Virtual Worship

Arvin Halvorson is a man of God about to turn 80; a believer who has kept near the faith all these years through staying connected to a worship community.

But in recent years, when he and his wife, Twila, headed south for the winter, the retiree felt a pang of regret at leaving his hometown of Detroit Lakes, Minn. As much as they both looked forward to the warmth of the South, the couple felt a chill at leaving their community at First Lutheran Church.

Neither could have imagined that someday they’d be in Florida watching their church services on a small screen hundreds of miles away from their Minnesota church, not to mention that the images would be transmitted through floating vessels in the sky called satellites.

Thanks to their pastor’s foresight, the Halvorsons no longer experience the effects of seasonal church withdrawal. Now, whenever they’re away, they watch their faith community’s Sunday services through webcast—in real time.
“It was neat to hear what was going on back home as well as hearing the local pastors,” Arvin said of the first time they watched one of the webcasts.

The couple had already been primed to appreciate the connecting capacities of today’s technology through Skype, which had first allowed them an online encounter with their grandson in college several years before. “We’ve also been able to listen to things like his orchestra concerts at St. Olaf College,” Twila said. “We can follow all of that online, live.”

They’re so tickled with online connections that they sold the idea of Internet church to a friend who visited recently from Seattle. “His wife is homebound,” Arvin said. “We showed him the webcast and he commented on what a wonderful service it was.”

Jonathan Hood, technical director at Bethel Evangelical Free Church in Fargo, knows a fellow congregant whose friend was disappointed about having to miss the baptism of a relative due to distance. But because Bethel offers live webcasts of their services, an online viewing of the event was possible.

Another of his fellow worshippers found the webcast helpful when his son was home sick. Thanks to the online sermon, Hood said, the man was able to feel a part of that weekend’s worship experience while tending to his son’s health. The same was true for a woman whose mother was laid up for six weeks after surgery. She expressed gratitude that neither had to feel left out of weekend worship due to the webcast.

Hood was sold on the webcast idea well before hearing stories from local believers. He’s been working to help churches use today’s technological advancements for seven years—including churches in Ohio and Florida, where he witnessed firsthand the positive crossing of technology and faith. “When webcasting was brought up at Bethel, I pushed it further because I’d already done it and saw the benefits, and I knew we could do it at a relatively low cost without any outside help,” Hood said.

Another obvious benefit to an area that loses a sizable portion of its population to the lakes in warm-weather months, according to Hood: “We’re able to provide a way for people who are gone during the summertime to stay connected to the life of the church.”

Responding to the naysayers
As is always the case with new technology, skeptics abound. A main concern is that once the ability to watch services online takes off full blast, churches will lose congregants opting to stay home rather than engage in the life of their worshipping communities. But Hood said that fear has yet to play out in a significant way.

“Our goal isn’t to send this out into the community and tell people not to go to our church,” Hood said. “It’s really to serve our community. Those who can’t make it to the weekend service can watch it from wherever they’re at,” he said, adding optimistically that the potential exists to draw a following of people who normally might not attend any service.

And though online church service is in its infancy in our area, with only a couple local churches currently offering live webcasting, Hood feels confident churchgoers remain drawn to the unparalleled benefits of firsthand worship for the purpose of gathering with their community to stay close to and accountable in their faith.

Rachelle Allen, a Fargo resident and college student currently working on an internship in Dallas, said she’s loved staying in touch with her home congregation at Bethel during her semester away. She’s even been able to have discussions about the sermons with her parents back home. But her time keeping up online hasn’t replaced the real experience of worshipping with other believers. “I also attend a church here in Dallas on Sundays, so I am not completely relying on the online service to get the message every week, although I do watch almost every Sunday,” she said.

Diving in head first
A few years ago, the Halvorson’s pastor, Pastor Dave Peterson, was discussing with his staff whether his congregation should employ cable community access or online webcasting to bring church to those not able to participate in weekend services.
In the end, and without a lot of data to back up the effectiveness of one over the other, online won out, in part because unlike televised church services, viewers of webcasts are not dependent on being in front of a screen at a specific time. The concern remains, however, of how to adequately address the needs of people who are shut-ins and/or in a nursing home without computer access.

“We’re still working out the technical aspects,” Pastor Dave said, admitting it’s been a learning process that’s come with a few glitches. One kink that needed to be worked out included whether an outdoor summer service involving hundreds of participants could be webcast. Much to his delight, the service went off without a hitch.

