Osteen during a 2012 interview with Matt Lauer on NBC News' Today show. (Peter Kramer/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)
Halfway through megapastor Joel Osteen's sermon at Marlins Park stadium, seven frazzled people sitting in a press box overlooking the field realize they have a problem: The prayers aren't going through.
"I can forward 'prayer' to 'prayer request,'" volunteers a member of Osteen's technical staff as a possible fix. He fiddles with the trackball of his BlackBerry as he tries his best to reassure Osteen's marketing director, Jason Madding, that they can redirect people's emailed prayers to the proper place and prevent them from disappearing into the digital ether.
Hunched over a MacBook, Madding flips back and forth between a Skype chat and a page tracking traffic to Osteen's sites. He coordinates with a remote team of developers as he monitors the popularity of Osteen's page to gauge whether the surge of visitors will overwhelm the servers and bring down the site.
On the field below, a musician blows two long blasts from a ram's horn while drums thump in the background. "Every day has your name on it," Osteen shouts to the crowd.
Osteen, a 50-year-old Texas native with an impeccable complexion, thick head of dark hair and a gleaming white smile, is the pastor of the largest church in America. On this April night in Miami, nearly 36,000 cheering people have gathered in the stands of the stadium to hear him speak. But for Madding, the crucial action is playing out on an iPad propped on a desk in front of him: He is watching the live stream of the pastor's sermon as it appears to audiences who are tuning in from home -- a group numbering more than 138,000. They are absorbing Osteen's "Night of Hope," a gathering of evangelical Christians aimed at strengthening people's commitment to Christ, swaying non-believers and spreading Osteen's message of self-improvement through Christianity.
Madding's iPad displays a ceaseless stream of comments from those taking part from their homes around the world -- people grappling with illness, joblessness, loneliness, despair and suicidal thoughts; people seeking comfort, prayer and fellowship here. These participants are not inside the stadium, but in an expanded gathering that connects the experience of those here in the flesh with those online.
Over the course of this night, Osteen's team of social media consultants confronts the formidable task of making that synergy happen. They struggle to keep up with the relentless flood of digital interaction. In life, prayers may or may not be realized. But in the social media realm of the Night of Hope, all prayers must be answered.
Osteen's staff has instructed online congregants to post prayers to his Web site or phone prayers to a 1-800 number. They've also provided an email address -- email@example.com -- assuring digital participants that the church has dedicated prayer partners on hand who will field their missives and pray for them.
But at this moment, those emailed entreaties have no prayer of reaching anyone. The email address Osteen's helpers have supplied is the wrong one. It's an address that doesn't exist -- the staff was meant to offer up "firstname.lastname@example.org." Thanks to the error, an automatically generated email reply is informing the faithful that delivery of their prayers has "failed permanently."
"It bounced back," types one of the people in the chat room, who has tried to email from her home in Canada. "I need your prayers."
She tersely summarizes her feelings about the situation: "=(."
The Original Social Media
Social networking sites, long celebrated as avenues for up-to-the-minute information from friends, pundits, celebrities and corporations, are now being deployed in the spirit of higher powers. They have emerged as vehicles for spiritual salvation.
Increasingly, the road to Damascus is a hyperlink and the Epistle is a tweet.
In some sense, this seems inevitable. The Internet is effectively doing for present-day pastors what television once did for Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart and the rest of the so-called televangelists: helping them spread Christianity on a mass scale while liberating their congregations from the confines of the physical church.
Beyond the tens of millions of viewers who can be reached via television broadcasts, the Web has amplified the potential audience to the hundreds of millions, while transcending geographic boundaries. Pastors need not concern themselves with buying TV time in the appropriate markets. They can instead use tweets, streaming video, podcasts and Facebook status updates -- free, accessible anytime and widely shared -- to turn hearts and shepherd their flock. And while TV is a one-way form of communication, the Internet enables interaction, letting ministries converse with the people tuning in.
"Thirty years ago, televangelists used technology that did not exist before then to spread their message, and that is essentially what technology is allowing pastors and churches to do now," said Todd Rhoades, the director of new media and technologies at the Leadership Network, which seeks to help churches master technical innovation. "But it's on a much larger scale and in many ways it's on a more individual scale -- it seems a lot more personal."
