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Churches reach out with online services

THE BALTIMORE SUN

New West Baltimore homeowner Jennifer Combs doesn't have far to go to attend church services.

"There are four churches in walking distance from me," said Combs, a senior editor at a publishing company in Washington who moved from Falls Church, Va., to Harlem Avenue. The Howard University alum is attracted to a congregation she found online whose pastor is a graduate of Howard's School of Divinity.

Newly relocated worshipers have found a blessing in church, synagogue and mosque Web sites, while longtime members have used these online presences to keep up with congregation activities. Some Baltimore churches are plugging into information technology and delivering Sunday services via the Internet, making worshipers new and old just a few keystrokes away from full worship services.

It began as a trial in summer last year, but downloadable MP3 files of its Sunday sermons will be a permanent fixture of Central Presbyterian Church's online ministry, said Jeff Wilkinson, its webmaster. Web site visitors can download sermons to their computers, record them on MP3 players, or burn them on CDs.

Transcripts of the sermons also are posted and get more hits, primarily because they can be keyword-indexed by search engines. But, said Wilkinson, the MP3 files have become increasingly popular.

"Audio formats do well for people who like to hear the speakers and get a feel for them and their message that way," Wilkinson said. "There are also some things in the spoken word that get lost in a transcript, such as intonation, emphasis and laughter."

Wilkinson usually posts sermon files to www.centralpc.org the evening after the service.

"I love it," wrote Doug Wolfe, a longtime church member, in an e-mail to Wilkinson. "What a great study tool. I have never taken the time to get a sermon tape. I would be more likely to listen to sermons over again if they were available like this."

Mary E. Koch heard about the church, went to its Web site and found the MP3 files. She has been attending services at the church, at 7308 York Road, for six months.

"I am forever telling friends and family across the United States [and South Africa] about sermons I have heard. And I am a really lousy 'paraphraser!'" Koch wrote in an e-mail to Wilkinson. "My closest friends live thousands of miles away. Now we can be fed by the same stream."

Since posting the MP3 files in late July last year, the church's sermon audio files have been requested nearly 4,000 times. "We generate a report that shows analysis of how it is being used, and it has been ramping up," Wilkinson said.

In August this year, the site averaged nearly 1,500 page hits a day, with about a quarter of the traffic going to the sermons. The sermon transcripts averaged 367 hits a day. Web site visitors downloaded an average of 22 MP3 files a day.

"We get traffic spikes on some sermons - enough to make them stand out," Wilkinson said.

"For instance, a sermon titled 'What is Heaven?' has long gotten a lot of traffic. Likewise others, such as 'A Personal Relationship With Jesus as Lord and God,' 'Seeking God's Will,' and our 'What On Earth Am I Here For?' from our Purpose-Driven Life series."

If the church continues to get positive feedback from visitors, Wilkinson said, the congregation, might invest in a streaming audio server. Visitors could listen to the sermon as soon as they click on the link instead of having to wait for the 2.5- to 3-megabyte audio files to download. With some dial-up connections, the download could take 13 minutes.

On South Rock Glen Road, Miracle Temple Church, a Seventh-day Adventist congregation, is having success offering RealOne Player audio files of its Saturday sermons on its Web site, www.miracletemple.net.

Miracle has offered the files since August but has found that the feature meets the needs of its young 500-member congregation. Other than the Web site's photos and announcements pages, the online sermons page is the most popular, said Chip Dizard, Miracle Temple Church's webmaster.

"It really works for mobile professionals," he said. "They may be in transit, and a lot of hotels have high-speed Internet connections."

Dizard finds that the largest number of hits to the Web site and the audio files occur on Saturday night or Sunday morning. A sermon titled "Driven to Distractions" has had the most hits. The Web site gets about 200 unique visitors each week, he said.

"We have people logging in from Boston to Bangladesh," Dizard said. "We have people who have moved, and they still stay in touch through the Web site."

Last fall, Miracle Temple Elder Charles Robinson accepted a new job and moved with his wife, Leora, and daughters Jessica and Alyssa to Centerville, Ohio. He had lived in Maryland 12 years and joined Miracle in 1995. His wife joined Miracle in 1996.

Robinson appreciates Miracle's Web site, especially the online sermons, as he and his wife search for a new congregation.

"[Leora] loved the worship atmosphere and people of Miracle, [and] Pastor Russell has a very unique way of teaching," Robinson said. "For a while we would go to church, give the kids a ride, come home, eat and then listen to a sermon by Miracle."

Robinson uses Miracle Temple's online giving feature to tithe via electronic check. "Returning my tithe used to be a hassle," he said. "I used to mail my check to someone and have them give it to the treasurer. I checked out the back-end operations and it is secure."

Some churches are investing in technology to broadcast their services online, said Terry A. Johnson, vice president of marketing and product development at Riparian Broadcast Studios in Silver Spring.

Along with its corporate clients, which include the Washington Convention Center, Riparian provides Internet broadcasting services for several churches in Maryland, Virginia and Washington. Such services include Web-on-demand broadcasts of Sunday services, a feature, Dizard said, that Miracle Temple Church plans to incorporate into its Web ministry by early 2005.

One of Johnson's clients plans to offer real-time Web broadcasting of the church's Sunday service in January. Johnson finds that faithful church Web site visitors rely heavily on online ministry offerings.

"People listen to and watch religion-based webcasts when they get to work, when they get ready to go to lunch and when they get home," he said. Most visitors who make the commitment listen and watch entire sermons, Johnson said.

"If content is compelling, people will listen to all of it," Johnson said. And for some visitors, the sermons can't be uploaded fast enough.

Web site visitors look for the services as early as 5 or 6 a.m. Monday after a Sunday sermon, said Anthony Bouldin, Riparian's director of broadcast operations.

Johnson said webcasting may increase in popularity among churches. Unlike television and radio broadcasting, they are not confined to buying in 30- or 60- minute slots, he said.

Additionally, media consolidation may affect a church's ability to get affordable rates for broadcasting its services on television or radio.

"If two outlets merge and one of the outlets has given a discount for religions programming, [the discounted airtime] may not continue," Johnson said.

While webcasting allows churches to have a wider, even a global reach, it doesn't change the fundamental message of a church's ministry.

"The content is always the Word of God," Johnson said, but churches that plan to offer Web-on-demand or real-time webcasting of their services have to remember their broader audience when they plan their Internet ministries, Johnson said.

"I always encourage pastors to speak to their online community," he said.

And the traditional concept of attending services in person is not lost, even on professional webcasters.

"What you want to do is get the person into a home church," Johnson said, emphasizing that churches should encourage online worshipers to find a local place of worship.

Miracle Temple's Pastor Frederick A. Russell agrees. He said the church's online ministry has given Miracle a renewed responsibility.

"We are really trying to make sure that everything we do is absolute quality," he said. "We try to teach in such a way that the message can be relevant, even if they receive it at 8 o'clock on Monday morning."

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