Televised worship services may seem a bit old fashioned in the age of live streaming webcasts.
“Why still do it?” said Travis Collins, senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Huntsville, Ala. That was his attitude upon arrival as interim in 2014.
Since then he’s become a big believer in the congregation’s 10:30 a.m. Sunday telecast. It was an attitude reinforced when the broadcast suddenly went off air May 6.
“It just broke down completely,” Collins said.
And again on Mother’s Day.
The cause: a new hotel has been built in the line of sight between the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship church and WHNT News 19 about a mile away.
“And here we had been saying how cool it was this boutique hotel was coming in near us as part of the renovation of downtown Huntsville,” he said. “Then come to find out ….”
One lesson learned is that the broadcast remains very popular in the city and the surrounding region, Collins said. Phone calls, emails and social media posts expressed concerns and complaints about the interruption.
The church responded swiftly.
“Our apologies,” First Baptist posted on Facebook. “Our Live TV Broadcast was unavailable today. We invite you to listen to our worship today via our website.” Frustrated television viewers also were invited to download Collins’ sermon delivered that morning.
Viewers also responded quickly.
“Sure miss when it is not on!!!!!” one said in a Facebook comment. Another added they “hope things get taken care of soon. Meanwhile I will watch the livestream. This is something I look forward to each morning.”
The church posted the following day explaining that new construction is obstructing “our dedicated wireless path” and “we are working on the best solution to get around this new obstacle.”
But is it really worth the bother in an era when any church, with a little determination, can stream their worship online?
It’s a question a lot of congregations are asking and one that a lot of experts are answering in the affirmative.
One of them is Phil Cooke, a media consultant and author of Unique: Telling Your Story in the Age of Brands and Social Media.
Cooke argues in online articles argues that television can present a church’s message to larger, more diverse audiences than can live streaming to fragmented viewerships.
“Ask a nonbeliever about a major Christian figure today and chances are, those with TV ministries are the most likely to be named,” Cooke writes. “Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, Billy Graham, Brian Houston, Andy Stanley, T.D. Jakes, Jack Graham, and others are known around the world because of their exposure on television.”
TV audiences remain large despite the buzz around the Internet. And television audiences are still among the most responsive to broadcast content, he said.
“I’ve personally seen letters and emails from people whose lives have been transformed simply because they clicked on a Christian program and decided to watch.”
The positive reinforcement Collins has received about First Baptist’s weekly broadcast isn’t limited to letter and emails.
“I have been stopped by people of all ages and all ethnicities saying ‘we watch First Baptist every Sunday,’” he said.
Often, those comments come from people who do not even live in Huntsville.
“I had a guy stop me at the Atlanta airport and say, ‘I travel to Huntsville once a month and always watch First Baptist when I’m there.’”
More than 7,000 households are tuned into the broadcast every Sunday, compared to a few hundred who watch the 8:15 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. services online.
And most online viewers, Collins added, are church members who are traveling or home sick, and know to watch.
“This has convinced me” about the value of the television broadcast, he said. “I think there is still a market for worship on TV.”
But first, First Baptist has to get the blocked signal issue solved.
The May 6 blackout that Sunday was preceded by two or three weeks of weakened signal strength.
First Baptist’s media director, Brian Temple, spent the week following the outage diagnosing the problem and working with station engineers for a fix.
“At 3 p.m. Friday it was perfect, golden,” Temple said. “Then in the last 20 minutes, something failed.”
Again, the signal was blocked May 13, so a taped worship service was broadcast instead.
Temple said it was an equipment issue failure. Redundancy is being built in to, hopefully, prevent that from happening again.
“So, we are keeping our fingers crossed,” he said.
And the complaints? Those are a blessing, Temple said.
“They only serve to remind me how important this ministry is.”