Satellite Technology for Distance Discipling

In Uncategorized by tfwm

It’s 10:00 a.m. Pacific time on May 10, 2001, and the church leaders collected in the music room at Faith Chapel in Spring Valley, California can’t help wiggling like kindergartners who can’t wait to share.

They’re abuzz because Pastor Ray Johnston has just shown off one of his most effective outreach tools, an invitation card printed up to look like a popular brand of TV remote control. Now they’re eager for question-and-answer time to find out more about the “remote” and the unusual Father’s Day service that it supports. And they’re not alone. In hundreds of churches from Bellevue, Washington to the Bahamas and from Alberta, Canada to Alabama the same scene is played out at exactly the same moment.

Welcome to a live, interactive church leadership seminar broadcast nationwide by satellite downlink.

As you’ll see, the basic idea isn’t all that new, but several advances in technology have converged to make satellite-downlinked seminars an attractive alternative for churches looking for high-quality learning opportunities at reasonable cost. In this article we’ll profile the Church Communication Network (CCN), which produced and broadcast the Johnston seminar. First though, let’s look at the basic equipment and some other major providers.

For satellite-downlinked religious broadcasting in the US, the de facto standard is DISH Network’s equipment aimed at the EchoStar III satellite. The kit includes a satellite dish, a receiver, and a remote control. As for the dish, it measures just 18 inches in diameter. That’s a far cry from the six-foot monsters of just a few years ago. It’s small enough to be inconspicuous on the roofs of most churches and to make do-it-yourself installation possible. Alternatively, installation can be contracted through DISH Network, through the vendor, or through CCN.

Discount deals on equipment and installations often include subscriptions to other programming carried by DISH Network, including Sky Angel. Information on these offers abound on the DISH Network Website, on the site of DISH Network’s parent company EchoStar Communications, and elsewhere on the Internet.

Interactivity is the feature that distinguishes satellite seminar broadcasts from a standard cable-TV setup. During CCN broadcasts, viewers are invited to submit comments and questions in real time by telephone, fax, or e-mail. Questions are collated and screened by personnel behind the scenes. The moderator then reads selected questions live to the presenter, who answers them on-air, turning viewers into actual seminar participants.

Providers of satellite-downlinked Christian training and leadership content vary in content, emphasis, target audience, and frequency of broadcast. Most of them share the trait of having been launched to support an existing ministry or denomination.

Campus Crusade for Christ’s Fasting and Prayer broadcasts (www.fastingprayer.com) started in 1996 as an outgrowth of a gathering that Dr. Bill Bright first called in 1994. These annual broadcasts are received via DISH Network in churches, public meeting places, and even private homes. Fasting and Prayer 2000 brought 1,200 people to Orlando, Florida, and involved nearly two million more by radio, satellite, and the Internet in 26 countries around the world.

In 1985, John Maxwell founded Injoy to offer stewardship and leadership training to pastors all over the country. The step from videotaping conferences to broadcasting one live was easy and natural, and a Maxwell broadcast last August reached over 100,000 people across the country.

The Injoy broadcasts (www.injoy.com) focus primarily on leadership and on stewardship; issues particularly relevant to church leaders. Injoy recently spun off a daughter organization, Equip (www.equip.org), to accommodate the needs of laypeople and those charged with discipling them. Broadcasts from the Injoy group use DISH Network. They are generally simulcasts of large-scale live events, and there isn’t a regular broadcast schedule.

Rick Warren and his Saddleback Church have brought forth several satellite-downlinked offspring, including the Purpose-Driven Church (www.purposedriven.com) and Celebrate Recovery (www.celebraterecovery.com). Both ministries, like Injoy, had their genesis in live seminars and print. Purpose-Driven broadcasts to date have reached about 50,000 pastors. There are other similarities with Injoy: broadcasts are generally simulcasts of live events, there’s no regular broadcast schedule, and events are received in churches on a pay-per-view and/or pay-per-person basis.

Denominations with their own broadcasting networks include the Church of the Nazarene (www.nazarene.org) and the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Conference (www.namb.net). These, and most of their sister denominations that broadcast, offer a mix of continuing education for professional church staff and conferences that are open to laypeople. Some of the conferences have been broadcast around the globe. In most cases the programming, as we’ve already seen, is simulcast. It’s a challenge to produce enough content of high enough quality to be on the air daily. NAMB and the Nazarenes use DISH Network.

Sometimes, however, the technology and the ministry arise hand-in-hand. This is the case with the Church Communication Network (CCN). Founder and president Bill Dallas was an executive producer with a firm that has produced training videos and satellite conferences for some of Silicon Valley’s best-known corporations. Bill says he saw these corporations setting up satellite networks so that workers in branch offices around the country could receive the training they needed without having to take time off to travel to headquarters.

“I realized that churches could benefit from the same distance learning,” Bill recalls. His superiors agreed, and so did a group of investors, and in 1999 Bill launched CCN from Television Associates’ headquarters and production facilities in Mountain View, California.

“The mission was to equip church leaders with tools that they would normally pick up at conferences,” notes Bill, “but without the churches having to pay for a series of live speakers to come to their facilities. A whole leadership team could learn from a year’s worth of seminars together for a fraction of the cost of going to a single event offsite.”

