Over dinner one night in Harlem, the Rev. Nicholas Richards delivered the news to his father. The younger Mr. Richards was the assistant pastor at Abyssinian Baptist, one of the most storied African-American churches in the country. In his early 30s, he was a princeling awaiting the call to his own pulpit.
But that evening last summer, Mr. Richards looked at his father and told him that he was leaving his prestigious position to found an online start-up. His father, Bernard Richards, could only ask: “How are you going to make money on this? How are you going to take care of yourself?”
For all its financial uncertainty, though, the start-up promised to deepen Mr. Richards’s religious life. He was leaving Abyssinian to create a website called Roho — the Swahili word for spirit — that would both archive and disseminate videos of the sermons of black ministers. The site would also, in this era of analytics, compile data on how, when and why users viewed the sermons.
Now, a year later, Roho has 15,000 hours of sermons from several hundred ministers and draws 50,000 visitors a month. And, going to Bernard Richards’s fatherly worries, his son has raised $500,000 in venture capital from a cadre of African-American investors.
“It’s the whole idea of Spotify meets the word of God,” said the Rev. Dr. Charley Hames Jr., the senior pastor of Beebe Memorial Cathedral in Oakland, Calif., and one of the ministers featured on Roho.
“It’s a continuation,” said Dr. Lawrence Mamiya, an author of the authoritative history “The Black Church in the African-American Experience.” “Black churches got into radio technology quite early, in the ’20s, and when television came in, they got into that. The pastors who have become savvy with technology have tried to use it, putting information and sermons online. And collecting data from sermons is a real advance.”
Indeed, such technological disruption runs headlong into one of the proudest traditions of the black church — the aural and visual spectacle of what is called “the preaching moment.” The Sunday morning sermon in a black church typically runs 45 minutes or more, nearly the length of an entire service in a Roman Catholic or mainline Protestant church.
Many of today’s great black ministers come from elite divinity schools and can inflect their homilies with biblical historicity, Greek and Hebrew etymology, and the modern theology of Tillich and Niebuhr. But the classic sermon still consists of the old-fashioned “three points and a whoop.” (A whoop, for the uninitiated, is the preacher’s climactic moment of sung-spoken improvisation under the influence of the Holy Spirit.) And the relevant metrics are how many “amens” the congregation offers and how many sinners answer the call to the altar.
At the same time, as Dr. Mamiya noted, black churches have seized on the efficacies of the digital revolution. Churches use websites for everything from receiving tithes to teaching discipleship classes. Major congregations live-stream their services and upload their pastors’ sermons onto YouTube. And there are a handful of donation-supported websites that collate examples of black preaching, though often only as text from a geographical area.
Such was the church world as Mr. Richards experienced it during his graduate studies at Emory University in Atlanta and at Union Theological Seminary in New York, and in nearly a decade as an intern and then a staff member at Abyssinian. He had taught himself a bit of computer coding along the way, but never considered himself particularly tech-inclined.
Inspiration first flickered several years ago, when he delivered a sermon as the guest preacher for an out-of-town church. A congregant asked Mr. Richards if he could share a copy of the oration. And Mr. Richards came to realize that what the listener probably wanted was not just one sermon but access to many.
There was, to Mr. Richards’s knowledge, no single online repository for outstanding black sermons. So he spent a weekend in early 2014 building a rudimentary website with audio files of sermons. He then conscripted about a dozen of his college friends from Morehouse and Spelman to serve as a focus group to provide feedback. More formal test groups were assembled later.
Their recurrent response — we do not just want to hear a sermon, we want to be able to discuss it as an online community — encouraged Mr. Richards to start building that function, though it has not yet gone live. He has already taken his friends’ advice about making biblical passages and inspirational writings available on the site.
Mr. Richards’s beta testers also awakened him to the way a site like Roho could not only put out content but also collect data — about what kind of sermons people sought, about the demographics of users, about how long a viewer or listener would actually stick with a given sermon.
“I found this à la carte version of people experiencing their faith,” Mr. Richards recalled. “People want to choose. ‘I want a sermon about marriage, about 10 minutes long, and I want it at 2 in the morning on a Wednesday.’ ”
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