The community also has refined the number of services it streams, cutting back from all three Sunday sermons to just one to avoid duplication. “We’re trying to stay as close to the cutting edge as possible, but not the bleeding edge,” Pastor Dave said. “Does it amplify the workload? Yes, without question, but we feel this is the language that people are speaking, so we need to do it and hopefully we’ll be able to do it well.”

And that can only happen, he said, when a group of core people within a church are committed to the cause. “Is there a team large enough and passionate enough to make this happen through all the ups and downs?” he asked. “Right now we have a team of about four making this happen. What a gift. If it was one or two it would never fly.”

The key to working with available technology, he emphasized, is viewing it as a tool, not an end in itself. The mission of bringing Christ to people comes first. “Whether it’s a projection in the sanctuary or webcasting, those are not the message, they’re the tool,” he said. “We want to make sure that these tools help to serve the worship and not get in the way.”

Evolution of a regional webcast business
Greg Stromme, business manager for Webcast America based in Annandale, Minn.—the company that got First Lutheran set up with its webcasts—agrees that the human element comes first. In fact, the idea behind the company his brother and a friend founded in late 2007 centered on using technology to bolster human connections. “He was bemoaning the fact that our mom, 84, was no longer as mobile and wasn’t getting to see her grandkids at some of their sporting events,” Stromme explained.

After conducting some research, the founders saw some success in webcasting at high schools in the Twin Cities area. Unlike some, though, they decided they wanted their service to be free to viewers. They hired staff to work on the technical aspects and, with minimal equipment, were able to “stick our big toe in” and start webcasting high school events.

More quickly than they could have guessed, things took off. “It’s always been the type of business where we get a lot of pats on the back, because we’re connecting grandma to granddaughter and other family members,” Stromme said.
From schools came a demand from funeral homes—the result of people living distances from their loved ones yearning to be part of funeral services. And from there, a few churches began approaching the company about webcasting sermons.

More ‘what-ifs’ quietly dissipate
One of the biggest worries Stromme has heard from churches contemplating webcasting is that worshippers could discontinue tithing. But that concern could be assuaged, he said, by something as simple as placing a “donate now” button on the church website where the webcast is displayed.

A similar fear has been echoed by school administrators worried that webcasts would mean a loss of revenue when people stayed home rather than paying gate admissions. But again, the reality has not matched up with the negative projections.

“The reality is that being there is not the same as watching a webcast,” Stromme said. “The webcast is really used to supplement the services at a church when you can’t be there. It makes it readily available so you don’t have to live and die by that timeline. It does what DVRs do. Most people these days have busy lives and they want to control their schedule.”

Stromme also sees the potential for more people joining a church because of having seen the webcast, because like other consumers, potential congregants may want to scope out the goods before “buying,” and webcasts can allow them a look prior to making a full-out commitment. “It’s a non-threatening way for them to see this environment beforehand,” he said.

Stromme said it’s only a matter of time before webcasting in churches becomes mainstream. His reasons are twofold. Churches, like other organizations, want to keep up with the Joneses. They want to draw new faithful to their particular house of worship. And webcasting is going to become another attractive feature to add to help achieve that end. Then, as technology becomes even better, the production level will increase, thereby causing even more demand.

“The bandwidths going into people’s homes are getting better, and I think eventually we’ll be piping in what we’re seeing on the computer directly into our larger-screen TVs, and the quality is going to be great,” he said. “The future for this is bright. I think it will become a commodity. It’s not going to go away.”

Beyond webcasting
For Hood, webcasting is just a part of the bigger contingent of technological tools at the disposal of today’s church. “When we think of technology we think of the Internet, but it’s really all across the board,” he said. “First we had sermon audios, then video, and now a live service. You can also now download sermon notes and videos.”

In fact, he said, technology is really “changing the way people do church” in a dramatic way. “It’s everything from the connections they make on Facebook to using online Bibles to small-group material they can download,” he said. “People are staying in touch with people from church in a new way. It’s no longer once a week they’re coming to church, it’s every day.”

And because technology is becoming naturally absorbed into our everyday lives, people are no longer as intimidated by it as they once were. “It’s just a commonplace in life now. And with webcasts, the church is embracing that by saying, ‘Here’s an avenue you can use to further your walk with Christ.’ It’s really the next step for churches.”

Regardless of how technology might change how churches work, Hood said one thing will always remain unchanged. “Christians need other Christians. We can’t be an island onto ourselves. We’re part of a larger body, something bigger than ourselves.”

Roxane B. Salonen is an award-winning freelance writer and children’s author who lives in Fargo with her husband and five children. To learn more, visit

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