Social media brand managers would pay dearly for fans as active as the followers that religious groups have attracted online. On social networking sites, megapastors' fan bases are considerably smaller than those of pop stars or big brands, but church followers tend to be far more engaged and apt to spread the word of their preachers.
Religious groups regularly rank among the top five most-discussed fan pages on Facebook, according to PageData, a social media analytics firm. Rihanna, the most popular public figure on Facebook with over 70 million "likes," averaged 41,000 interactions per Facebook post during the month of March, reported Quintly, an analytics firm that registers shares, comments and "likes" as individual interactions. Joel Osteen Ministries, with a relatively paltry 3.6 million "likes," averaged 160,000 interactions per post, Quintly found -- nearly four times Rihanna's average, three times Justin Bieber's and almost sixteen times the White House's.
Evangelical Christians and social media creators ultimately share something fundamental in common: Both are consumed with the nature of how information spreads, and both are intent on fashioning a sense of community out of individuals separated by time, space, language and culture. Both also passionately apply themselves to filling what they view as a void in the human experience.
"Religion is the original social media," says Jonah Berger, author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On. "Even that phrase, 'spreading the gospel.' Religion is one of the original things that people shared to a good degree."
Osteen has long harbored aspirations of reaching enormous numbers of people. Early in his career, when he published his first book, Osteen's public relations team pitched him as "Billy Graham meets Tony Robbins." His message of positive thinking and attaining personal prosperity through Christianity has attracted both devout followers and strident critics, who argue he preaches a watered down version of the Bible that overemphasizes material wealth. But his breed of self-empowerment evangelicalism -- "Be a victor, not a victim," "[God] wants us to enjoy every single day of our lives" -- has proved so popular, Osteen delivers his song-filled sermons to traveling Night of Hope events held monthly in different cities around the world. He's also authored several bestsellers and reaches 10 million homes a month via his weekly TV broadcast. He has a passion for television and doesn't seem to have ever met a camera he didn't like. "TV is Joel's heart," notes Madding.
But seeing new opportunities to expand his following and spread his brand of inspiration, Osteen has lately sought to master a new field: digi-vangelism.
In his telling, social media enables him to "impact more people in a positive way" -- an impact he no doubt hopes will ultimately tether believers and non-believers closer to his congregation (and maybe even sell some of his books or DVDs along the way).
Other churches, like Oklahoma's evangelical LifeChurch, have been more ambitious and creative with their approaches to technology, though none can yet rival Osteen's reach.
And Osteen, born in an era where the dominant screen was a television, not a computer, is facing some of the same challenges other churches are confronting as he attempts to update his message for the Facebook era. Larger churches have traditionally been technology's early adopters, and smaller congregations are likely to crib from Osteen's social media strategy.
Here's where devotees can currently find Osteen online: YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, on podcasts, delivered to their email inboxes, as a blog on JoelOsteen.com, livestreamed via his website, in an iPad magazine and, coming soon, on two standalone iPhone apps. To handle the deluge of prayer requests posted to Osteen's Facebook wall and phoned into his church, Joel Osteen Ministries has even launched a dedicated site, Pray Together, where people can post prayer requests for the ministry's entire congregation to respond to. Just click "pray" to pray.
"It's kind of like -- are you familiar with Reddit or Digg?" asks Brian Boyd, the chief executive of Media Connect Partners (or MCP), a social media consultancy that assists Joel Osteen Ministries with their with day-to-day online outreach efforts, as well as their Night of Hope events. "You can vote a prayer request up or down, and actually pray."
Some evangelical Christians view these developments with alarm, decrying what they portray as an insincere reach for souls with social media and a trend that could undermine the draw of in-person gatherings of people in one place. Evangelical Christian pastor John MacArthur railed against "flat screen preachers" in a 2011 interview with Christianity.com, declaring their form of ministry an "aberration" that moved "away from the core of sound doctrine."
But Osteen's social media consultants maintain they have witnessed the faithful finding real fellowship and solace in a virtual setting.
"You don't have to sign up for an email, you don't have to go to church, and you don't have to go out and find it: you can literally log onto your computer or your phone, and you can get the encouragement or inspiration that you need," says Kelly Vo, a twenty-something social media analyst manager with MCP who helps Osteen, along with other Christian figures, on his web strategy. "People share things on social media, with Joel, that I don't think people would even share with their pastor in person."
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SOURCE: The Huffington Post