Head of media and publications at Lighthouse Baptist Church, Rockhampton, Ben Bakss, sets up video equipment to live stream a service.
Head of media and publications at Lighthouse Baptist Church, Rockhampton, Ben Bakss, sets up video equipment to live stream a service. Sharyn O'Neill

Churches to spread word online

CHURCHES are embracing the digital realm to extend their reach and audience.

In the age of technology, Rockhampton parishioners can now connect with their faith via podcasts, social media, live streaming and more.

It's creating a new type of congregation.

Ben Bakss - the son of senior pastor Robert - has been the head of media and publications at Lighthouse Baptist Church for two years.

In that time their use of technology has blossomed, with such advances as live streaming of Sunday services.

Ben regards the digital sphere as incredibly important.

"The philosophy, if you call it that, of the ministry is we really believe Christianity is about relationships, and social media is a massive tool to be able to make those relationships," he said.

"Coupled with the fact society is so visual today it seems crazy not to embrace it."

He acknowledged online offerings served dual purposes - to encourage people to take the next step to attend physical worship and to cater for the fact people had varied worship needs and access.

"On a regular Sunday we have probably about 40 different people who watch online," Ben said of the live mass stream.

"We can't see from the stat whose house it's coming from, but we know that so many are coming from Rockhampton etc and we do see different IP addresses coming across, which is good.

"That sort of says to us maybe some local people are having the chance to check it out."

It also offers the chance to get to know the congregation before getting involved.

"With church, it's not something you just wake up on a Sunday and think 'I might just go to a church today'," Ben said.

"You kind of don't know what to expect so we've tried to put things up like videos and different things so people kind of see what they're getting into."

The biggest response is to their Vimeo service, which hosts the stream and archives and registers about 5000 hits a month.

"Those come from across Australia, the United States, all over the place actually," Ben said.

They also include two or three rural churches, where a person from Lighthouse goes out once a month to do a service in person and the congregation gathers together somewhere like a lounge room for the other three weeks and follows the live stream.

"Sometimes there can be 20 of them and they pretty much participate," he said.

"When we stand up to sing or sit down they follow along."

The church also has a Facebook page and website - rebuilt 12 months ago after a hack - while Robert has a Twitter account.

All underscore the important relationship between religion and technology.

"There's a lot of misconceptions about what church is and what it's for," Ben said.

"When you look through the Bible the main commandment is asking us to love God and the second is to love your neighbour.

"With relationships it's not about what denomination you are, or how many times you

come to church, or all those things. It's about developing relationships with people and developing a relationship with God.

"And social media has just opened up a whole lot of possibilities that are just so important to harness."

Oasis New Life Centre has also embraced the digital sphere, with senior pastors John and Anita Rewald active on Twitter and Facebook.

John also appears on YouTube, with more than 30 videos covering situations such as his travels overseas.

Fellow pastor Kevin Whittington said all the church's pastoral staff were Facebook regulars with separate pages for various Oasis ministries.

"We would also use things like YouTube quite regularly and the latest thing we're doing some experimenting with is live streaming.

"It just enables us to connect with people both inside our organisation and people who may be new to town or outside of Oasis in a fairly flexible social way.

"And often we have people who are unable to get to our meeting," he said.

Over at Rockhampton Presbyterian Church, preachers including Mike O'Connor and Andrew Poyser offer more than 170 podcast sermons and Bible talks, some of which have topped 1000 downloads worldwide.

They also maintain Facebook and twitter, have an internal church prayer net where they send out prayer points via email and are looking at innovations such as incorporating iPads into Sunday services.

"We think it's important to engage in social media and the internet because what Jesus has to say is just as important today as it was 2000 years ago," Mike said.

"Modern technology is the way in which people communicate, so why shouldn't we be a part of it?"

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