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God's Call Comes by Cellphone

Bible verses on a BlackBerry, sermons on an MP3 -- an explosion in digitalized spirituality is making true believers of online e-vangelists.

May 16, 2006|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

A recent national poll found just 17% of adults view the local church as essential for developing faith.

Small wonder.

Sitting in a pew on Sunday morning seems almost embarrassingly old-fashioned in an era when you can watch a video recreation of the Last Supper on your Palm or get God's word text-messaged to your cellphone.

Bored with your pastor's ramblings? Select a peppier sermon from among hundreds of "godcasts" online. Just pick a topic: Christian dating? Old Testament prophets? Then download it to your MP3 player.

Finding the old leather-bound Bible a bit cumbersome? A quick download from Olive Tree Bible Software and you'll be able to search Scripture on your BlackBerry.

"At first blush, it may seem a little peculiar to connect with God on your cellphone," said Christopher Chisholm, a TV-executive-turned-digital-evangelist. He recently helped launch FaithMobile, a service that will send a daily Bible verse to your cellphone for $5.99 a month.

In this harried age, he asks, how else are you going to "get in touch with the Word?"

The explosion in digitized spirituality might seem likely to make the traditional sanctuary obsolete. But pastors are not giving in. They're fighting back with some high-tech tricks of their own, turning to the Internet to save souls, renew faith, inspire hope -- and, not incidentally, to fill their pews.

An evangelical church in Granger, Ind., put up billboards a few months back showing a rumpled bed, entwined feet and the address www.mylamesexlife.com. That site linked to an artsy mini-movie with shots of a seedy motel and a man sunk in morning-after regret.

"Is your sex life a bore? A chore? ... Why does it seem like everyone else is having all the fun?" the text asked. As the movie ended, viewers for the first time saw the logo of Granger Community Church, which was sponsoring five weeks of sermons on sex, lust and porn. The tagline: "We're not afraid to talk about it."

Pastor Mark Beeson credits the campaign with boosting attendance 70% the week he gave a sermon entitled "The Greatest Sex You'll Ever Have." Six weeks after the series ended, weekly church attendance still topped 6,000, up from 5,000 before the ad campaign.

"We dare not change the Gospel. But the method of delivery? We better change it for each new generation," said Beeson, who preaches in front of a floor-to-ceiling video screen. His latest sermon series, which starts next week, is called "Finding God in Your iPod;" he promises to analyze spiritual yearnings in songs from Coldplay, Kenny Chesney and other artists.

Like Beeson, many of the pastors leading the push for high-tech evangelizing run large, non-denominational churches. Several big-name ministries also support the effort; they include Focus on the Family, Campus Crusade for Christ, Promise Keepers, the Billy Graham Center, and associations of Southern Baptists and Pentecostals.

Those groups formed the Internet Evangelism Coalition, which offers advice on using the Web to spread the Gospel. The coalition's top tip: Don't sound preachy. Avoid "churchy jargon" -- words like ministry, salvation, redemption, even faith. Draw nonbelievers to Jesus (or attract "unchurched" Christians to your specific congregation) by presenting the church as an upbeat, uplifting community of friends.

Mark Batterson, the pastor of National Community Church in Washington, D.C., posts zany video blogs on his website; one shows him tap dancing in the reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Other pastors post MTV-worthy clips of church bands. Many offer free downloads of their most popular sermons, including PowerPoint presentations.

"People often think the church is boring, judgmental, not relevant," said Richard Reising, president of the Dallas firm Artistry Marketing, which specializes in church advertising. "New media's a great way to reposition ourselves."

Nearly 60% of Protestant churches have websites now, up from 35% in 2000. More than half use e-mail blasts to communicate with their congregation -- and 12% let the faithful tithe online, according to the Barna Group, which conducts research for Christian ministries.

In the sanctuary itself, more than 60% of Protestant churches spice up their services with video clips shown on oversize screens.

Even the tradition of praying for your neighbors has gone high-tech. No more waiting for your pastor to announce who's suffering from kidney stones and who just had a baby.

Log on to www.worldprayerteam.org and you can intercede for the parents in Singapore who want their son to practice violin; for Christine in South Africa, who needs to sell her house; for Bill in Nevada, who'd like the Lord to send him a sympathetic auditor from the Internal Revenue Service.

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