Pennsylvania pastor reaches out to students through pod-Gospels

Pennsylvania pastor reaches out to students through pod-Gospels
By Lawrence Souder
Move over 50-cent, Ani DiFranco, and Radiohead. Beverly Dale, campus minister for the Christian Association at the University of Pennsylvania, has a new kind of MP3 for students’ iPods. In September, Dale released her inaugural edition of a series of “pod-Gospels,” weekly 90-second podcasts that offer a Christian message to students by way of their iPods.
Dale, a web-savvy Disciples of Christ pastor, seeks to bring the message of progressive Christianity into the twenty-first century. Her pod-Gospels are short, concise personal messages that draw from Christian scriptures and are designed to speak to undergraduate students about issues that concern them. This semester her pod-Gospels will address such concerns as fitting in, homework deadlines, dating, and body image. About her approach Dale says, “I’m trained in and respect the traditional pulpit style of preaching, but I also see a great opportunity in the iPod technology to speak more personally to young adults. Podcasts combine the efficiency of broadcasting with the intimacy of one-on-one conversation.”
Dale sees her pod-Gospels as evolving from traditional televangelism in ways that avoid some of that venue’s more problematic aspects. Televangelism typically relies heavily on emotional appeals, frequently culminating in an altar call. The content often is a firm progression of ideas, the intent of which is to impose a certain way of thinking. According to Dale, this mode of delivery is irrelevant to today’s young adults, who resent such authoritarian and sometimes manipulative strategies.
After more than 15 years on campus, Dale realized that traditional televangelism was simply no match for today’s technologically enhanced youth. She read about the research of Michael Bull of the University of Sussex, who had studied the effects of iPods and other personal music players on their users. Bull discovered that because today’s students suffer a relentless daily assault of visual messages, they use iPods to create an auditory cocoon to keep the world out and reclaim their mental space.
Podcasting allows Dale to enter that mental space with a message and tone that respect the conditions the student has created. The medium of podcasting demands that she not shout at her listeners from the pulpit; rather, she literally whispers into their ears. The message of her podcasts does not impose a doctrine, but encourages listeners to seek out their own answers; entertain offbeat ideas; and generally be open to wondering about their spiritual lives. Dale hopes this strategy will normalize pastoral direction even for those who would never consider seeking a spiritual advisor.
Podcasting technology makes both the production and the reception of audio messages easy. To produce the pod-Gospels, Dale plugs a microphone into her laptop computer and creates an audio file in an MP3 format, which she then mounts on her organization’s website. To listen, students simply manually download the pod-Gospel from her website or subscribe to a special Internet server that monitors their chosen podcast sites for new audio files. When the server finds one, it automatically downloads it into the student’s iPod for playback on demand.
The public response to the pod-Gospels has encouraged Dale to continue podcasting. Statistics on rates of access to the pod-Gospels posted on the web show an average of 20 hits per day.
Students’ personal responses at the university are encouraging. Luke, an undergraduate, calls the medium “a great way to receive counseling.” Most comments, however, have been more about the quality of Dale’s voice and her use of music, which suggests to her that the audience values the experiential rather than the intellectual. This is exactly the reaction she hopes for. Says Dale, “When I record a pod-Gospel, I try to visualize a one-on-one conversation with students who come to me with difficult questions, even though I am actually broadcasting my message on the Internet. Since they are adults, I carefully point out some ideas for them to consider. I nudge them to consider that God is a resource. They can count on it.”
Souder teaches media ethics at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.