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CLICKING WITH JESUS

The Baltimore Sun

Spend an hour on GodTube.com and you'll find that God is in the details of thousands of videos. He is benevolent. He is angry. He is forgiving. He is grief-stricken. He is ecstatic. He supports Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul, too. He is there for Britney Spears, and He wants to save gay people from unholy desires.

Created in the image of YouTube, the Christian video-sharing site presents a God of unlimited dispositions. "A Letter from Hell," a fire-and-brimstone drama chronicling the fate of a teen drunken driving victim, suggests a judgmental God. "Little Girl and Psalm 23," a home video of a toddler reciting the song's sacred words, argues for a God who meets cute. In "That's My King!" the late preacher S.M. Lockridge's cadenced catalog of deific virtues, God is praised as all of the above - and more.

Whether through fear, treacle or old-school preaching, it is evangelist Chris Wyatt's ardent wish that GodTube will lead you to His flock. Salvation by video is precisely what Wyatt, a former TV producer, had in mind when he launched the site in August.

Converting visitors to Christianity is the "Number One goal" of the Web site, says Wyatt, a 39-year-old student at Dallas Theological Seminary. "And secondly, to re-energize the nominal Christian who may not go to church any more in an increasingly secular society."

Since the 1920s, when Aimee Semple McPherson preached radio sermons, savvy evangelists have adopted worldly new technologies to ensure their own eternity. With GodTube, Wyatt is harnessing the Internet's global reach to serve his faith in the same capacity as a missionary who shares Jesus with villagers in a far corner of the earth.

"It's the most efficient and widespread means of being able to spread the Gospel around the world," he says.

Based in Dallas, GodTube is projected to draw as many as 5 million unique viewers this month. By comparison, YouTube drew more than 200 million unique users worldwide in October, according to marketing research firm comScore.

Mostly teens, young adults and stay-at-home moms, visitors can surf the 45,000 videos uploaded so far on GodTube, from sermons to political endorsements to intelligent design manifestoes. Wyatt calls the site a forum to discuss faith "whether it is hardcore evangelical Christian or whether it is very liberal Christian. We want to be the Switzerland of Christianity, if you will."

GodTube visitors can socialize on its networking site (250,000 have registered), petition on its virtual Prayer Wall and consult the site's virtual Bible. The first such Web site to bundle these offerings, GodTube was introduced with a marketing campaign pitched to mainstream and faith-based media, and the logo, "Broadcast Him."

"GodTube, like YouTube, is inherently more democratic," says Jeffrey Sharlet, associate research scholar at New York University's Center for Religion and Media. Its format is "a sign that a large number of people have caught on to the process of mimicking the culture, to creating a world that looks like the secular world but has Jesus as its foundation."

Skit has saving grace

In an affecting GodTube video, Jesus performs a pas de deux with a teenaged girl. To the mounting urgency of "Everything," a song by the Christian rock group Lifehouse, the smiling Savior introduces his disciple to a realm of spiritual wonders.

Then, the young woman is lured into an underworld of drugs, self-mutilation, prostitution and bulimia. On the verge of suicide, she struggles to return to Jesus and he struggles to return to her. Ultimately, they are reunited in a state of grace.

GodTube didn't exist yet when Tim Houston wrote the "Lifehouse Everything" skit at the Baltimore Dream Center, a former Brooklyn bingo hall where he is executive director of a bustling urban mission established by the Church of God.

The pantomime was originally performed before 30,000 teens and young adults at a 2006 church gathering in Tennessee. But since a video of the performance vaulted last year from YouTube to its Christian counterpart, the skit has been hailed globally as a catalyst for leading young souls to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

One of myriad GodTube posts testifies to the skit's persuasive qualities: "This morning I came home from work and I watched this video. I got Saved by just watching it!"

"What a great medium to get across a message," says Houston, 44.

Some of GodTube's most popular videos are simple narratives such as "Lifehouse Everything" and "Logan, the Sky Angel Cowboy," an audio track of an extremely poised boy talking to a Christian radio DJ about God after the death of his calf. His perfect pitch as a little kid on the prairie has caused skeptical religious scholars and others to question Logan's authenticity.

