Becoming the Media:

Darkwood Brew at Countryside Community Church (UCC)

By Kathryn Reklis
December 31, 2011


This article was written as part of a case study on Darkwood Brew at Countryside Community Church for the New Media Project at Union Theological Seminary. The full report of this case study and more information about all the case study research are available on our website.

Somewhere outside Kansas City, Eric Elnes had an epiphany: progressive Christians couldn’t wait for the media to start profiling their work; they had to become the media. Three years later he started a weekly television show broadcast over the Internet from a studio built in the transformed lobby of Countryside Community Church, the United Church of Christ congregation he pastors in Omaha, Nebraska. The program is called Darkwood Brew (DWB) and incorporates very old spiritual practices with very new media technology. There is a live chat feature, where those watching in real time discuss the content, ask questions, share tidbits from their lives, and often joke around. DWB also has a Facebook page that gave birth to another closed Facebook group that supports more in-depth online spiritual reflection and personal sharing. The program is the first of what Elnes hopes will be many high quality online offerings to nurture a new Christian faith at www.OnFaithOnLine.tv, the “parent idea” behind Darkwood Brew.

Elnes got the idea for OnFaithOnLine.tv on a 144-day walk from Phoenix, Arizona, to Washington, D.C., a self-described pilgrimage to chart grassroots faith that defied liberal/conservative polarization. The core team of eight walkers ended their journey at Foundry Methodist Church a few blocks from the White House, where they delivered a copy of the Phoenix Affirmations—affirmations that were meant to chart a new course for open, inclusive, wise, and faithful Christianity based on the three great loves of the Christian tradition, love of God, neighbor, and self (see Eric Elnes, Asphalt Jesus: Finding a New Christian Faith Along the Highways of America, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007). Elnes and the team of people who labored to create CrossWalk America and to fund and support it hoped for big media coverage. They dreamed of their “seven minutes on 60 Minutes or two minutes on Good Morning, America, or even 30 seconds on CNN,” none of which materialized.

So on fire with the love of Christ, a love they knew in their bones was more capacious and freeing than most of us can imagine, they were ready for a second Reformation: a groundswell of Christians who would counter the vitriolic, hateful, narrow interpretation of the faith that garnered all the mainstream media attention. In their dreaming sessions, they imagined 500,000 gathered for the final celebrations in D.C. In reality, they were grateful for 300. They had transformative encounters with thousands of people along the walk, people who longed for and embodied a Christianity more nuanced and faithful to the commands of love than the stuff that makes it into a sound byte. Many of the folks they encountered were enlivened to discover a more organized expression of the faith they already lived, and it became apparent that any future revolution depended on spreading the word that they weren’t alone.

Enter Elnes’s epiphany: if traditional media wasn’t going to tell the story, they would have to do it themselves. Or, to be more accurate, the vision was always about more than just spreading the word or telling a story. It was about resourcing the grassroots Christian groups that Elnes and the Phoenix Affirmation walkers discovered in churches and home study groups from Higgins, Texas, to Columbus, Ohio. The epiphany was relatively simple. Internet technology, especially video streaming, was just reaching a point where it was widely accessible, affordable, and easy to use. CrossWalk America kept a blog that logged over 150,000 unique visitors—maybe not 60 Minutes statistics but not laughable either. Social networking was just beginning to take off, and the utopian idea of connecting across time and space via the web was starting to become a daily reality for millions of people.

The format of Darkwood Brew has evolved, but currently it might be described as a cross between a video news magazine, a coffeehouse Bible study, and a worship service. The DWB website describes the program as “a renegade exploration of Christian faith for the modern world…blend[ing] ancient contemplative practices with cutting-edge interactive web technology, world-class music, arts, biblical scholarship, and special guests from around the globe via Skype.” The program runs on a series model, each series tackling a different thematic topic or book of the Bible. So far, they’ve done biblical series on the Beatitudes, Galatians, and the Psalms and thematic series on universal salvation, the Lord’s Prayer, and hope.

Each week they tackle a different aspect of the theme and weave explicit reflection from Elnes or another pastoral staff member, video segments from YouTube or popular films, discussion of particular scripture or a book that is under examination, comments and questions from people posting on Facebook or via live chat, musical segments from a world-class jazz quartet, and an interview with a guest speaker via Skype. They are very explicit that this is an interactive worship gathering and encourage prayer and contemplation during the musical offerings throughout the program. The episode always concludes with communion. Those who are in the studio live share the elements together, and those watching online are encouraged to eat and drink whatever they have on hand to participate. Josh Sawyer, the social media pastor for DWB, moves the live chat along, asking questions and taking the chatters’ responses and comments to the live broadcast.

