Published : Friday, March 3, 2017 | 6:30 AM
When The Good Shepherd Church of Pasadena faced the grim reality that it could no longer afford to keep the lights on and the doors open at its place of worship on Walnut Street, Reverend Rick Eisenlord came up with an alternative plan that falls more into place with Silicon Valley than the San Gabriel Valley — evolving his church into a “virtual church,” online and on Facebook.
Moving the church exclusively online gives Eisenlord the freedom to livestream sermons on Facebook from wherever he chooses and the unbounded ability to reach larger audiences around the globe.
Virtual worship is becoming an increasingly popular way religious institutions are starting to create communities just as the Good Shepherd Church of Pasadena reinvents itself as a church without walls.
“I realized that a church shouldn’t be limited by four walls and brick and mortar. People do everything on the internet now. This is a different time,” said Rev. Eisenlord.
The Good Shepherd Church of Pasadena was founded in 2010 by Eisenlord, an openly gay reverend, as a full inclusion congregation aimed at helping to better serve the LGBTQ community.
For nearly seven years, the church was a labor of love, with Eisenlord and co-founder Paulette Hunnewell self funding it almost every way possible.
Eisenlord said that a regular attendance of at least 70 people each Sunday was a “magic” number that could sustain the operations of the church, however numbers consistently dwindled in the past years, often yielding a modest twenty to thirty members each week.
Offerings were even less, rarely exceeding $50 a week total, which was not enough to cover the rent.
“We knew when we started the church that there wouldn’t be enough money to support the church,” explained Eisenlord
The church officially closed its doors last week without a new place to congregate.
Eisenlord embraced the power of the internet for the past five years as he consistently archived audio and video sermons each week and uploaded them to the church website for people from around the world to access.
According to Eisenlord, the internet always worked in his favor as a tool to connect with people interested in the Good Shepherd Church.
He started to stream live to Facebook about a year ago with positive results.
“We have people all over the world that watch the sermons, from Finland, to Europe, to South America to Kentucky,” explained Eisenlord.
The streams proved to be an effective way to reach a wider audience, according to Eisenlord, who said about 200 people would tune in on average each time the sermons went live.
“We would get four times the number of people watching us on the internet than we would showing up in person,” said Eisenlord.
These results were the starting point for Eisenlord to redefine the concept of church as he knew it.
“We definitely are having an internet presence and my job now is to see if we can segue from that mortar and brick idea to an internet idea, almost like Amazon,” explained Eisenlord who used the e-commerce giant as an example of an enterprise that successfully switched operations from in-person to online.
Assistant Professor of Theology and Culture at Pasadena’s Fuller Theological Seminary says churches are making their presence online known now more than ever before.
“When Facebook Live came out, that blew open the doors more than anything else. Before, it was pretty common practice to, at the very least, do a video recording of your sermon or service and then host it somewhere later, but now that Facebook Live is available and pretty easily accessible to anybody–anybody with a camera can stream their service. It’s actually quite common,” said Callaway.
According to Eisenlord, the new virtual incarnation of the Good Shepherd Church has been well received by fellow church members in the community, but may not be a concept that will catch on to the majority of churches.
“Most churches are stuck in the 15th century. They’ve been so slow to adopt technology,” explained Eisenlord. “If this is where millennials are, then we need to be there. If they’re on the internet and are spending most of their time on the internet then we need to be there and we need to be there in a big way,” Eisenlord added.
According to Eisenlord, several local churches have reached out to the Good Shepherd Church for consultations of how to perform live streams and audio visual recordings after seeing the archives on the church website.
“We definitely are a pioneer and other churches are definitely looking to us as a leader in this area,” said Eisenlord.
“I think we are way ahead of any church. I think this formula of mixing a little bit of entertainment with spirituality is a formula that works and will appeal to a large segment of the population. We may be able to reach people that would not be able to reach before,” Eisenlord added.
The reverend plans to travel the region to broadcast sermons in visually stunning locations as a way to give his audience something different every time he goes live.
The live streams will encompass an element of entertainment in which he describes his onscreen persona as the “Religious Huell Howser, Jr.” after the legendary television host who famously traveled with a cameraman to various places throughout California.
“The cool thing about this is that I can be anywhere. I’m not limited by location. I can be in Palm Springs, or San Diego or out in the desert. It’s a wonderful thing that I can be anywhere and do my live stream,” said Eisenlord.
If religious figures like Eisenlord begin to pop up around the globe, will the longstanding tradition of going to church on Sunday may be a thing of the past? Callaway says that’s yet to be determined.
“It’s a pretty interesting time in determining what actually constitutes a worship service. Do bodies need to be present? If not, what is it that we’re doing?,” Callaway said. “In many cases, it’s already happening. [Live streaming] certainly disrupts that. How it disrupts it and what’s going to come about because of it is probably anybody’s guess,” said Callaway about the few congregations he’s aware of that choose to operate entirely online.
Callaway mentioned how recognizing the context of each denomination in regards to its importance in keeping in-person services available differs from going online.
“There will be some traditions where the worship service demands a body to be present. The whole meaning of it is the fact that you show up and you go through these ritual acts. You receive communion that’s an actual bread and actual wine. It’s so integral to the worship service itself and what’s going on there that to envision that in an online context is a near impossibility,” explained Callaway.
Most churches offer some sort of online resources for the public, according to Callaway.
“I’d say it’s less a trend than it is just a de-facto practice. The technology offers something that otherwise we wouldn’t be able to get,” explained Callaway who gave an example about how it’s used for military personnel and people abroad who want to tune in to churches back home.
For now, it seems that attending worship is more accessible than ever before.
“In a lot of ways, if your congregation and the way that you think of worship services in general are really about broadcasting a message, I can see, very easily in the future, those kinds of churches being almost exclusively online or at least privileging the online experience,” said Callaway.
Reverend Rick Eisenlord will live stream his first remote sermon from the Los Angeles Union Station in downtown L.A. this Sunday at 10:30 a.m.
To view the live stream on Facebook, visit https://www.facebook.com/goodshepherdpasadena
For more information about the Good Shepherd Church Pasadena, go to http://www.goodshepherdpasadena.com.