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News / Life / Clark County Life

Digital discipleship amplifies Crossroads Community Church’s message

Rev. Daniel Fusco’s jazz-riff videos engage with megachurch’s followers online

By Patty Hastings, Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith
Published: April 23, 2018, 6:31am
11 Photos
The Rev. Daniel Fusco, lead pastor at Crossroads Community Church, talks about Jesus during an Easter Sunday service. The Vancouver megachurch’s services, which are recorded and streamed live online, are viewed by people around the world.
The Rev. Daniel Fusco, lead pastor at Crossroads Community Church, talks about Jesus during an Easter Sunday service. The Vancouver megachurch’s services, which are recorded and streamed live online, are viewed by people around the world. (Natalie Behring for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

The Rev. Daniel Fusco sat on a couch in Crossroads Community Church’s prayer room facing two cameras, a microphone clipped to his shirt. He was filming his popular #2MinuteMessage videos where he talks about life through the lens of Jesus and the Bible.

“You know how you talk about giving love even when it hurts?” Jason Ritchie, executive pastor of creative arts, asked during a break between takes.

“Mmmhmm,” Fusco said.

And then he was off — speaking eloquently about the importance of showing love even when people hurt you, because that’s what Jesus did. The video ends at 1:59.94.

“The truest two-minute message, yet,” Fusco said.

The 42-year-old didn’t do video work before coming to Crossroads seven years ago and did not imagine that social media, television and what’s sometimes termed digital discipleship would be such a big part of being a pastor.

Megachurches like Crossroads are moving with the times and strategically engaging with followers online.

Fusco started doing short video messages about six years ago. He’d film himself at home on his iPhone early in the morning, at times whispering because his kids were still asleep. Now, a crew shoots #2MinuteMessage videos with professional equipment in quiet places around Crossroads’ Vancouver campus. They film 20 episodes at once, switching locations; Fusco changes shirts and “dreadlocks configuration” every handful of takes.

Evidently, it clicks with people. Last year, 2.6 million unique viewers watched the videos on Fusco’s Facebook page, where he’s got about 160,000 followers.

It sounds like a time-consuming endeavor, but Fusco spent about three hours on a recent Wednesday shooting a month’s worth of footage for online and television. There’s no teleprompter or cue cards. Ritchie thinks up topics or gets suggestions from viewers, and Fusco will jump in with, “I got one!” and then he riffs. Extemporaneous style.

“People say I don’t prepare, but I would say I spent my whole life preparing,” said Fusco, who’s been a pastor for 17 years.

“It’s like the jazz musician approach to speaking,” Ritchie said.

Riffing the Gospel

Fusco actually is a former professional jazz musician. He plays the electric and upright bass. Successfully riffing is all about knowing the material and the instrument — in this case the Bible — well.

“Your hope is that in the moment, God’s spirit will inspire the right words with all the right nuances to have the impact that you know God is trying to have with it,” Fusco said. “I think that a pastor’s job in some ways is to look at the world you’re living in and say, ‘How does Jesus bear on this?’ ”

His most-watched #2MinuteMessage was posted on YouTube and Facebook the day after the 2016 presidential election. In the video, he called for unity and for viewers to love people, even if they don’t agree with them politically.

“It has a lot of relevance to the way that we live and why we choose to do the things that we do,” Fusco said. “Jesus exists where all of us live, but I think sometimes the church can talk about Jesus in just a theological way.”

The Parkland, Fla., school shooting, the violent white nationalism rally in Charlottesville, Va., and the #MeToo movement are among the topics he’s broached. As a New Jersey native from a large, loud Italian family, Fusco said, he’s not good at being subtle.

“Obviously, you can’t really explain like the #MeToo movement in 120 seconds and get anywhere with it in a way that adds to the conversation, but you can talk about one aspect of it,” Fusco said.

Mega ministry

Crossroads Community Church is by all definitions a megachurch drawing worshippers from around the region. Every Sunday, the parking lot swells, and the nondenominational Christian church recently added a third service to accommodate the demand. A Portland campus opened last year. On Easter weekend, 8,050 people filled the pews, and another 15,000 or so viewed Easter services streamed live to Facebook.

