For churches in rural communities, spreading the word can be a challenge. Often, pastors rely on personal relationships and word of mouth to reach new parishioners and grow their congregations.
But thanks to high-speed internet connections from HCTC, churches like Zion Lutheran Church and City West Church use their websites to send their message farther than ever.
For Mike Williams, pastor at Zion Lutheran Church, the church’s digital presence has mostly focused on getting its message to young people and giving prospective visitors a clear idea of what they can expect. “I mainly think of it as a program to reach those who are looking for a church rather than providing continuing education for our congregation,” he says.
But that connection can also help churches enhance their services, giving their congregations more to look forward to each Sunday. Eric Wilfong, director of operations at City West Church, often uses the church’s internet connection to download video clips that will play during a service or to help musicians prepare.
“Sometimes we use tracks to enhance our music, so we put that media on the site for the band to be able to access and review,” he says. “There’s a lot going on in each service that the congregation isn’t aware of.”
A favorite feature for members of both churches is the ability to upload sermons and messages from each Sunday so that they can be viewed again or be available to members who can’t make it to church every week.
“For people who either miss a service or who aren’t able to leave their house, having the sermons on the website is important to them,” says Williams. “We even have some people out there every Sunday who don’t live here but who have started following us.”
Zion Lutheran first signed up for high-speed fiber internet to improve the quality of their TV broadcasts. Services were aired on a local TV station, but the church was transmitting its signal wirelessly, leading to a loss in quality.
“Improving that was one of the driving factors in getting fiber,” says Gerd Rohleder, who manages the church’s radio and TV broadcasts. “The picture was bad, and it would flicker. Fiber solved that problem and let us broadcast in high definition. Our regular internet service followed.”
Then, the TV station that partnered with the church declared bankruptcy and was no longer able to broadcast services. Four years later, the church still uses its faster connection to broadcast services over the radio.
And now that the local TV station is under new ownership and upgrading its equipment, Rohleder is hopeful that Zion Lutheran can get back on the airwaves soon. “The quality right now isn’t there for them. But as soon as they have it, we would be back on the air live using our fiber optic connection,” he says.
ROOM TO GROW
While neither Zion Lutheran nor City West Church has tested the limits of their internet connection, both are grateful to have the bandwidth to expand their capabilities. In particular, Williams hopes to not only archive services on the website but also stream them.
“We haven’t stretched our bandwidth that far, but we’re talking about doing streaming, which will help us a lot,” he says. “HCTC has been really good about giving us that space to improve, and I think at this point most of the hard work has been done.”
The ability to stream live services would also help Zion Lutheran connect with its long-distance members. While the archived sermons currently available on the website are mostly viewed by local parishioners, people from as far as Houston and Iowa also tune in.
Meanwhile, Wilfong’s goal is to pare down certain parts of the City West Church website while bolstering others with dynamic media to give prospective members a clear picture of the church’s character.
“We want to add more pictures and maybe some video other than the sermons, just to give people a more visual representation of who we are and what we look like,” he says. “Our bandwidth will become a really big deal because we’ll need to be able to handle more live video and streaming.”
Regardless of what challenges the church faces as it continues to explore its online space, Rohleder is confident Zion Lutheran will have whatever aid it needs from HCTC. “They’ve always been very supportive of us, and we enjoy great service,” he says. “It’s like night and day compared to what we had before.”