Tech-savvy megachurches expand with big screens on ‘satellite campuses’

lifechurch.tv logoReligion News Service

June 30, 2005 Thursday 1:08 PM Eastern Time

Tech-Savvy Megachurches Expand With Big Screens on ‘Satellite Campuses’

BYLINE: By BOBBY ROSS Jr.

SECTION: LIFESTYLE

LENGTH: 1293 words

DATELINE: OKLAHOMA CITY

Most weekends, Pastor Craig Groeschel preaches at 23 services in five church locations across Oklahoma.

His schedule isn’t quite as busy as it sounds, though. The founder of LifeChurch.tv, a nontraditional church, Groeschel delivers only five of the messages in person. Technology takes care of the rest.

Welcome to the electronic church, live via satellite.

In the reality TV age, perhaps it’s no surprise that fast-growth churches increasingly use cameras to put their pastors in two places — or three or four or more — at the same time.

Some do it to solve crowding issues or reach a wider geographical area, while others see it as a way to offer more worship styles under one roof, said Scott Thumma, a researcher of megachurch trends at Hartford Institute of Religion Research in Connecticut.

While the exact number of churches beaming pastors from one location to another is unknown, 22 percent of 153 megachurches surveyed in 1999 said they had satellite campuses, Thumma said. In an updated survey he’s conducting, he said he expects that number “to be greater than that for sure.”

The trend concerns traditionalists such as Ole Anthony, president of the Trinity Foundation, a Dallas-based religious watchdog group that tracks televangelists.

“Do you lay your hands on the screen for fellowship?” asked Anthony, who criticizes megachurches as bastions of amusement and anonymity.

On the other hand, researcher Thumma said satellite services only reflect what already occurs in most large worship settings.

“Even if you’re in the main sanctuary, chances are you’re not going to be watching the pastor at the pulpit anyway,” he said. “Your attention is going to be focused on the large screens because you can’t really see the pastor if you’re in a gathering of 4,000.”

On a recent Sunday, Groeschel appeared on the big screens at LifeChurch.tv’s south Oklahoma City campus sporting shorts, a T-shirt and a Los Angeles Dodgers cap.

Introducing a study of the apostle Paul’s epistle to Philemon, he walked through a leafy neighborhood to a mailbox, where he pulled out a letter just like the one contained in the New Testament.

When the taped segment gave way to the live portion of the message, Groeschel showed up in a dark shirt and slacks — but only on the video screens.

Not that the 450 or so jean-clad worshippers watching in a converted storefront minded the pastor delivering the sermon from another church location 20 miles away.

“In my opinion, it makes not one bit of a difference at all,” said Eric Urbach, a 32-year-old attorney making his third visit to the church. “In fact, it’s kind of a nice thing that I can see him up close.”

Urbach’s friend Amy Chilvers, 34, added: “You’re still getting the live music and the interaction with the other people who facilitate the service. So, to me, it’s not an issue.”

At North Coast Church in Vista, Calif., north of San Diego, worshippers choose from four simultaneous “worship venues” at the church’s main location on Saturday nights and Sunday mornings.

“North Coast Live” offers preaching in person by Pastor Larry Osborne, along with a full worship band and Starbucks coffee. A separate “Video Cafe” presents a more acoustic style of worship, again with Starbucks coffee but with Osborne’s sermon by video.

A third venue, called “The Edge,” features what the church Web site describes as “a slightly more cutting edge atmosphere with full band worship,” along with “Mountain Dew, big subwoofers and teaching via big-screen video.”

Other options include a Saturday night “Country Gospel” service (“Y’all come on over,” the Web site says) and a Sunday morning “Traditions” service with a baby grand piano and a mix of classic hymns and contemporary worship choruses. Each venue gets the same video sermon by Osborne, often a recorded DVD to allow more flexibility in individual services.

“You tell me what music you play and I tell you who comes to your church. So we reach more people than we ever could with a one-size-fits-all approach,” said Osborne, whose church draws 5,700 worshippers each weekend to its “central hub” and four satellite locations within a 35-minute drive.

In Oklahoma City, Groeschel, 37, said he stumbled on the video format when his wife delivered the fourth of their six children on a Sunday morning in 2001.

By then, LifeChurch.tv — known for its ear-piercing praise band and Groeschel’s real-life sermon illustrations — had already grown to several thousand people at two locations. Groeschel had preached twice that Saturday night.

“I was holding my little son and asking, ‘Who’s going to fill in for the day?’” Groeschel said. “Someone said, ‘Hey, why don’t we roll video from the night before?’ We did and it worked great. There was almost no difference.”

Four years later, LifeChurch.tv has 130 ministers and staff members and serves a combined 13,000 people each weekend, with two locations in Oklahoma City and one each in Tulsa, Stillwater and Edmond.

And in September, LifeChurch.tv plans to take the concept to two new campuses in the Phoenix area, more than 1,000 miles away.

Groeschel — whose church advertises on highway billboards with messages such as “Love GOD, but hate church? So did we” — said church leaders felt called to share the message outside Oklahoma.

“We liked Phoenix because it’s one of the fastest-growing cities in the entire country, and at the same time it’s in one of the most unchurched counties in the entire country,” he said. “We just see great spiritual opportunities in Phoenix.”

About 100 LifeChurch.tv members from Oklahoma have quit jobs, sold homes and volunteered to move to Phoenix to form the core groups for the new campuses. They’ll be joined by five full-time LifeChurch.tv staff members at each location.

“Obviously, it’ll create some new issues in how we communicate with staff members, and in leading an organization from 1,000 miles away instead of just a few,” Groeschel said. “We’ll also have to deal with some cultural issues, just between Arizona and Oklahoma. But I think those are not insurmountable.”

When Groeschel mentioned in a sermon that members would be needed to take LifeChurch.tv out of state, Kevin and Cari Kelley said they felt God talking directly to them — even before they knew the locale would be Phoenix.

The Kelleys, parents of an 11-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter, likened transplanting LifeChurch.tv’s distinct “DNA” to the Arizona desert to franchising a McDonald’s restaurant.

But they stressed that a successful church requires more than loud music, a full-service coffee bar and a made-for-TV preacher.

Beyond the smoke-and-lights glitz, they said, LifeChurch.tv succeeds because of meaningful small-group studies and true commitment to the Christian faith.

“It’s not just something we do for fun,” said Cari Kelley, 35. “I mean, God is a life-changing God and he is at LifeChurch and he changes lives there, and we see it every weekend. People raise their hand and accept Christ every single experience every weekend.”

At every LifeChurch.tv location, a live band plays, campus pastors interact with the audience, and “welcome teams” greet visitors.

Since opening in March, the south Oklahoma City campus has grown to an average combined attendance of roughly 2,000 at two Saturday night and three Sunday morning services.

Nearly 500 people have signed cards saying that they made decisions to live for Jesus Christ, said campus Pastor Randy Coleman.

“It’s people looking for something significant yet different than traditional church,” said Coleman, 35, who wore a brown T-shirt and jeans to the recent service.

And hey, what’s more different than a sermon by satellite?

LOAD-DATE: July 1, 2005

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