The Rev. Bruce Walker preaches to a congregation of fewer than 100 people in Greenville, S.C., but people all over the world listen to his sermons via podcast.
Evangelists have long used the airwaves to get their messages out to a mass audience. But now, podcast technology is opening the doors to a wider variety of religious teaching than ever before, available on demand and delivered automatically to the computers of a growing number of Americans hungry for spirituality.
A survey last year by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that more people used the Internet to look for religious and spiritual information than to download music, participate in online auctions or visit adult websites.
And a list updated recently by the podcast directory Podcast Alley shows 2,462 podcasts in the religion and spirituality category, the fourth highest among 21 categories, and more than in sports, news and politics.
"The good news about podcasts is this is probably another example of religious traditions trying to keep alive and relevant," says David Roozen, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.
But a possible downside is the higher probability of teachings of questionable quality. "There can be charlatans out there," he says.
Israel Anderson, a software designer in Denver who operates a free site called God's iPod, screens all podcasts submitted to him and weeds out most.
Part of what's driving the popularity of religious podcasts is dissatisfaction with organized religion, Anderson says. "If you're in a home church or go primarily for fellowship but your church isn't particularly good at teaching, a podcast is a good way to hear from a wide variety of people."
Pastors find listeners
Podcasting also is an inexpensive way for pastors to extend the reach of their teaching beyond the walls of their own place of worship.
Walker pays $29.99 a month to a company called SermonAudio.com, which allows him to upload as much audio for podcasts as he wants.
More than 1 million sermons are accessed each month from the site. It's owned and operated by Steven Lee, a Korean-born graduate of Bob Jones University.
"We definitely try to bill ourselves as an economical way to reach a large number of people," says Lee, a computer programmer and graphic designer who runs his site from an upstairs room in his home in Simpsonville, S.C.
His latest venture is the addition of a program that allows access to his sermon library by iPhones and iPods to view video as well as listen to audio.
The site, which has what Lee calls the world's largest MP3 sermon library (nearly 170,000 sermons), also includes a searchable online hymnal, devotional materials and Bible search tools, among other digital goodies.
Lee started the site because he realized that many churches, including his own, had been posting sermons on their websites, but nobody other than church members and the few people who might stumble upon the site knew they were there.
"I wanted to create a site that would be a platform for small churches like ourselves to reach a much larger audience," he says.
Not just for Christians
Most of the podcasters on the site are pastors of small churches that can't afford traditional media such as radio and TV.
Walker, pastor of an independent non-denominational congregation that shares space with another church, says 7,000 to 8,000 of his sermons have been downloaded by listeners all over the world.
"We have monthly listeners from probably about 35 different states, all the English-speaking countries of the world and even some non-English-speaking countries," he says.
SermonAudio.com, which also has foreign-language sermon podcasts, requires podcasters to affirm belief in a fundamentalist Christian statement of faith. But Christianity isn't the only religion being disseminated by podcasts.
Rabbi Eli Garfinkel, spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Somerset, N.J., a Conservative Jewish congregation, says he draws listeners from as far away as Italy, Argentina and Israel on his podcast, RabbiPod.
"I've been working on teaching the Torah in an accessible manner for a long time, and when the podcast technology was invented, it just seemed like a natural," he says.
GodTube, a Christian alternative to YouTube that has about 2 million users a month, allows only Christian podcasts and screens all videos to make sure they're "family friendly." But it gives preachers plenty of latitude on their sermons, says Jason Illian, chief strategy officer in charge of content.
"A lot of people come on first of all because of what their church or ministry is doing, but then they also surf around to see what other churches or ministries are doing and see how they can be involved," he says.
In a month or two, GodTube plans to launch a program that will allow churches to set up their own social networking homepages and post slide shows and audio, he says.
The easy access to religious teaching from podcasts probably won't keep people from church, just as TV and radio didn't hurt church attendance, says Roozen, the Hartford Institution director.
One concern, though, is that the religion at the flip of a switch could easily become self-absorbed.
"The fear is when religion becomes so totally self-centered, you run the real risk of self-interested biases creeping in that may destroy the religious tradition," he says.
In some cases, though, a good podcast might be better than a traditional passive church experience, says Don Chapman, who operates a website called WorshipIdeas, which offers tips for contemporary church worship leaders.
"A lot of people just go to church and sit there passively and listen to a talking head give a sermon and leave," he says.
"So in that instance, how is that any different than listening to a podcast passively?"
Barnett reports for The Greenville (S.C.) News.