For other evangelists, GodTube is also a godsend. When a friend sent her a link to the "Lifehouse Everything" video, Kristin Furr, 27, says, "I watched that, thinking, 'Wow, what an incredible resource. What a great place to share your faith journey with other people."

GodTube demonstrates that "Christianity isn't just sitting in a church on Sunday morning. It's something that everybody lives by every day," Furr says. "GodTube has really shown me that for some people [the link to Christianity] is music, for some it's drama, for some it's a little girl reciting Psalm 23."

Furr, a marketing project manager with a Frederick firm, has sent GodTube video links to friends and colleagues as a way of gently nudging them toward her faith. "It makes for a much easier and a much more modern way to reach out to those people in my life who are kind of on the fence and unsure of their faith and who God is," she says.

Furr and her husband belong to Calvary United Methodist Church in Mount Airy, where she volunteers as communications director. In that capacity, Furr is arranging to have Sunday sermons streamed live on GodTube, a free Web site service.

Baltimorean Terry King, 48, has uploaded her own video promoting the Children's Mite, an organization that aids a Zambian orphanage. While hits on her video have yet to exceed double digits, King isn't fazed. "I told my husband I'm proud of my little 45 times. It shows me the Lord is leading someone to listen to what I have to say."

Godtube is "an avenue that gives everybody an opportunity to share their personal experience, what God is doing in their lives," King says. "We get encouragement from one another and that continues to build the body of Christ."

'Kind of heretical'

Supported by advertising and financial partners in business and the ministry, GodTube reflects a range of Christian convictions. "I think people who use the service can pick and choose their message, much like people who 'shop' for religious services," says Kelly Baker, an instructor and doctoral candidate in American religious history at Florida State University.

"People can find the videos that appeal to them and include them in their faith practices, and perhaps, this is why it could function as evangelistic outreach," Baker says in an e-mail message. "The medium allows for a variety of messages to which people can relate, but I am not sure if this will provide more converts to Christianity or just bolster the faith of religious users."

Baker also wonders "what kind of religious community is built through video sharing. Users have access to video, but I am not sure how much access they have to each other."

The virtual Prayer Wall, added to GodTube in December, links visitors to the Web site more intimately than video sharing, Baker says. It "demonstrates the common struggles that users confront, and the idea that the whole community of users could pray for you personally is powerful. This connects a key religious ritual, prayer, to the virtual community and probably solidifies the bonds between users."

As evangelists appropriate the media of popular culture, Sharlet sees a paradox: A religious community that once identified itself by shunning mainstream culture now depends on it. "The crazy thing is that that's kind of heretical, by any standard - liberal, mainline or hardcore fundamentalist," Sharlet says. The result is in some ways a distinction without a difference: Evangelists are "in the world and of it, merely substituting the signs of their authority for those of secular capitalism's."

GodTube's founder, on the other hand, describes the Web site as "evangelism on the next level." Wyatt takes issue with the contention that the medium itself may overpower the message as viewers stay glued to their computer screens. We "don't see ourselves as a false idol," Wyatt says.

But even Houston, whose "Lifehouse Everything" skit has been viewed more than 4 1/2 million times, is concerned about the Web site's limitations. "It's exciting, but at the same time that we know we've pierced the heart of a generation, [we have to ask], 'What are we going to do next?'" the ordained minister says.

Does he worry that GodTube may become an end in itself and thereby relieve viewers of their responsibilities to others and to God?

"Yes, it's a concern," Houston says. "We're really focused now," he says of brethren who share his commitment. But as GodTube spreads the virtual Word, he wonders, "In 10 years, will we be as focused?"

stephanie.shapiro@baltsun.com

Religious videos

Here is a selection of other video sharing sites with a religious theme:

JewTube.com: A mix of Jewish topics, humor, culture and politics.

Yideoz.com: From a Jewish Basketball Hall of Fame presentation to the online hit, "Feed Me Bubbe," a video cooking program.

IslamTube.com: Sermons, spiritual advice and Islamic commentary.

ChristianTube: Music, videos, social networking and Bible studies.

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