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Jesus Loves Roku: Televangelism in the Age of Web TV

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Each and every weekend, about a hundred people all across the U.S. dress up to attend church — only to sit down in front of their TV and reach for their Roku remote control to access live worship services via the Northland Church channel.

Northland broadcasts live from one of its Florida-based churches, but its ministers routinely start services by welcoming everyone watching online as well. Welcome to the next generation of televangelism, which is using Internet set-top boxes to bypass large cable networks.

Churches like Northland have been embracing the Internet as a means to reach out to its members for years, and they’ve been very successful. “Nearly one-third of our congregation of 15,000 worships with us via the web,” Northland PR Director Robert Andrescik told me via email. The church has been using traditional web video and Facebook as well as a number of mobile phone apps for these online services.

Northland added a Roku channel to its mix of multi-media outreach tools last October, and Andrescik was especially excited about the mainstream appeal of the device. “There’s a burgeoning ‘house church’ movement in America,” he told me, adding, “Making services available on Roku provides a way for individuals to gather together for worship in their homes that doesn’t require huddling around a computer screen or complicated PC-to-TV hookups.”

Northland was the first church on Roku, but word quickly spread, and others followed within weeks. Three months later, Roku is featuring its own “Religion and Spirituality” category with ten channels from churches and other religious entities. “It really happened so quickly,” said Roku Director of Corporate Communications Brian Jaquet, who attributes much of this to Andrescik reaching out in the religious community.

One of the churches that followed in Northland’s footsteps is Georgia-based Community Bible Church (CBC), which until two years ago was using a local access cable TV channel to broadcast its services. “(We were) realizing that for about the same cost, we could reach the world with our message instead of just our county,” said CBC Online Campus Pastor Kenny Snow. The church ditched cable and started to stream its services online, and it launched its very own Roku channel last month.

“The simplicity and low cost has really opened up a lot of doors for people to reach out to people right from their homes,” said Snow about Roku. To be fair, a lot is relative; CBC says its channel has been downloaded more than 6000 times, and Northland’s Andrescik puts the number of channel downloads above 5000., which launched its own Roku app in October, has so far clocked 7700 channel downloads.

That’s small potatoes when you compare it to mega-church televangelists like Joel Osteen, who reportedly reaches some seven million viewers via the Trinity Broadcasting Network’s cable channels. However, many smaller churches that lack access to Trinity and other mass media outlets see a unique opportunity in devices like Roku. In fact, Roku’s Jaquet believes this new way to access the TV screen is leveling the playing field. “It’s allowing them to compete on a larger scale with these mega-churches,” he said.

Cord cutting also hasn’t been lost on churches. “We recognized that a growing number of Americans are cutting out cable and satellite and replacing these services with set-top devices that stream TV shows and movies from the Web,” said Andrescik.

Some churches have also started to build apps for other TV platforms, and in some cases, worshipers have taken the matter into their own hands. Boxee, for example, features an “Unofficial Mormon App.” With both Roku and Boxee, having an open app platform seems to have been key in attracting smaller churches without big budgets.

Jaquet knows other churches are already working on their own channels, and he wouldn’t be surprised if eventually one of the mega-churches with access to cable TV also embraced a platform like Roku. “There’s a lot of opportunity here, and it’s starting to spread,” he told me.

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