Churches across the United States, many now more technologically equipped than ever before, are set to make their Easter services and celebrations this weekend collectively perhaps the most watched Christian event in history.
As churches of all sizes ramp up their webcast and livestream capabilities, no longer is television and radio the top component to spreading the Gospel message of Jesus Christ's death and resurrection, and reaching those beyond the church walls.
"To pull this off we had to install satellite and Internet equipment at each of our churches, as well as broadcasting equipment at downtown Seattle," Mars Hill Church Communications Director Justin Dean told The Christian Post. The church, led by the media savvy Pastor Mark Driscoll, will be broadcasting online all six of the Easter services led by Driscoll from their downtown Seattle church.
"We'll be broadcasting each of those services live to our 14 other church locations across four states, as well as broadcasting online," Dean said. "We're praying for over 20,000 people to attend our services in person, so we don't consider this a 'virtual' Easter, although there is a lot of technology involved in pulling this off."
However, many churches, and especially ministries, no longer shy away from offering "virtual" spiritual experiences, still thought by some observers to be of lesser value than attending a church filled with congregants.
The ministry, Global Media Outreach, has observed that the number of Internet searches regarding the "spiritual" increases every year at Easter time, even more so than at Christmas.
"The virtual church continues to grow as more people get comfortable using the Internet in their daily lives, the adoption of smartphones increases and the speed of video streaming and downloads increase," Michelle Diedrich, Chief Marketing Officer of GMO, told CP. "More people have a cell phone in India than own a toothbrush. The advances in technology and adoption rates (over 7 billion cell phone subscriptions) make it easier for people all over the world to access great sermons and worship music and at the same time be a part of a community online together.
"GMO has continued to see an increase in the number of people seeking spiritual help online. In 2012 alone, we were able to share the Gospel with over 195 million people and we saw more than 26 million indicate a decision for Christ online," Diedrich said.
D.J. Chuang, who founded Social Media Church, a weekly podcast website featuring discussions with church leaders about social media, has been tracking the growth of churches with Internet campuses and livestreams since 2007. When he first started, he found that there were only five churches with Internet campuses. Now, he lists (Google Spreadsheets) more than 360 churches with livestream coverage of their services, and 100 of those with extensive online coverage, that includes features such as chat rooms, note taking, and in some cases, online Bible studies aside from the weekend services.
"Over time, there will be more and more people connecting with churches online," Chuag told CP. "Saddleback Church (for example) is doing 108 worship services over nine days during Easter week. Every two hours they are providing an online worship experience. Most will be 'simulated live,' that's a term used for pre-recorded video that will be played at specific times. People will be having a live interactive experience – having a watch party together."
He added, "As technology has developed churches have really taken an opportunity to engage with the audience online starting with people that just couldn't make it to the physical campus and happen to be traveling, or on vacation, or homebound. As churches engage with the online audience there's a lot more people they need to engage, not just in their cities but in the country and even around the world."
Best-selling author and apologist Lee Strobel told CP via email that while attending a church or Easter service may be a richer experience in person, online viewing has its place.
"Whenever we can invite a friend or neighbor to hear the Gospel – whether it's online or in person – that's a good thing," Strobel wrote. "But actually attending a service can be much richer. Just being in the midst of a community worshipping God can be a powerful experience for spiritual seekers. There's often an increased opportunity for spiritual conversations before and after services. And being at the service tends to focus our minds and hearts on God. I recently brought a friend to our church and it turned out to be a pivotal moment in his journey toward Christ.
"Still, I'll use any means to get the Good News to my pre-Christian acquaintances! A virtual church is better than no church at all," he explained.
Strobel said he watched a few online Easter services last year, in addition to participating in services at his local church.
"I was enriched and encouraged by the sermons I watched on the Internet. But as a Christian, I would never substitute an online experience for the local church. Hebrews 10:25 reminds believers that we shouldn't neglect gathering together," he said.
"So I see the Web as a complement to the local church, not a replacement. Evangelistically, however, the web can be a good starting point for our friends, family and neighbors who are willing to take initial steps toward God. Convincing a non-believing friend to actually visit a church can be a higher hurdle than persuading them to at least get some exposure to Easter through the web."
However, LifeWay Research President Ed Stetzer was even more adamant about the importance of physically being at an Easter service.
"One of the results of the resurrection is the formation of a Christian community that would bear witness to that resurrection," Stetzer told CP via email. "So, the best case scenario is for people to be among that witnessing community when they hear that story shared. Then, they can hear a really dangerous message in a safe place – among people who have already received the gospel."