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July 25, 2014

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Facebook: Find friends from high school or, maybe, religion?

Valley churches partake in social media trends

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File Photo/Stephen R. Sylvanie/Special to the Sun

Worshipers raise their arms in praise during a song at a Central Christian Church service at Desert Oasis High School. Central Christian, with four valley campuses and an online campus, is one of many area churches experimenting with Facebook and other types of social networking.

Log in to Facebook these days and you can catch up on what a friend on the other side of the country did last night, go shopping, or, if you get bored, stir up some trouble in a mafia game or two.

And if the last one leaves you feeling a little guilty, there’s a new Facebook application: church.

Central Christian Church in Henderson has launched a new branch of its online campus on the popular social networking site, where it streams recent sermons eight times a week. It allows those who watch to log in with their Facebook accounts and interact with one another via Facebook’s chat function.

It’s a new step for a rapidly developing trend: Churches entering the social media realm in an effort to better connect with their members and reach historically difficult-to-reach demographics, such as teenagers and college students.

Central Christian has streamed its services online for some time, but Pastor Kurt Ervin, Central Christian’s pastor of church expansion, said a Facebook campus seemed like a natural addition to its online campus, which will continue to operate.

“Instead of us trying to take a campus to the online world, we just went to where the world is already online,” Ervin said.

Central Christian is by no means alone in the Las Vegas Valley when it comes to churches and digital media. A simple Internet search reveals dozens of local churches that offer sermons online or podcasts of Bible reading, and a number of Facebook groups, among other outreach efforts, are easy to find.

Religious-specific social networking is the latest manifestation of a broader trend that UNR assistant professor of anthropology Eleanor Nevins said has accelerated in the last 20 or so years, as religious groups seek various outlets to carve out identities in a rapidly changing world.

Nevins, who researches the anthropology of media and the anthropology of religion, is a professor in UNR’s Religious Studies program. In the past, religious groups have sought to establish identities through unique genres of literature and music and private religious institutions, Nevins said. The rise of social media outlets has given churches a new, powerful way to get their messages out.

“Christians are not the only ones that do this,” she said. “There are many different religious communities who are conscious about being contemporary and having power in the contemporary world or doing boundary maintenance -- in other words, who is with us and who is not.

“It’s partly about community-building and it’s partly about maintaining that community and wielding that power in today’s society.”

Nevins stops short of saying that churches will have to develop online personas to survive -- “That’s something that someone who is trying to sell you something would say,” she said -- but added that some churches might find it necessary to do so to achieve their goals. Larger churches that want to expand and have a voice in society, she said, will likely be obligated to expand their online presence, while smaller neighborhood churches may be comfortable foregoing the digital world altogether.

“It all depends on what terms a particular community wants to survive in,” Nevins said.

For the Paradise Seventh Day Adventist Church in Las Vegas, creating a Web site 11 years ago was a way to reach the valley’s newcomers and visitors who might be looking for an Adventist congregation.

Church member Joe Palmarozzo has volunteered to design and maintain the site since its inception. He said the site began as nothing more than a “static online pamphlet,” but has evolved over the years to add features such as podcasts. Based on the response the podcasts have received -- more than 200 downloads a month, Palmorozzo said -- the church plans to begin streaming its services online later this year.

“I think (an online presence) is very important,” Palmorozzo said. “More and more, the Internet is being used as a tool for people to investigate places and things and people. If you don’t have a presence online, it’s pretty difficult for people to find you or learn anything about you.”

One interesting thing Palmorozzo said he’s seen over the years is that while the online initiatives were mainly meant for younger people, they are becoming increasingly popular with other age groups as well.

Offering church services online comes with its challenges. Whereas one of the main goals of church worship is to create a sense of fellowship and a welcoming environment, creating that experience becomes more difficult without face-to-face contact.

When Central Christian launched its online programs, Ervin said it considered that aspect, but said it was outweighed by the argument that online church may be the only way to reach some people.

“Honestly, it’s not face to face,” Ervin said. “But there is a community out there that goes to school online, shops online, banks online … it really isn’t that big of a leap for certain groups to go to church online.”

Nevins agreed that while online church may lack certain aspects of the traditional church experience, at the same time, it provides opportunities for individuals who can do tasks with online services that they can’t do in person.

“One thing it’s going to provide is for people who don’t feel empowered to speak in church, to have a place from which they can speak,” she said. “It’s another tool for community building.”

So far, Central Christian’s Facebook campus is doing well, Ervin said. It attracted 500 viewers for its first service, and has attracted a total of almost 3,000 viewers in its first two weeks. Next, he said, the church hopes to add online broadcasts of its weekly Spanish services.

For Ervin, the possibilities that social networking offers to religious groups are just beginning to be tapped.

“We’re not trying to take over social networking at all,” he said. “We’re just trying to leverage social networking for what God’s doing.”

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