In addition to its two physical campuses, Crossroads operates what’s called the internet, or online, campus. Next to the sanctuary is a room with several computers and televisions where people respond to those commenting online as they watch the service live. On Easter weekend, 3,000 people watched online at watch.crossroadslive.tv, where they could take notes, read the part of the Bible that Fusco was referencing, ask questions and request prayer.

“That just takes what we did on Sunday and it makes it louder,” Fusco said. “The message never changes, but the medium will continue to change.”

Dan Ewing pastors the online campus. During Sunday services, he stands off to the side of the stage with Koda Velardes and welcomes people watching online, briefing them on the day’s message. The kids ministry is broadcast live, too.

Ewing said nobody has totally figured out the “wild west” of digital discipleship. How do you minister through a computer screen? How do you host small groups or parenting classes online? Those are the questions Crossroads is trying to answer.

“When I came on two years ago with this, I scoffed at the idea,” Ewing said.

Text ‘ready’

Before Fusco came up to preach on a recent Sunday, Jason Ritchie asked those watching in person and online to check in or share the service on Facebook. Four people came to Jesus online at the last service, he said. Those who are ready to give their lives to Christ can text “ready” to Crossroads, and somebody will follow up with them.

Ritchie joined Crossroads’ staff in 1992, but he grew up with the church started in 1976 by his dad, Bill Ritchie. He was an early adopter in many ways: The church had a website in the early ’90s before everyone had websites, and they thought it was the coolest thing when they began streaming grainy video and audio, or when Bill Ritchie was on the radio.

What Crossroads realized is that pastors spend their time and energy preparing to teach on Sundays, but after the message is delivered, it’s gone. The online campus is part of Crossroads’ omnichannel — a cross-channel strategy for reaching current and potential members. It gives Sunday’s teachings more longevity and permanence. After all, Jason Ritchie said, a regular church attendee averages only 1.8 services per month.

“A lot of people will be like, ‘Well, I wasn’t in church today, but I caught it online,’ ” he said.

The online audience, he said, has become larger than the physical audience. People watch nationwide, but also worldwide: Canada, the Middle East, Asia, Africa, Europe and South America are among the places that light up their analytics.

Reaching out

Churches trying to reach as many people as possible through the mediums of the day is nothing new, said David Turnbloom, an assistant professor of theology at University of Portland.

In 1963, the Second Vatican Council released a decree “On the Media of Social Communications” that talked about spreading the good word on radio and TV. Archbishop Fulton John Sheen won an Emmy in 1952 for Most Outstanding Television Personality. For decades, church leaders have asked the question: How can we get our message out?

And that ‘how,’ the technologies people use and the culture of communication, has changed over time.

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“Christians haven’t been any different from that,” Turnbloom said.

The mediums vary from Crossroads’ slick social media presence to virtual churches where congregates pick an avatar and interact in a virtual worship space.

“Can we take that seriously? It’s easy to dismiss this from a traditionalist’s viewpoint,” Turnbloom said. “It’s not that it’s fake, it’s different.”

What’s important, Turnbloom said, is for churches to consider what’s lost and what’s gained when church moves online. The online audience can’t be part of a prayer circle happening before the service starts, or shake the hand of the person sitting next to them in the pew, or hear the hundreds of people singing along to a well-known worship song.

When he was a child, Turnbloom’s disabled mother couldn’t physically get to Mass some Sundays, but she was able to watch on TV. He remembers tuning in with his mother and seeing his father on the screen, attending church in person.

“Did my mother want to be there? Of course she did,” he said.

If something is stopping people from attending church in person, whether it’s distance or disability or a child sick at home, technology allows people to still catch a sermon and grow spiritually — albeit in a different way. Turnbloom thinks the prevalence of online services is only going to increase.

“It takes courage in ministry to be an effective pastor sometimes,” he said. “It’s in newness that we can see the light of the Holy Spirit acting.”

Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith