crossroads United Methodist Church in Oakdale. About three years ago it started a satellite service with a video sermon at a movie theater in Bridgeville. In January, Crossroads, which calls itself "one church meeting in multiple locations," started a satellite in East Liberty.

The Rev. Jerrell Gilliam, the campus co-pastor, soon realized there were limits to technology.

Sermons for middle class, mostly white, suburbanites didn't hit home for a mixed race congregation in an urban neighborhood. So the Rev. Gilliam works with the Rev. Steve Cordle, senior pastor of Crossroads, to make sure they make the same points from the same Bible passage. But the illustrations differ.

When the Rev. Cordle wanted to talk about a talented person, he spoke of a famous classical violinist. The Rev. Gilliam spoke of a famous basketball player.

"We deal a lot more with crime, with people who have very basic needs, so the application in my message may not mirror what is going on in Oakdale," he said.

To keep ties with the Oakdale campus he preaches there occasionally. The church holds special events for all campuses, where weekly attendance totals more than 1,200.

"I'm excited about the possibilities of a multi-site church," the Rev. Gilliam said. "We want people to feel that it's like having family in another part of the city, but you have a common focus and a common message," he said.

While Crossroads and North Way build one congregation at different sites, NorthBridge Community Church in Cranberry is an independent church in a "strategic partnership" with a large church near Atlanta.

NorthBridge, which rents space at Haine Middle School, began last September with two pastors. But they rarely preach. They rely on a stockpile of DVDs featuring the Rev. Andy Stanley of North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Ga. Both NorthBridge's lead pastor, the Rev. Jame Price, and family pastor, the Rev. Jayson Samuels, worked in local youth ministry for years, and both were influenced by the Rev. Stanley's books on ministry.

"We are our own entity. But they have taken us under their wing," the Rev. Samuels said. "We have aligned ourselves with their strategy and they are sharing resources with us."

Those resources -- including sermons -- allowed them to start out with a children's ministry and a support staff that includes a multi-media technician, youth pastor and small group coordinator.

"A high number of new churches don't make it, and the reason is that they're understaffed and under-funded. They have one guy trying to do it all, and he burns out," the Rev. Samuels said.

"Andy Stanley's philosophy was to start with more than one person, and they helped us initially with funding to get us going. We call it booster rockets. They got us off the ground. Now we are pretty much done with what they are giving us, and we are working toward being self-sufficient."

The congregation averages more than 200 on Sundays, but everything at the church is built around small groups that meet during the week in people's homes for prayer, Bible study and community service. Twice a year the Revs. Price and Samuels go to Georgia for training and to exchange ideas with leaders from other churches in the North Point network.

Such networks have also become a support to older churches that are struggling to survive, Dr. Vaughan said. While shrinking congregations often have a part-time pastor who comes on Sundays, a video preacher allows them to put their resources into outreach.

"What the multi-campus church has done is create a whole, new vibrant dynamic for the multiplication of stronger ministries," Dr. Vaughan said.

Ann Rodgers can be reached at [email protected] or 412-263-1416.

[via Pittsburgh Post-Gazette]

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