Lakeland, Auburn churches meld technology with 'timeless message'

The pastoral staff at Vineyard Church in Lakeland has employed a creative, modern solution to an age-old problem: how do you get people to church?

Lead Pastor John Elmer said that the staff found a core group of church members who were traveling to the Lakeland site from western Onondaga and Cayuga counties.

"The longer people have to drive, the less they become involved in the church," Elmer said. When the winter hit, many would stop attending church altogether.

But expanding the church to Auburn to serve this group would be expensive and would mean Elmer dividing his time between the two locations or hiring a lead pastor for the new church. Neither option was favorable.

"Those tensions were brewing in my mind and I started hearing about this new thing that was happening in different places around the country," Elmer said.

That "new thing" is called a multi-site church and it is in essence one church in multiple locations. For Vineyard, the concept relies on the use of technology.

At the Auburn location, at 360 Grant Ave., site pastor Chris Goral, of Marcellus, leads most of the Sunday morning service. When it comes time for the sermon, the lights are dimmed, a projection screen is lowered and a video of Elmer's sermon from the Saturday night service in Lakeland is played to the Auburn parishioners.

All other aspects of the service are live -- the Auburn site even has its own live worship band. Still, Elmer said the staff wasn't sure what to expect when the site opened Sept. 13.

A group of about 40 Lakeland members began attending in Auburn to help get the ball rolling, and so far, so good.

"It's done way better than we thought," Elmer said. In only a few weeks, the Auburn site was averaging around 120 people for Sunday service. Goral performed nine baptisms during one weekend in November, and an additional Sunday service will be implemented in the new year.

"We knew we had it in the first week, when I would say, 'oh, what's that word?' on the video message and people in Auburn were yelling out words," Elmer said.

And although Elmer is "not sold on the idea" of an Internet-based service, Vineyard has extended its embrace of technology. Visitors to the church's Web site, vineyardny.org, can listen to the weekly sermon online, and churchgoers can purchase CD copies of that week's sermon at Sunday service.

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