Religion/Technology
6:25 am
Wed April 25, 2012

Local congregations take worship to the web

The internet pervades almost every aspect of modern life and religion is no exception. From Facebook and Twitter, to live streaming services and online donations, churches across the country are redefining what it means to worship.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Joseph Leahy takes a look at how some local congregations are embracing the net to expand their missions online.

Including the "dot com"

During a livestreaming service on Easter Sunday, Pastor David Crank recalled the story of Jesus and the Adulteress -- adding one unusual detail:

“He’s digging around in the dirt writing stuff. Some say, I’ve heard it preached, that he’s writing their sins. So they see it and walk away,” he said. “I personally don’t think he was doing that. I don’t think he accuses people. I think he was writing www.faithchurchstlouis.com – my personal opinion, but that’s me.”

The name of Crank’s church, Faith Church St. Louis, is seldom seen without the “dot com." “Dot com” is part of its name registered with the IRS; it appears on billboards in town, and on the sides of both of Crank’s mega churches in Earth City and Sunset Hills.

Tyler Kelley is a consultant for the church’s website.

“Pastor David Crank wants to reach as many people as he can with the message of the love of Christ and the internet is the way to make that happen,” Kelley said.

In addition to livestreaming its services, which attracts thousands of viewers across the globe each week, Kelley has helped set up the website’s video testimonials, pastor profiles, and online donation service. In addition, he says Pastor Crank has more than 11,000 twitter followers and over 6,000 Facebook friends.

“Facebook and Twitter are good ways for the pastors to keep in touch with people online and feel like they’re a part of everyone’s lives that they wouldn’t normally or physically be able to be a part of,” he said.

Growth in the congregation

Kelley says since Faith Church St. Louis began embracing internet and social media, its congregation has exploded – from a few hundred eight years ago to more than 10,000 today. It’s been cited as one of the fastest growing churches in the country. 

According to DJ Chuang, a web strategist and network developer for Worship Leader Magazine, almost 70 percent of US churches today have websites. He says they range from cutting-edge sites like faithchurchstlouis.com “and then there are some that are done by Cousin Joseph in the basement for free.”

“And so you got all the way from a hobbyist -- a volunteer -- all the way up to professional companies that do it for the churches,” Chuang said.

By Chuang’s estimates, there are about 250 US churches that livestream their services.

Staying relevant

For some churches, having a strong online presence is as much about spreading the gospel as it is a matter of staying relevant in the digital age.

Marty Haas is an assistant pastor and the publications director at Grace Church in the St. Louis suburb of Maryland Heights.

“What we want is for people not look at us and think that we’re dinosaurs,” said Haas.

Haas says his church recently hired a full-time employee to maintain and update their website, gracestl.org. he says since Grace Church began broadcasting wifi during services, worshippers are now able to access the site from their church pews.

“Right now there’s not a media available that I can think of that we’re not already using,” Haas said. “But as new stuff comes out we’ll take advantage of it.”

A 2004 Pew research study found that Protestants and Evangelicals dominate faith-based online activity, but even traditional Catholics are adopting new technology to keep up with modern communication.

With Pope Benedict XVI recently launching his own Twitter account, it’s no surprise to find a video message from Archbishop Robert Carlson on the website of the Archdiocese of St. Louis.

“If you have visited our website before, you may notice our new look and mission…” Carlson says in the video.

Drew Theological School professor Leonard Sweet is author of the book Viral which explores how digital culture is transforming worship. He says adopting new technology is a big part of Church’s history.

I mean Gutenberg changed the church and changed how people live their faith, how they accessed truth, how they experienced God," Sweet says. "This technology revolutionized the church.”

Sweet says a similar revolution is taking place now.

Faith Church’s Tyler Kelley agrees, but says it’s too soon to tell what religion’s online presence will look like in the next few years.

“We’re at the ground floor of where we’re going with online outreach. The sky’s the limit at this point, but we’re really just getting started,” he said.