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Church reaches beyond its walls via the Internet

Charlotte congregation puts service on live video stream.

By Tim Funk
tfunk@charlotteobserver.com

Paul and Courtney Elliott had a sick 2-year-old and Kim Hartzog was on vacation in Tennessee – reasons, ordinarily, to miss Sunday morning services at their local church.

But in the Internet age, even “going to church” is no longer so ordinary.

Joining a still-small group of churches, including some in the Carolinas, Mecklenburg Community Church offered a live online broadcast Sunday of its 10:15 a.m. service. By 11 a.m., the evangelical megachurch in northeast Charlotte had tracked 130 computers around the country tuning in via its Web site.

Hartzog was watching from Gatlinburg. And in their Charlotte family room, the Elliotts – including son Beau, the one under the weather – followed the singing and the sermon on their computer screen.

Paul Elliott even joined in the chat among the online worshippers: “our 2 yr has been sick, this was a great way for us to get to church, very impressive, can't wait to share with others.”

Some churches have long broadcast their services on TV and radio. Now they're looking to the Internet to spread the Word, recruit members – and offer a pray-along-at-home experience.

Myers Park Baptist also started offering live streaming of its 11 a.m. service on Sunday – or “Startup Sunday,” as the church Web site put it. Other Charlotte churches that offer online worshippers a live experience include University Park Baptist and University City Church.

Mecklenburg Community Church – or “Meck,” as members call it – launched a full-fledged “Internet campus,” joining a handful of big evangelical churches to use the latest technology to transcend geographical and other boundaries in spreading the Christian message.

Every Sunday from now on, visitors to the church's Web site – www.mecklenburg.org – can see a live stream of the 10:15 a.m. service, chat with other “attendees,” submit prayer requests, get connected with a pastor, watch informational videos, even go on a tour of the church's programs.

“This is the next edge, and we were poised to jump on it,” said the Rev. James Emery White, senior pastor, who founded the pioneering church in 1992 and now presides over five services that draw more than 5,000 people every week.

The Internet campus, White said, is not designed to replace the experience of being in the sanctuary, which offers things not available to stay-at-homes, including Communion and children's programs.

Instead, he said, view it as “one more way of going out, and taking the church to people and inviting them in.” Besides Mecklenburg Community Church, other evangelical megachurches with an Internet campus include Seacoast Church in Charleston.

Making worship services available live and online, is certainly a convenience for members who can't physically make it to the church on any given Sunday. But Mecklenburg and the other churches also hope to use this Internet tool to reach out to people who aren't comfortable going to church, but are seeking – or surfing for – answers in their lives.

“We're leveraging anything we can, technologically, to bring people to Christ – especially the unchurched,” said the Rev. Bobby Gruenewald, an “Innovation Leader” at Lifechurch.tv, which coined the term “Internet campus” and offered the first live streaming of a worship service, on Easter weekend 2006. “There's no doubt community is taking place online. Church can come in and shape that community, to have an influence.”

Last weekend, Gruenewald said, Lifechurch.tv services were picked up by about 1,400 computers around the world, including one at a U.S. military base in Germany, where the images were projected onto a big screen.

On Sunday, parts or all of Mecklenburg Community Church's 10:15 a.m. service were watched by people signing on from computers in California, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New Mexico, Georgia, Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee and, of course, North Carolina.

Josh Richards, a facilitator at the church, logged on Sunday from a Starbucks coffee shop in University City to help work out any technical bugs the first Sunday.

“Quite a few people are just checking it out – friends told them about it. And that's kind of the point,” he said.

Sipping Ethiopian Sidamo coffee from a mug, Richards, 31, wearing flip-flops, jeans and a balled-up pony tail, also followed the chat.

Kathy: “this is wonderful illustration of technology and the future.”

Amanda: “i told my parents about it and they are watching it.”

Any time a new visitor would enter the chat room, they'd get a welcome from the Rev. Joe Essick, the church's pastor of small groups, who was watching and chatting from another site.

Getting people, especially those intimidated by churches, to tune in to the service is only the beginning, Essick said.

“We hope they'll not just watch, but also get involved,” he said. “Then this will really become a community, with online discipleship classes and online small groups.”

And for those church regulars who just want a way to watch the service when they're out of town or one of their kids has a fever? The Internet campus will be open to them, too.

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