Missed a church service because of sickness or vacation? Want to investigate a new house of worship? Now you can go to church without actually going.
A growing number of Charlotte churches are making audio and video podcasts available to download or stream. Most churches that use podcasts post recordings of the pastor’s remarks and sermons during services, but some are releasing stories about their faith community or recordings of classes.
For many churches, the podcasts are a product for congregants who miss services. Others hope the podcasts will grow their church, either by encouraging potential members to attend or winning the loyalty of regular virtual members.
Vizion Church is a 3-year-old, non-denominational church that posts audio and video podcasts of sermons. Pastor Tyson Coughlin, 28, estimates the church on the edge of uptown has about 120 regular attendees, most of whom are young professionals.
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Members tell Coughlin they listen during their work commutes, and he said he’s received emails from several listeners from places such as Germany and Japan.
“We understand that there’s power in using social media and in podcasts to broadcast your message not just locally, but around the world,” Coughlin said. “It provides an outlet of expression for us ... that multiplies our reach.”
Brian Norris is the pastor at Charlotte’s Citylight Church, which is close in age and size to Vizion. He believes podcasts have potential to create connections.
“I think of it as the new church foyer,” he said. “People used to get to know the church by mingling with people out front. Now, people are checking things out online. ... It gives us an opportunity to meet someone we wouldn’t have met otherwise.”
American religious groups embracing communication technology isn’t new, said Sean McCloud, professor of religious studies at UNC Charlotte. Drafting and distributing fliers was a popular way to promote religious teachings in the 1800s. In the 1920s, evangelists lengthened their reach via radio. And decades later, Charlotte’s Billy Graham mastered the then infant medium of television.
In recent years, technologies such as podcasts and digital video recorders have allowed listeners to listen or watch a program at their leisure, instead of having to check in at a specific time.
Of the three largest branches of Christianity in the United States – Roman Catholicism, mainline Protestantism, and Evangelicalism – McCloud said evangelical churches are most likely to use newer technologies to reach an audience.
“Evangelicalism is … most focused on converting others. They’re going to be the ones that are more concerned with getting their message out,” McCloud said.
Conversion is present in all three branches, he said, but evangelicals tend to concentrate on individuals more so than Protestants or Catholics, who place an emphasis on community.
Who’s making them?
Elevation Church, the Charlotte megachurch which boasts an average of over 15,500 weekly attendees, reported it had more than 3.5 million downloads of its podcasts in 2014.
About 10 different Catholic churches in the of Charlotte Diocese have podcasts and online videos. About two years ago, the diocese noticed a small number of parishes were posting audio recordings of the pastor’s homily each week. They decided to aggregate these recordings, making them available in a central location on the Catholic News Herald’s website.
St. Matthew Catholic Church makes 15-minute videos about people and events in the parish community for its YouTube series “MATTtV.” While the primary purpose of the videos is to update St. Matthew members, they’re also a way for potential members to become familiar with the parish.
A slippery slope?
If it’s easier to just stream or download a service and watch it on your own time, why even come to church?
McCloud said the people watching and listening to podcasts will have a different worship experience than those who attend services. “The relationship that you have (with the church) is still going to be mediated through this technology,” he said. “You’re not going going to have face-to-face encounters and handshakes.”
But don’t assume people are doing one or the other, he said. There may be overlap between people attending services and people listening or watching online.
Most churches don’t see audio or video podcasts as a replacement to attending church services, especially Catholic ones.
“It’s required by Catholics to come to mass on Sundays unless they’re sick or there’s something that prevents them from doing so,” said Tim Flynn, office manager at St. Thomas Aquinas.
Listening to a homily does not replace attending mass, since receiving the body of Christ in the form of the Eucharist is essential, he said.