Monday, March 25, 2024

Logging On for LGBTQ Liturgy: Sunshine Cathedral’s Digital Devotion 

by Colleen Hill | Hartford Institute for Religion Research

Bloomfield Congregational Church, CT Photo by Colleen Hill

Amid the upheaval of COVID-19, religious congregations turned to cutting-edge technologies like multi-platform live streaming and virtual communities to transcend barriers, promote inclusion, and deliver messages of affirmation and belonging to a global audience. 

According to Exploring The Pandemic Impact on Congregations research from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, in 2015—just eight years ago—when congregational leaders were asked about their opinion on the use of internet technologies like email, social media, texting, etc., 30% of them said “[these technologies] can be quite helpful but aren’t really crucial for the congregation’s vitality or success.” Five years later, enter COVID-19 and suddenly many congregations had no choice but to implement these technological tools to survive. 

One of these congregations that has implemented technology as a tool for survival is Sunshine Cathedral, located in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Broadcasting from the self-proclaimed “gayest place on Earth,”, Sunshine Cathedral is a unique congregation that focuses on fostering an inclusive and affirmative environment for members of the LGBTQ+ community. Through sermons, community outreach, and tailored resources, it cultivates a space that embraces and celebrates queer identities within a church setting.  

When they first began streaming their services, Sunshine Cathedral had a one-camera set up, and would post their recorded sermons hours after they had finished. Now, with the help of Happening Out Television Network, this congregation has a professional broadcast stream on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, On Demand, ROKU, Apple, and HOUTV for folks to watch at home on their televisions.  

“It’s kind of like watching the original Star Trek, compared to the latest Star Trek,” says the Rev. Robert Griffin, on the “then and now” comparison of Sunshine Cathedral’s live broadcast development. Now with a professional broadcast team, Sunshine Cathedral averages around 200,000 viewers total per week across all platforms.  

Technology plays a crucial role in religious congregations. It enables most congregations to conduct worship services online, while some congregations utilize it for various programmatic activities. Additionally, technology is extensively employed in regular operational tasks. According to EPIC’s latest “The Continuing Impact of Technology on Congregations”– report, over the past three years, there has been a noticeable surge in the adoption and utilization of technological tools. This includes the introduction of new technologies and increased reliance on previously implemented ones. According to EPIC data, in 2023 around three-quarters of religious congregations had implemented online or virtual worship services. Most of these congregations were utilizing this digital format on a weekly basis. On the contrary, before the 2020 pandemic, only about 45% of congregations were live streaming their worship services online, and of that 45%, just half were frequently or consistently broadcasting their services via live stream. 

Opening Sunshine Cathedral services to a professional livestream has opened the gates of accessibility for their congregation. Many of their 200,000 viewers stem from all over. To expand their services beyond a Florida audience, Sunshine Cathedral offers a special membership community known as their ‘global fellowship’ for online attenders to participate in their congregation. 

“We do this call out of welcoming people from online and it’s amazing to hear these people from China, Russia, Mexico, on a cruise ship somewhere sailing,” says Griffin. “People take us wherever they go, and some people find us in some remote areas. It is always fascinating that we can launch right into where people may not be so progressive as we are, and they can find a progressive ministry.” 

Global fellowship members can not only attend online services but participate in many religious education classes, events, and workshops offered by their congregation.  

Dr. Scott Thumma, the director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research says that this global attention that Sunshine Cathedral has developed doesn’t come as a surprise.  

“When a church has a distinctive niche in the religious landscape, combined with a professional and polished product, it is quite possible to garner a large national or even international audience and following,” Thumma says. “Once this happens, and ‘buzz is generated’ that influence alone can propel the message and platform to greater impact and reach”.  

Research conducted by EPIC highlights that Sunshine Cathedral is an outlier among its congregational counterparts. The majority of congregations (56%) rely on a single platform for streaming their services, while nearly one-third (31%) employ two platforms. Remarkably, a substantial 13% utilizes three or more platforms, akin to Sunshine Cathedral, for facilitating virtual worship services.  

Sunshine Cathedral has found a way to use technology that will reach an audience beyond Fort Lauderdale, who appreciates a safe space.  

“I always think about that one little kid somewhere in the world, who has not been able to come out or has not been able to hear good news, because they are afraid to be where they are. And they’re like, under a blanket watching us on an iPhone because they don’t have anything else,” says Griffin. “That’s the importance and awareness of the powerful witness and the president of technology that we have that we can get right to where people need us most when they can’t get to us or don’t have another safe place to go to, they can get to us via technology.”