In central Pennsylvania, residents of the Golden Living retirement center don’t need to leave the premises — or their wheelchairs — to witness the sermon at the Camp Hill Church of Christ.
In Russia, 20-year-old Elizabeth Kambonde, a student from the southern Africa nation of Namibia, can’t find a church home, so she sings along with a congregation around the globe — the Northside Church of Christ in Benton, Ark.
In an age of digital Bible apps, electronic tithing and sermon notes posted immediately to Twitter, Churches of Christ increasingly broadcast their Sunday assemblies on the Internet.
Live-streaming, it’s called.
“The streaming is quite consistent, so we worship in sync,” Kambonde said, “and that is an amazing experience.”
The Anchorage church invested in a high-definition camera to provide a “real-time connection” to homebound and ill members, elder Darrell Watson said.
Like the Anchorage church, the Central Church of Christ in Winnipeg, Manitoba, made services available online for its shut-in and out-of-town members.
However, in a nation with 35 million people but only 150 Churches of Christ, the online assemblies have drawn interest across the Canadian prairies, minister Wayne Turner said.
“Isolated church members who live in more remote places — in Manitoba and Saskatchewan — log on to worship with us,” Turner said.
In Pennsylvania, about 10 to 15 nursing home residents watch the Camp Hill church service on a 50-inch television connected to a computer.
The congregation’s retired preacher, Randy Pritchett, serves the Lord’s Supper to the residents and leads old hymns before turning up the sound on the TV.
“Occasionally, Randy has to deliver the sermon when the Internet gremlins have not been fed,” said Dave Smith, the Camp Hill church’s deacon of communications. “Fortunately, he has years of experience.”
PHYSICAL VS. VIRTUAL CHURCH
Newer forms of technology such as Facebook, blogs, texting and streaming were less prevalent but “nevertheless beginning to transform the ways religious groups interact and enhance their sense of community,” the study determined.
“All faith groups in this day and age should be hybrid congregations,” wrote researcher Scott Thumma, who prepared the study for the Hartford Institute for Religion Research in Connecticut. “In other words, their ministry needs to be part physical and part virtual.
“Nearly every congregation has members who interact with these technologies in their daily lives,” Thumma added. “Religious leaders who recognize this and employ these technologies to connect with and minister to their congregational members have a distinct advantage.”
At the time of the study, about 3 percent of all churches offered live-streaming, with larger congregations more likely to do so, Thumma told The Christian Chronicle.
“I don’t have any more current national data, and I don’t think any research center does either,” he said. “But the trend is definitely increasing, and a larger number of smaller churches are doing it.”
Away at boarding school in Virginia, Sarah Keyton’s teenage granddaughter uses her computer to access the Bouldercrest Church of Christ in Sarah KeytonAtlanta, where her grandfather, Edward Keyton, serves as senior evangelist.
“She likes it because she is able to worship with us, and she feels a connection with us,” Sarah Keyton said. “This way, she gets to hear her grandfather preach every Sunday.
“The full service is live-streamed, so she is able to participate fully and can also go online to give,” the grandmother added. “We gave her a supply of portable communion.”
For Hammond Burke, making the Gospel available via personal computers has been a dream since before YouTube and Vimeo were created or broadband connections replaced dialup Internet.
Some church leaders worry that the availability of online assemblies will prompt members to stay home, said Burke, executive director of the Church of Christ Broadcast Network, a Texas-based company that helps congregations build technology/media ministries.
For that reason, some churches record services — instead of showing them live — and post the videos online for later viewing, he said.
“My personal philosophy is, if you’re skipping church and watching it online, you’re not very convicted, and Hammond Burkethe church needs to deal with you in a different way,” said Burke, a member of the Central Pointe Church of Christ in Dallas.
The Newburgh Church of Christ in Indiana has live-streamed services for years, never worrying about members opting for online worship over actual attendance, elder Tracy Hayford said.
“Our emphasis on family and fellowship has helped us not to worry about that,” Hayford said.
“The only real concern we’ve ever had was people not wanting the response to an invitation or other ‘private’ things streamed,” he added. “We stop the streaming as soon as the invitation song is started.”
While live-streaming serves shut-ins, out-of-town members and isolated Christians, Burke points to an even bigger potential benefit: sharing Jesus with lost people.
For a 21st century seeker, the opportunity to acquaint oneself with a church virtually before ever entering a physical building is a giant plus, he said.
“It takes away a lot of the anxiety and mystery about what goes on in church for those who’ve never been,” Burke said.
The Anchorage church has embraced that idea, producing informational business cards for members to pass out to friends and neighbors.
The message on the cards: “Watch us from home — then come meet us.”