CCN offered its first broadcast in March 2000: a seminar on Natural Church Development that was moderated by Fuller Theological Seminary professor Greg Ogden and Bob Logan, the founder of ChurchNet. The seminars that followed featured John Maxwell, Henry Cloud, Lee Strobel, George Barna, Mike Yaconelli, and Leonard Sweet, to name a few. The rest of the 2001 lineup included seminars by Bruce Bugbee (spiritual gifts), Sue Mallory (equipping), and Norm Wright (ministry in grief and crisis).

The original subscriber base of about 200 churches grew to 700 as of April 2001 and is projected to top 1000 before the end of 2001. There are subscriber churches in the District of Columbia and in every state except Alaska, Hawaii, Delaware and Montana. Churches in Alaska and Hawaii have been very interested, but it hasn’t been feasible to broadcast to them. CCN also has subscriber churches in the Bahamas and in four Canadian provinces.

CCN’s subscriber churches read like a roll call of North American ecumenism, reflecting the trans-denominational appeal of the programming.

Interestingly, the subscriber base includes large numbers of Southern Baptist and Nazarene churches; whose denominations, as we’ve seen, already possess quite robust satellite-broadcast departments of their own. Obviously the interest is already there. The other factor is the common equipment: churches that already have DISH Network equipment incur no additional equipment costs. Jay Harris of Tarrant Baptist Association in Forth Worth, Texas is quite blunt about the value of CCN satellite seminars: “What you guys are doing at CCN is a God thing.”

CCN was originally oriented toward professional church staff, but feedback from seminar audiences soon made it abundantly clear that the original mission needed to be expanded. “The lay leadership and the congregation can benefit from the technology too,” Bill observes.

As a result, CCN now offers congregational programming in the form of special events alongside the subscription leadership seminar series. A pair of marriage/couples’ events in the fall of 2000 were first, then came a simulcast of a youth concert that coincided with World Vision’s 30 Hour Famine in February 2001. March and April 2001 saw two blockbuster events: a Saturday presentation of Mark Mittelberg and Lee Strobel’s acclaimed evangelism training seminar, “Becoming a Contagious Christian,” and a live broadcast of Max Lucado’s powerful “He Chose the Nails” concert just before Holy Week.

In October, CCN will offer “Secrets to Great Parenting”, an all-day workshop hosted by Carla Barnhill, editor of Christian Parenting Today and featuring Elisa Morgan of MOPS International. In December, Lee Strobel and Mark Mittelberg will return to CCN with a special outreach event based on Strobel’s The Case for Christ.

Technology is far from foolproof. Even a “God thing,” in Jay Harris’ phrase, is not immune from secular bugs. Henry Cloud’s seminar on overcoming obstacles to leadership, the fifth in CCN’s first broadcast year, was kept off the air by the one-two punch of a power failure and technical problems. The seminar was videotaped before a live audience, however, as CCN broadcasts always are, and tapes were provided free of charge to all churches that were to have received the broadcast. Since then CCN has had standby generators at all major broadcast events, and no other CCN broadcast has been troubled.

The flip side is that sometimes technology comes to the rescue of a live appearance. Patti Edwards, who heads CCN’s sales force, was in Albany, New York for John Maxwell’s early afternoon seminar on stewardship. Maxwell was scheduled to fly into Boston that morning to do a live Injoy presentation, and then was to fly to Albany, 150 miles away, for the CCN broadcast. The timing would have been tight at the best of times, and a major storm was forecast for the entire area. The whole staff of CCN, as Patti tells it, “got more and more tense – and we prayed A LOT.” The prayers got more intense in the morning as the storm exceeded predictions. “All the airports up and down the East Coast closed down, except for Albany, and Maxwell was forced to land in Albany and NOT go to his morning gig at all.” CCN’s response? “We scrambled and opened our nearby downlink sites to the folks who would have attended [Maxwell’s] morning session. I do know some drove all the way from Boston to Albany to catch the broadcast from the uplink site.”

Those who have never attended a satellite-downlinked event may worry that the nature of the medium detracts from the experience, but that fear turns out to be largely unjustified. A Fasting and Prayer 2000 attendee reported that watching the broadcast gave her a greater sense than she’d ever had before of being part of the Church worldwide.
And a CCN pastor waxes eloquent on the advantages of attendance by satellite. “There was a lot of skepticism about a not-in-person conference,” concedes Peter Livingston of First Southern Baptist Church in Oklahoma City, but by the time it ended, many in attendance said they’d prefer another satellite conference to attending live. Pastor Livingston agrees. “I’ve attended a number of these conferences live – Promise Keepers, that sort of thing -and while they’ve been great events, I’ve never been fortunate to sit close enough to be able to see the speaker and his facial expression. [With CCN] you could see the facial expressions and the way the speaker was trying to interact with the audience. Usually, only people who sit up close have the ability to receive that kind of nonverbal communication that the speaker is bringing to the message.”

The bottom line? Live conferences aren’t going to go away just because some of their content can now be provided by satellite downlink. But churches that are looking to maximize the impact of their training dollars would do well to investigate the offerings of Injoy, Saddleback, or CCN.