ENID, Okla. (AP) — According to streaming technology provider Media Fusion, five times more people watched church online on Easter in 2017 than did the year before.

The statistic is one of the few metrics available to track the growth of online church and the proliferation of social media in houses of worship. Locally, several churches are embracing technology in a variety of ways, including streaming services.

Brad Mendenhall, lead pastor at World Harvest Church, said his church streams one of its two Sunday services live every week.

"We stream on our website, and we also just started streaming on Facebook Live," Mendenhall said. "We're reaching about 40 computers on the website and 150 viewers on Facebook."

One of the difficulties of tracking viewer numbers is that streaming services can log IP addresses of connected computers but not the number of people watching the stream, so an entire family gets counted as one computer.

Mendenhall said World Harvest has been streaming live for several years, and most viewers are members of the church who are out of town or cannot attend for other reasons, like illness.

"We also get participation from people who have moved away and want to remain connected to Enid or the church," Mendenhall said. "We have one man who watches from England."

At Emmanuel Baptist Church in Enid, two of the three Sunday morning services are streamed live from the church's website. Like World Harvest, Emmanuel gets viewers from around the country and in a few other countries, the Enid News & Eagle reported . Lead pastor Wade Burleson said many of the viewers consider themselves members of Emmanuel.

"We respond to their needs like we would any other member," Burleson said. His comment anticipates a common criticism of online church — that it is not the same as actual, physical membership and leads to less relationship formation.

"Many of our 'echurch' viewers are gathering in small groups to watch," Burleson said. "They may not have a teaching gift in the group, so they may use our service for the sermon. That seems to me like what the early church did, meeting house to house. It encourages relationship."

Burleson said Emmanuel is reaching 100-125 computers a week on its streams and an unknown number on Facebook, where the worship team posts music videos, many of which are shared beyond Oklahoma.

"We see the videos getting shared by large entities like Bethel Church or Hillsongs Australia, so we're making connections with groups from all over the world," Burleson said.

Mark McAdow became the pastor of Willow View United Methodist Church in June 2017. His church is working with some of the challenges congregations face when they move into digital technology: volunteer staff, access and understanding of digital platforms and technical issues.

"We are videotaping the services for now," McAdow said. "We have sound issues that need to be worked out before we can stream services. I'm hoping to have it resolved within the next month."

Like many churches, Willow View hopes to use more technology moving forward, and all three pastors affirmed a belief that technology will continue to grow in importance over the next several years.

In a world in which 25 percent of Americans listen to podcasts and billions of people around the planet are on social media, it's impossible to ignore reality for an ancient faith.

"I think digital church is the future," Burleson said, "and churches that don't adapt are going to lose people."

___

Information from: Enid News & Eagle, http://www.enidnews.com