Saturday, September 24, 2005

Getting the Godcast

From: The Sun

Some Sundays, Steffani Warns is tempted to sleep in and skip church.

With the sermon of her choice only a click away, Warns could opt out of going to church, and instead sit on her couch in her pajamas and listen to biblical teaching on her laptop.

Piggybacking on the popularity of MP3 players and the convenience of TiVo, more people are listening to downloadable talk shows on their computers and portable music players. An increasingly popular genre is that of so-called Godcasts.

This begs the question: Will podcasts eventually make church services obsolete?

"There is a big difference between listening to something on TV and the radio and being there, where you can actually be involved in the worship and fellowship with other believers," said Warns, 25, of Rancho Cucamonga.

Most Sundays, she attends Community Baptist Church in her hometown. Godcasts are a way for her to unwind from work on weekday evenings.

That is something Godcast providers like to hear.

"We are very careful when we talk about podcasting to mention this does not replace church attendance or being part of a community," said Paul Eaton, administrative pastor for media at Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, which uploads daily digests to its Web site from Pastor Greg Laurie. "This is merely supplemental."

Podcasting is widely referred to as "TiVo for radio" because it allows consumers to save a program and listen to it later. Don't like the music at the gym? Take your iPod and lift weights while you listen to the words of God.

Though iPods are the namesake, podcasts can be listened to on any MP3 player and on a computer. Programs are usually free. Whenever a new episode is uploaded, software such as iTunes automatically downloads it to the computer hard drive.

Steve Webb, webmaster for Lifespring Assembly of God in Riverside, and Laurie are two of the most widely listened to Christian Godcasters.

About 2,300 people a day have downloaded Laurie's daily radio program and a two-minute message, "Time for Harvest," since the church added the talks to its Web site in July. The Internet has given Laurie, founder of the Harvest Crusade, an even larger audience.

For Webb, the Internet enables him to spread Christianity to listeners in England, Iran and China without having to be a missionary. He does it from the safety of his home.

"In a lot of ways, God is using me to speak to the world," Webb said. "It is a very humbling thing."

While the most prominent Godcasts are Christian-based, the religion directory on links to podcasts by Mormons, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and pagans.

On Fridays, Eiman Abdelmoneim delivers sermons at his mosque in suburban Chicago. He records the sermons and later uploads them onto the Internet. At the hedge fund he works for, Abdelmoneim has heard his colleagues listening to his podcasts.

"I don't think they would ever have the opportunity to sit inside a mosque," he said. "It definitely opens their eyes."

The programs evolved in 2004 as podcasts gained popularity. The term was coined by Carlsbad resident Craig Patchett, founder of The GodCast Network, which runs In podcasts, Patchett discovered a cheap and easy way for religious people to share their faiths with the world.

Godcasts are not yet being produced in San Bernardino County. But it seems only a matter of time.

There is a long history of religious people using technology to disseminate their messages from Italian frescoes to the Gutenberg printing press to television.

Podcasting, like other media, is "a little bit like the Wild West," said Craig Detweiler, chairman of the communications department at Biola University, a Christian college in La Mirada.

The listener, Detweiler said, doesn't know if a program is being produced by a minister or a cult leader.

"It's very hard for the average consumer to sort out what is authoritative, what is important and what is absurd," he said.

Patchett agreed that podcasts are "buyer beware" just like picking a church, a Thanksgiving turkey or a minivan.

To that end, Patchett said, listeners should compare what they hear with what their holy book says.

"The risks are greatly outweighed by the benefits," said Rob Acker, pastor of Community Baptist Church, which is converting his sermons into MP3s for the Web.