Bethlehem Baptists blaze video trail

By James Smith

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Craig Vernall believes new technology will help give the Christian message a wider appeal in an age when people expect quality presentations. PHOTO/JOHN BORREN
Craig Vernall believes new technology will help give the Christian message a wider appeal in an age when people expect quality presentations. PHOTO/JOHN BORREN

The popularity of television on-demand means missing the latest crisis on Coro or the feisty finale of MasterChef isn't a big drama these days.

But despite being able to select and watch programmes when it suits them, many people have lost faith in finding anything meaningful to watch. Now a Tauranga church may just have the answer.

Bethlehem Baptist Church's video-on-demand has just gone live online, with the catch-up facility receiving high praise from church-goers who've been unable to get along to Sunday worship.

Services are now recorded and featured on the popular internet video site Vimeo. Sermons and other video recordings, produced and edited by a team of enthusiastic youngsters, can be viewed in high-definition on internet-capable TVs, laptops, smartphones or multi-media devices.

Bethlehem's Senior pastor, Craig Vernall, said the move to video helped keep the Christian community connected. Job demands meant many people had to work on Sundays and couldn't always attend church.

Audio podcasts of sermons had been accessible online but the addition of video-on-demand meant people could watch from wherever they were in the world, said Mr Vernall.

"It communicates the message way better than audio does.

"The video puts you in the moment. It's a bit like the difference between listening to the radio and watching television."

The church has undergone a huge growth and is now one of the biggest churches in the Bay of Plenty.

In the 1990s services were held at the Bethlehem community hall with about 150 followers. Today the church has its own purpose-built multi-functional building, and a congregation of about 2000, with two Sunday services regularly attracting a total of 1100 people.

And, at a time when many churches are seeing attendance figures plummet, the Bethlehem church has experienced continued growth across all age groups, with the increase particularly noticeable among young people.

The number of youth attending church activities has doubled in the past year.

"We have a couple of hundred kids involved in children's programmes at any one time. We're a family church that spans all generations," said Mr Vernall.

The Bethlehem church has invested in technology to reflect expectations of today's church-goers.

It is well known for its innovative approach. Its Easter Journey, an interactive, multi-media, personal walk-through presentation, depicts the story of Jesus' death and resurrection in a modern and thought-provoking way. The display, held every two years, has been seen by thousands of people.

"People are looking for quality presentations these days," said Mr Vernall.

"Twenty years ago the thought of being recorded live on video, accessible to any part of the world, was a million miles away from our imagination." But having cameras in church to record sermons has taken some getting used to for Mr Vernall, who is also National Leader for the Baptist Churches of New Zealand.

"I've got the perfect face for radio and it's a little bit daunting to see yourself on film," he said.

The move to video has given the church's youngsters a unique opportunity to learn new skills on sophisticated digital recording equipment, said Mr Vernall. A team of four operates cameras trained on the stage, which features a giant 12m by 4m video screen. Other volunteers are involved in editing and mixing the video presentation.

"They want to be involved, they are volunteering and they are learning new skills, which is positive for their future.

"They see it as an opportunity they wouldn't normally have using some relatively expensive gear and increasing their skills for the jobs market. We see this as a win win." Bethlehem is among a handful of Baptist churches nationwide that have been using video.

"There are 245 baptist churches in New Zealand and half a dozen around the country using video at some level. Some make the video available on DVDs but not many are online in this way," Mr Vernall said.

But he stressed the move had not changed the church's core values.

"We're preserving a message that has been around for 2000 years. We don't have the right to change the message but we certainly have a freedom to change how that message is communicated." People accessing the on-demand facility can watch or download sermons for viewing.

One series, Inside Look, shows the day to day life and work of the church's different ministries.

"It gives people a look into our church from the comfort of their own home," said Mr Vernall.

The church is marking the bi-centenary of the gospel coming to New Zealand. A series of illustrated talks, The Church of Aotearoa, features Bethlehem staff and guest speakers. It has proved popular with hundreds of people.

"Many New Zealanders don't understand the story of the church and the role the church played in the founding of our nation.

"We do topical series on the books of Scripture or biblical characters and they can be a seven or eight-week series." The Christian story has also had a Hollywood revival this year, with secular directors taking on classic Bible narratives. Movie-goers have flocked to films such as Son of God, Noah, and Heaven Is for Real.

But the trend has not surprised Christians who say the Bible is a rich source of stories depicting strong characters.

"The church's message has been around a lot longer than Coro. We're the longest-running serial in history - the church story of the gospel," said Mr Vernall.

To access Bethlehem Baptist Church's Watch and Listen experience go to: www.bethlehem.org.nz/messages/experience

- Bay of Plenty Times

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