Linking into the market for ministry

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Can you believe GodTube.com?

First, the upstart Christian video site became the nation's fastest-growing Web property for August, according to ComScore's Media Metrix. Its 1.7 million unique visitors represented a 973% increase in traffic over the previous month. In September, the number of visitors leveled off, but the length of the average user's stay nearly doubled to a healthy 7.7 minutes, ComScore said.

Then last week, GodTube became the first religious website to offer the hot-ticket social media trinity: user-generated video (à la YouTube), social networking (à la MySpace and Facebook) and live webcasting (à la Stickam.com). GodTube's claim that it has become the most trafficked Christian website on the Internet is trumped only by a second boast: that by the sheer volume of video watched by its users -- 1.5 million hours last month -- it is now the world's largest broadcaster of Christian video.

Similar efforts from Judaism and Islam have launched recently, and more are cropping up all the time. But GodTube seems to have friends in especially high places.

GodTube's partners include, as Chief Executive Chris Wyatt puts it, "the who's who" of U.S. Christianity. "Everyone's onboard," he said, "the premiere ministries, megachurches and Christian retailers." Though GodTube, based in Plano, Texas, has yet to release the complete list of its more than 50 major business partners, they include such powerhouses as Garden Grove's 10,000-member Crystal Cathedral, the late Rev. Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in Virginia and leading Christian publisher Thomas Nelson Inc. of Nashville.

Local ministries are signing on too. Pastor Justin Cox, 30, of Los Angeles' Passion for Christ Movement, said GodTube has helped his congregation reach an audience well beyond the 60 people who regularly come to his services, where he preaches against what he sees as harmful images of blacks portrayed in hip-hop music. "I have to address Tupac before I can even get in there and address Jesus Christ," he said.

Cox's group scored a hit with a video of a slam poetry sermon given by actress and model Blair Wingo. With nearly 30,000 views, Wingo's lyrical performance is now one of GodTube's most-viewed clips and has elicited fan mail from China, Australia and Europe.

Despite its partnerships with nonprofit religious organizations, GodTube is not a church. It is a media company with a thoroughly planned business model. That model includes selling both religious and secular advertising, charging subscription fees to ministries that want to broadcast more frequently and selling anonymous demographic data "off the back end" -- allowing marketers and media producers a clearer picture of who's watching their programming. Indeed, as broadband Internet becomes more widely available in the U.S. and worldwide, entrepreneurs are finding that the business of online religion is a lucrative one.

"We're very much a for-profit organization," said Reza Aslan, a religious scholar at UC Santa Barbara and media analyst who is an executive officer at Mecca .com, a growing online community for Muslims. "We are very excited to essentially go into a completely untapped market," he said, speaking of the Muslim world. Mecca.com, said Aslan, will focus its commercial efforts on Haaj tourism -- that is, pilgrimages to Mecca itself -- and selling branded products (like Saudi Arabia's Mecca-Cola) to members who might not have access through conventional markets.

Religion on the Internet is nothing new -- churches have been using e-mail and bulletin board services for more than a decade, and sacred texts have long been accessible via online databases. More recently, sites such as MyChurch.org, Naseeb .com and CircleBuilder.com have created Web communities where worshipers can virtually congregate.

But with a sleek, youth-friendly interface and more interactive video technology than you can shake a crook at, GodTube is trying to take networked religion to the next level. "We call it Jesus 2.0," said Wyatt, 38, a former CBS television producer turned seminary student and seeming wellspring of catchy slogans and product names -- he came up with "GodTube" as well as the name of the site's new live video function: the GodCaster.

The GodCaster allows churches and ministers to stream live events -- services, concerts, debates and entertainment programming -- to whoever in the world wants to watch. Now worshipers can pick a congregation based more on personal or religious preference than physical location, and with the site's video-conferencing software, they can participate in Bible studies and social groups without ever getting out of their bathrobes.

Does this mean the brick-and-mortar church will go the way of, say, the brick-and-mortar music industry?

Not exactly, said Heidi Campbell, a communications professor at Texas A&M who studies links between new media and religion. As society becomes increasingly connected, "we're seeing that people are not dropping out of off-line institutions" but rather "they're using the Internet as a supplement to -- not a substitute for -- religious participation."

What can you get on your laptop that you can't get from the pew? The answer, according to Campbell, is more sustained and satisfying personal interaction. That includes matters like in-depth theological discussion, prayer support, opportunities for confession and the like.

But connecting believers is only one element of GodTube's vision. According to its mission statement, the site was built "for the purpose of encouraging and advancing the Gospel worldwide."

Ivan Leon, GodTube's manager of Hispanic communities, explained that the video conferencing feature will be crucial for churches -- both in the United States and Latin America -- to instruct and communicate with missionaries in the field. Leon added that users from Spanish-speaking countries account for about 10% of GodTube's traffic.

GodTube believes its financial aspirations hinge upon its ability to maintain a community environment that is squeaky clean, free of sex and violence. Wyatt and chief technical officer Jason Martell emphasized that the site has gone to "extreme measures" to build a monitoring infrastructure to keep its audience, its partners and its $2.5-million investment safe.

Every single video must be approved by an administrator before it goes live. Currently, that is 300 to 500 videos a day and growing.

At first, only pre-approved pastors and ministries will be trusted with the live video features. As far as what the site considers appropriate, Wyatt has said "if we wouldn't want an 8-year-old girl to see it, then we won't allow it."

Perhaps it's no coincidence then that the site's all-time most-viewed video features a 3-year-old girl reciting Psalm 23. "He'll anoint my head with oil. Surely . . ." she stammers, "surely goodness will follow --"

"Surely goodness and love," her father corrects.

GodTube executives also stressed that though they are Christian personally, the site itself takes no position on social issues such as homosexuality or abortion and that GodTube welcomes viewpoints from all comers. However, GodTube's terms of use include an expressed prohibition of any submission that "is contrary to the evangelization of Jesus Christ and His teachings, or constitutes blasphemy."

Offerings from the Jewish world are in the works too. JewishTVNetwork.com bills itself as the "first broadband network to feature a mix of entertainment and news channels celebrating the Jewish experience" and just last week began accepting user-submitted videos. Monday, the site plans to launch a contest seeking the most humorous bar or bat mitzvah clip.

Naseeb.com, a Muslim social network, dating and culture site, has over 335,000 members, and Muxlim.com is a media portal that encompasses several smaller sites, including a social network and a video-sharing space. Notably, neither Mecca.com, Naseeb.com nor Muxlim.com is oriented toward proselytizing, like GodTube.

"We are a site for Muslims -- not about Islam," said Aslan of Mecca.com, which he says is trying to be "the Muslim world's YouTube/MySpace."

"The Muslim community is completely fractured -- it doesn't really exist anymore; the only place it does exist is online," said Aslan, adding that some of the most easily accessible online communities are the jihadist sites. "The only way to counteract those voices of extremism is to shout just as loud. This is our opportunity to shout as loud as the extremists so that we can give young people an alternative."

david.sarno@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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