Grace Episcopal Church is taking the Star Trek route, going boldly where no church has gone before.
The congregation recently became the first in the Episcopal Diocese of East Tennessee to webcast its complete service. In a month or so, it will host an Episcopal channel through the Roku streaming video network so other congregations can broadcast their services.
"Nobody else has thought to do this," said Mark Siedlecki, the church's junior warden.
To facilitate the webcasts and the Roku channel, the church has modified the church balcony for an audio/video booth.
Siedlecki said he wanted to have the church service webcast for some time, but "the time was never really right to make it happen."
With the presence of the Rev. Susan Butler, the church's new priest-in-charge, Siedlecki said, "It would be a waste to let [our congregation] be the only ones to hear her."
The webcasts, which are accessed through Grace's website (www.saygrace.net), began with the congregation's 2010 Christmas Eve service.
While Butler said they began as an outreach to the church's homebound members and nursing-home residents, they are paying additional dividends.
The Christmas Eve service was seen in Scotland by a relative of one of the Christmas Eve musicians, she said, and her father in Pennsylvania got to watch the services after he fell and broke a hip. She said he has even joked about being able to fast-forward through the parts he doesn't want to see.
"I'm surprised at how far and broad the reach has [been]," she said. "It's been some crazy stuff. I'm surprised how it's served to connect families."
Nonmembers and members who are sick or on vacation also can experience the services with just a click on the website link, Siedlecki said.
"We live in a different time from when Grace was built," he said. "Now, we have people [who] want to celebrate church in their own way. Some [nonmembers who watch] may never come. Others we hope will over time as they watch the service."
While the church has heard from people who viewed the webcasts as far away as Africa, Siedlecki said, he's excited residents at Episcopal-related St. Barnabas Senior Living Services will have access to the broadcasts.
He said the church bought St. Barnabas facilities Roku video players so they can watch on the big-screen televisions they already have.
Siedlecki said Grace's 14-member media team can upload a webcast service file within two and a half hours of the service, but circumstances often delay it. However, it's always ready to watch no later than 6 p.m. on the day of the service, he said.
The cost for churches to webcast their services on the Episcopal channel will vary according to the amount of audio and video equipment the churches have, he said.
It won't cost anything to become a part of the channel, Siedlecki said, but a minimum equipment investment is likely to be around $2,000. Depending on the quality chosen, he said, "the sky's the limit on [maximum] cost."
"We'd love to have as many join in as possible," he said.