The funny thing about the Darkwood Brew project and the people who run it is that not one of them is particularly savvy about new media. Most are not early adoptors and even those with iPhones and iPads admit to barely scratching the surface of their capacity. They are on Facebook, but they mostly use it to promote or connect with Darkwood Brewers, and none of them Tweet or Meetup or check in at Foursquare. “I’m really quite media averse,” Elnes confesses to me somewhat sheepishly. “People perceive me as a big tech head, but I am highly resistant. My first reaction to new technology is to be skeptical and swear I will never use it. But I end up thinking about it so much because I am so resistant to it that then I often end up converted and using it, and people think I am an early adopter!”

Even more surprising, given our assumptions about new media and Millennials (ages 18 to 30) is the demographic of those Countryside parishioners who participate in Darkwood Brew. I expected to see young hipsters sipping lattes—maybe the tattooed young women with multiple piercings I overheard discussing the various fetish scenes of major U.S. cities in the Starbucks across the street. Instead, as one lay leader put it, you look out and “see a sea of gray.” Almost all the people who attend the program in person fall into the 40 to 60 age group or older. Then again, the Countryside parishioners who are most committed to the project don’t often experience it through the new media lens. With the exception of one parishioner, all the folks I talked to were adamant that the virtual component of the project was the least important to them. They would drive back to church every Sunday to attend the 5 p.m. program after worshipping at either the 9 or 11 a.m. services, but found it distracting to watch via live stream at home.

There are folks in Omaha, around the U.S., and in other countries across the world who do participate in DWB only over the web. The project is one year old, and there has not been any demographic surveying. The online analytics reveal the same kind of attendance fluctuation you’d expect in a brick and mortar church: attendance grew as the project gained momentum over the year and then slumped during the summer months when vacation presumably interrupted even online streaming commitments. On average, 50 to 60 computers log on each week to watch the program live. DWB staff know of some small groups who gather to watch the program together, so the actual body count might be higher (though they also concede that you can’t really account for folks who might turn the program on but come in and out of the room or let it play in a browser while surfing other sites). A few hundred more download the episode later in the week.

More than regular church attendance, viewership seems to spike and fall in proportion to the topic at hand. When Darkwood Brew took on the topic “If Love Wins…What Now?” based on Rob Bell’s controversial book that suggests the possibility of universal salvation, nearly 700 people downloaded episodes from that series in a given week. The “star power” of certain Skype guests and the traffic they generate reflects a new reality of online programming: people pick and choose their web content to a far greater degree than they vote with their attendance on an individual sermon topic at their local church. 

Statistics are an unsatisfying way to assess the success of the experiment, and not surprisingly Elnes and his team are wary of being judged by their download count. They are resourcing a reformation, not amassing followers on Twitter. But since that reformation isn’t going to take place in Omaha alone, the question of who they are reaching via new media, why they tune in, and to what effect, are not idle questions, not least because the project is facing a financial turning point. Darkwood Brew is currently funded by an impressive two-year grant from a private family foundation. The money paid for a substantial renovation of the Countryside church lobby into a coffeehouse with full espresso bar, leather chairs, and cozy bar-height tables. It also outfitted the church with state-of-the-art camera equipment and a production room to handle live editing. Over the two years, the funds cover four part-time salaries: project director, producer, assistant producer, and head engineer. When the grant money runs out, how will the project sustain itself? Will the viewers (or Brewers as they are affectionately called) pay for content? Will churches pay to download guided episodes to use in small group settings? Can they find new underwriters to float expenses?

Of course, the larger questions the project faces as it moves into its second year are whether or not it should continue and in what form. These are, given the nature of the project, deeply theological questions. I asked all the folks I talked with how they thought of the project in theological terms. The explicit level of theological reflection varied, but overwhelmingly, once they had thought for a while, everyone came back to missional and ecclesiological categories. For some, Darkwood Brew is a mission field for Countryside Community Church to reach the “spiritually homeless” or to provide resources for those seeking a more expansive and progressive understanding of Christianity. Others see this outreach in more ecclesial terms. They see Darkwood Brew as the third worship service of the church. Complementing the “Classical” service at 9 a.m. and the “Jazz” service at 11 a.m., DWB is the über-contemporary, new media service. Are the virtual participants scattered from Massachusetts to Uganda members of Countryside, then? Most I asked said yes, though those who think of DWB as missional outreach tend to think of it as its own church, of which the virtual participants are members. Interestingly, all the folks involved confessed that DWB couldn’t quite be church for them. They all needed a more “flesh and blood” encounter. As one lay leader put it: “I have real connections with the new people I’ve met on Facebook thanks to DWB. But church are the people I see on Sunday morning who will make you casseroles when you are sick or watch out for your kids.”

I shared these two categories of responses with Elnes over dinner the second night of my visit. He disagreed with both but laughed good-naturedly at the way different interpretations and meanings evolve for people involved in a project like this. For Elnes, it all goes back to the epiphany in Kansas City. The reformation is already taking place. People all over this country practice and long for a less polarized, more inclusive, more loving faith, and Darkwood Brew, and even more importantly OnFaithOnLine.tv, can provide resources to these people. There are tiny churches in North Dakota without a regular minister who have asked for guided episodes with study guides to use in small groups. There are groups meeting in living rooms in Higgins, Texas, and in Omaha who search out resources to challenge and strengthen their faith, even as they also attend more conservative churches on Sundays. There are the spiritually homeless who haven’t heard the good news that Christianity might be a home for them. Web technology and social media make it easier than ever before to provide needed resources for these communities and to connect them to each other. The goal is not to replace live communities or serve as a virtual church. Nor is it just for more and more individuals to tune in each week. The goal, as Elnes described it to me, are small groups of people, meeting face to face, finding sustenance in what they find online.

As I learned more about the vision behind Darkwood Brew, I kept thinking of it a little like the role that cheap printing played in fostering the Protestant Reformation. Not only did printing make Bibles more accessible to common people, but small printed theological pamphlets could be smuggled to dissenters in times of political oppression to feed the faith and succor the persecuted. At DWB, new and social media plays the role of these pamphlets, offering theological reflection and a sense of larger connection to those individuals or whole communities who feel isolated by fundamentalist interpretations and presentations of their faith.

But easy access to printed texts didn’t just nurture a growing faith; it transformed it. Hand in hand with easy access to print came increased literacy, which bore with it different kinds of mental and physical habits. Primarily oral cultures gave way to literate ones. The very habits of deep reading, individual reflection, and extended concentration over printed words and argument were not “natural” to human beings, or at least not something humans did in large numbers until relatively recently. Christianity changed as it adopted, embraced, and even helped promote the ethos of individual study based on deep reading. It is nearly impossible to imagine the Reformation slogan sola scriptura (scripture alone as a rule of faith) until you could assume all believers had access to a Bible. As reading became the central way people knew and grew in faith, faith became an increasingly individual affair, focused on assent to rational propositions more than a way of life woven into the fabric of a community.

It is too early to name all the ways in which new media technologies are rewiring us as human beings and therefore as religious beings in religious communities. It is relatively clear that for the Millennial generation and those even younger, the web is not a tool to accomplish other things. It is a mode of existence that has distinctive characteristics. Authority is decentralized on the web—we don’t need an expert to tell us the facts about something, we have Google and Wikipedia. Depth is not as important as breadth and interconnectivity—the web is exactly that, a web of hyperlinks, taking us rapidly across huge bodies of content. Likewise, we don’t get lost in discrete objects (like one book or one movie)—we get lost in the connections between objects (one website leading to another to another). We consume actively, or help create that which we consume—we don’t watch live TV as much as we watch YouTube videos, most of which were made by other users just like us. We have strong community on the web, but we don’t distinguish between virtual and live reality—our digital reality is contemporaneous with our non-digital reality because, thanks to smartphones and wireless, we are almost never not connected.

If this is at least a partial description of the new media mode of existence, then it will become increasingly difficult to use new media merely as a tool to accomplish something in a different mode of existence. In other words, for a program like Darkwood Brew to exist in the new media and social media sphere, it must decide if it is in that world, or of it. Right now, DWB is in the new media world. It uses the platforms of video streaming and Facebook to deliver content that is still largely beholden to significant material conditions (a beautiful studio, first-rate equipment, 40 active volunteers, a paid social media pastor) and driven by people who do not inhabit the new media frame of mind as described above. Especially among younger generations, the idea of viewing a one-hour program live every week or even downloading and watching it in segments might seem a little too much like old media in a new package.

The folks at Darkwood Brew are not unaware of these challenges. The larger vision for OnFaithOnLine.tv may address some of the central new media modes: allowing users to create and upload content, serving as a clearing house for various programs that can be discovered from multiple access points online. They aspire, however, to be more than just another short-format video producer aiming for a viral video hit. They want to resource a reformation in Christianity, and they believe deeply that there are hundreds of thousands of people who need the theological and spiritual resources they want to share. The task now is to figure out how those who don’t just use but live new media will receive those resources. To truly be of the new media mode of existence, Darkwood Brew may have to change beyond recognition, and that is not necessarily something it should or will consider.

One clue to a possible future direction for Darkwood Brew might be found in the surprising number of pastors who faithfully watch or download the program. Via Facebook interaction, they have identified five to six pastors of other congregations who participate regularly. As DWB producer Scott Griessell said: “This may not be a large number, but given that we have about 12 to 15 active chatters and Facebook posters, it may not be statistically irrelevant at all.” Reaching out to pastors and tailoring content and format to equip pastors may turn out to be a promising and missionally appropriate avenue for future growth. It may be that resourcing pastors is a ministry Darkwood Brew is uniquely equipped to do, even if this is not what they intended when they began. As other case studies in the New Media Project make clear, pastors living in a social media mode are most effectively going to reach their congregants who live in that mode too. But even those pastors need resources to nurture their faith and prepare for the coming reformation.

Kathryn Reklis, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is the Executive Director of the Institute for Art, Religion, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D candidate in religious studies, concentrating in theology, at Yale University.

The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact newmediaproject@cts.edu.

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