It’s a familiar scenario. A middle-aged pastor welcomes visitors and regulars to Sunday worship. Except in this case, nobody’s in a church.
The minister is in a sparsely attended coffeehouse/jazz club in Omaha, Neb., and most congregants are gathered around computer screens in their homes, scattered throughout the English-speaking world.
At 5 p.m. Central Time, coffee cup in hand, the Rev. Eric Elnes welcomes viewers to Darkwood Brew, an interactive Web television program that he describes as “a convergence point, online and offline, where people of faith and other spiritual seekers gather to find community and companionship as well as encouragement and inspiration for life’s journey through the dark wood.”
Elnes has a Ph.D. in biblical studies from Princeton and has served as senior minister of Countryside Community Church (UCC) in Omaha since 2008. Chris Alexander joined Countryside as associate minister in 2010, shortly before Darkwood’s first webcast on Jan. 2, 2011.
Each week, Elnes or Alexander guides viewers, aka “brewers,” through an unlikely landscape of Scripture, meditation, conversation with guests, chat rooms, killer jazz and communion.
The program’s name refers to both the coffeehouse setting and the Christian mystic belief that dark times can hold possibility.
Although Darkwood does not have a system for tracking viewership, a high-water mark came in February 2013 during a webcast in the “Evolving Universe/Evolving Faith” series, when its server crashed because it was overloaded with participants.
“There is room for Darkwood’s kind of expression,” said Jana Riess, an author who has twice been a guest on the show via Skype. “It’s especially helpful for people who might have issues with traditional church but keep trying and keep trying to figure out what all that means.”
Darkwood’s beginnings are both theological and practical. The theological “root system,” Elnes said, grows from the Phoenix Affirmations, a dozen principles articulating love of God, neighbor and self laid out in 2005 by representatives of what is often termed progressive Christianity.
The second “root system” Elnes identified is practical, responding to lay leaders’ concerns that while they were willing to lead adult education small groups, they lacked theological training and needed curriculum help, preferably in the form of DVDs.
Since its beginning, Darkwood Brew has packaged its multiweek series -- on topics ranging from the Beatitudes to business, from religious pluralism to environmentalism and, of course, convergence Christianity -- into DVDs called “guided episodes” with study guides for use by small groups.
Each episode features a guest -- some well-known, such as Phyllis Tickle, Brian McLaren, Nadia Bolz-Weber -- who shares his or her take on the “pneuma divina” a practice modeled on lectio divina in which they discuss and meditate upon appointed Scripture.
Riess said that being a guest on Darkwood “isn’t just being interviewed; it’s being a fellow pilgrim on a journey.” Viewers are encouraged to participate via live chat rooms.
Episodes are professional-looking -- the grant-funded set cost $250,000 to build -- yet with a let’s-put-on-a-show vibe. Each episode relies on a team of 50 volunteers to do everything from operating the four cameras to overseeing the chat room.
If someone accidentally blocks a camera shot, there’s no cutting away. A recent breakdown in the Skype connection merely shifted the conversation from Elnes and the guest to Elnes, Alexander and comments from the chat room.
Darkwood’s annual $200,000 budget to produce 52 episodes -- peanuts by television standards -- includes three part-time positions, funded by grants and contributions.
Elnes said that because the same Scriptures and themes are used on Sunday mornings at Countryside as on Sunday evenings, his and Alexander’s Countryside and Darkwood ministries are symbiotic.
Even though many of the program’s viewers are disaffected with organized religion, the majority attend traditional services on Sunday mornings in a variety of Christian denominations, Elnes said.
This reflects the trends for online worship in general, said the Rev. Dr. Anita Bradshaw, the interim associate conference minister of the Minnesota Conference, United Church of Christ, who recently studied such services, including Darkwood Brew.
Viewers watch and take part in different ways and for different reasons.
Amanda Musterman of Lexington, Ky., a former youth minister who left the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) denomination of her childhood to be confirmed as an Episcopalian, has recently begun watching Darkwood Brew. She sees it as a supplement to her Sunday morning worship.
“It can be as powerful a spiritual tool as the rosary or the labyrinth. But for me, Darkwood is not to be confused with or substituted for corporate worship,” she said.
Others experience Darkwood as corporate worship, in a modern iteration of house churches. The small groups of five to 25 members in places as diverse as California, North Dakota and Australia represent a variety of denominations, often within an individual group, Elnes said, and their members can usually be found in church on Sunday mornings.
The Sunday evening time slot also attracts those who lead morning worship.
“A surprising number of pastors tune in,” Elnes said. Clergy as well as laity find online worship services a “safe place,” Bradshaw said, and that is one of its primary draws.
The communion service that closes each Darkwood episode underscores the program’s sense of community.
“Probably the most helpful way in which we provoke this experience of being a participant and not a mere viewer is communion,” Elnes said. And, he said, it’s the portion of the program that people say they have appreciated the most.
Not everyone agrees; Musterman, the former youth minister, was surprised when "the host asked me to get my bread and wine ready for communion.
“The last time I checked, Christ gave us this amazing gift in an upper room surrounded by people he loved and intimately knew well,” she said. “Can this intimate meal be shared outside of community? Is it possible to be united in Christ’s body without a common body?”
But communion is not Darkwood’s only participatory element. Viewers also respond to the meditation portion of the program, which continues exploration of the pneuma divina. The once-occasional five-minute segment has expanded to 15 or 16 minutes and now relies on music instead of Elnes’ guided meditation.
“They have buckled on seat belts, taken a ride and are going where it’s going,” Bradshaw said. “A model like Darkwood Brew is going to be the way that churches engage online in the future. There is no question that churches are going to have to engage more with technology, and Darkwood Brew is leading the way.”