Pittsburgh churches reaching out to 'disconnected' through webcasts

Debra Erdley
| Monday, Dec. 23, 2013, 10:39 p.m.

When ushers dim the lights and worshippers light candles and sing “Silent Night” in the Bible Chapel in McMurray on Tuesday, they'll share a Christmas Eve tradition with others miles away through a live webcast.

The nondenominational church with average weekly attendance of about 4,000 — with other campuses in Wilkinsburg, Washington and Robinson — began offering webcasts two years ago.

“We knew we needed to reach those who are disconnected from the church,” said Bible Chapel Executive Pastor Scott Arvay. “We wanted to break down as many barriers as we could between them and the life-saving message of Jesus. Technology is a way to give them a lower barrier to cross.”

The church is part of small movement that utilizes technology to propagate faith.

Kent Shaffer, founder of ChurchRelevance.com, travels the country consulting with churches about online ministries and collecting free digital content to post. He said about 600 of the nation's 320,000 churches stream live webcasts.

“The bulk of them are contemporary evangelical churches. They tend to experiment with more new methods, which is why they are the dominant group using it,” he said.

Arvay said about 150 to 170 people log on to the church's web-casts each week. They range from regulars in the Pittsburgh region to a woman in Tennessee who calls herself Granny Doc.

The virtual flock includes those who stumbled upon the church while surfing the Internet in locations as far as Turkey and Kenya.

The Bible Chapel and Mt. Ararat Baptist Church in Larimer are among a few Pennsylvania churches listed on a national roster of those offering webcasts.

Mt. Ararat started its popular webcasts in 2008. Although the church does not have a Christmas Eve service, communications director Orlana Darkins said the church will stream three New Year's Eve services.

Heidi Campbell, a professor who teaches and studies the intersection of media, religion and culture at Texas A&M University, said churches with strong outreach often view webcasts as a way to gain a larger audience.

She said churches can use webcasts to connect with young people.

McMurray's Bible Chapel emphasizes two-way communication through a live chat blog. Arvay said many people offer comments, and a church staffer answers questions.

“We get things like ‘I love that verse. It means so much to me,' ‘Pray for me,' or ‘We'll pray for you,' ” Arvay said.

When the church celebrates communion, it advises those online to eat bread and drink grape juice so they can participate.

On Tuesday night, they'll be advised to light candles to light and sing.

“We know there are families who will have candles ready and gather around a big-screen TV,” Arvay said.

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