It’s 10:40 a.m., and Pastor Mark Brandt positions his Sunday morning “anchor chair” high above the church worship center. He works with the crew to adjust the camera and lights, then listens to the producer through his earpiece as he tests audio-levels and reviews the morning rundown.
If you didn’t know better, you would think you were watching the moments just before a TV newscast. Behind the glass booth, on the floor below, the worship band has finished a soundcheck, and Senior Pastor Mike Housholder is ready with his message. The telecast goes live at 10:51 a.m., and shortly after, Pastor Brandt welcomes what has become hundreds of Sunday worshipers from as far away as New Jersey and Los Angeles, and even Japan and Afghanistan. Each viewer is made to feel “ushered” to their seat as part of the 11 a.m. Sunday morning worship service at Lutheran Church of Hope in West Des Moines, Iowa, all via the Internet.
Welcome to HopeOnline.TV.
Churches using forms of media is hardly news- (or blog-) worthy. Congregations from a variety of faith expressions have used radio and TV for decades. Even in tiny Kensett, Iowa, in the far northern tier of rural counties, Elk Creek Lutheran Church recently took to the radio airwaves on KWGH-FM, a station the church now owns and operates in extending its message and mission.
As Hope’s Pastor Housholder affirmed, sharing the church’s message through media isn’t anything new. “Martin Luther took full advantage of the printing press, a relatively new invention in the 16th century, as an amplifier for the Reformation. I believe the 21st-century church has a missional responsibility to take a similar approach with online worship, social media, and the Internet.”
To the vast majority of mainstream churches, however, HopeOnline.TV is something a little different, and, it would seem, on a mission all its own. Pastor Brandt, in addition to “anchoring” the Sunday service, also engages online followers via social media channels like Twitter and Facebook. The church purposefully connects its social media channels to HopeOnline.TV, engaging and inviting friends and followers as often as possible.
This raises the question: Why does the nation’s largest Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) congregation wish — or need — to grow an online ministry?
With thousands of members, weekly worshipers, and volunteers, the growth of Hope is well documented. On-site worship services are already occurring weekly in downtown Des Moines and in the neighboring suburbs of Ankeny, Waukee, Johnston and Grimes, in addition to Hope’s primary campus and worship center in West Des Moines. This growth comes in spite of what research firms like the Barna Group identify as trends away from people wanting to be identified with a church, and a growing public skepticism about what church contributes to society overall.
Housholder explains “the net effect” of why the church started HopeOnline.TV. “The church needs to be where people are. The digital revolution isn’t a passing fad. This is one of the primary ways the world communicates now, and if we’re serious about bringing the gospel to this digitally fluent world, it would be wise for us to learn how to speak the language.”
Who is watching Sundays at 11? Brandt estimates that 70 percent of viewers are worshipers who are unable to attend Hope’s services in person due to travel, illness or weather. Another 20 percent are those living outside the radius of their church campuses, perhaps having relocated to a new job, yet wanting to remain connected to the church. The remaining 10 percent simply stumble upon the online telecast each Sunday morning.
The church-wide organization of the greater-ELCA is also starting to take notice of “net effects.” Pastor Joelle Colville-Hanson holds a new and somewhat unusual position in the Northeastern Iowa Synod of the ELCA as a director of evangelical mission in charge of social media outreach. She is the only ELCA director serving synod churches in such a role worldwide. From her office in Waverly, Iowa, Colville-Hanson works with 155 regional congregations, 30 percent of whom she describes as “somewhat active online,” assisting them with online evangelism tools to support their congregations and also synod conferences. She also authors a synod blog called God’s Work, Our Blog. Colville-Hanson agrees that online endeavors like Hope’s are “the new mission field.”
The church’s next generation is also getting on-board and online. Wartburg College, one of three ELCA-affiliated colleges in Iowa, now has students streaming and archiving weekly campus chapel services using some of the same production technology that’s used to cover many of the college’s weekend athletic events.
As to Lutheran Church of Hope’s online future, Pastor Housholder and leaders say it’s central to the church’s calling. “Hope’s mission is to ‘reach out to the world around us with God’s love,’ so producing an online weekly service for a world that spends a growing number of hours online was a rather obvious move for us.”
Brandt agrees. “If we can connect, then maybe we can connect them further to the church, and into a deeper relationship with Jesus.”
After all, that is the net effect of hope.