|t was 2001 and Gary Saunders had a problem. He wanted to watch the morning news but needed to be at work at 6:00 a.m. “I would start to watch, but had to leave,” he recalls. So he set up a server in his house, commandeered the cable signal, and streamed it across the Internet to his work computer.
When he showed his friends this clever workaround, one of them—Paul Graham, who pastored two churches in New York at the time—gave him some dusty VHS tapes that contained his sermons and asked Saunders to put them online. Saunders stored the material on his home server, which he connected to Graham’s ministry Web site, where viewers watched it on demand.
Another problem solved.
“Though the technology was there, it was new in 2001, and not too many people were using it,” Saunders recalls, acknowledging how implausible that now seems. “Paul saw the potential before I did.”
Though Saunders didn’t know it, this was really the precursor of a ministry God was leading him to start—one where people would be drawn to Christ through technology.
A Friendship Is Born
God didn’t wait long before He orchestrated the next step. Saunders, sole proprietor of GS Web Media and a member of Mt. Vernon Seventh-day Adventist Church in Mt. Vernon, New York, became director of the nearby Westbury church’s choir where he met and started dating Keisha Anderson (now his wife). Her best friend, Erica Dizárd, was also trying to problem-solve. Her brother, Damian “Chip” Dizárd, an active member at Miracle Temple Worship Center in Baltimore, Maryland, was planning a seminar called “Web as a Ministry” to help churches, Webmasters, and technology gurus harness the potential of the Internet for ministry. The founder and creative director of a 2-year-old Web design company called Absolute Presence was looking for someone to present a workshop about video streaming. The women connected the men. Not only was another problem solved, a friendship was born. And as God would have it, a ministry would soon follow.
The seminar attracted 40 people, some of whom attended a workshop by Web developer Terrence Bowen. Though he had earned a degree in aircraft maintenance, Bowen lived in New Jersey and mastered computer technology at Federal Express. In 1999, at the dawn of the Web site boom, he launched Bowen Web Services “as a side business and a ministry,” and helped Northeastern Conference, Greater New York Conference, the Atlantic Union Conference, and numerous New York churches develop a Web presence. There were so many, in fact, that he can’t recall them all.
He does, however, recall the result: “I didn’t realize how many people see your work and how much of an impact it has,” he says. “Chip saw my work, and we started working together. Then this guy ripped one of my sites,” he laughs. “It was Gary! I e-mailed him and we started talking and doing projects.”
A Ministry Is Born
All three met in person for the first time at Dizárd’s seminar in Baltimore and, with input from Ron Reeves, an Allegheny East Conference pastor and radio station owner, decided to pool their talents to expand Saunders’ sermons-on-demand concept to include live streaming.
Their initial plan was simple: Saunders would secure church clients and set up the streaming process, Dizárd would design the Web sites, and Bowen would develop the infrastructure and program each site.
“Initially, we had four churches online,” Saunders says. “Miracle Temple was the first, followed by Mt. Rubidoux [in Riverside, California], Mt. Vernon in New York, and Hanson Place in Brooklyn, [New York].”
During the next two years the partnership grew as others came on board. By 2004 the trio was streaming and archiving services for a number of churches. Dizárd suggested they funnel all their clients through one portal so viewers could go to one Web site—something they learned was already being modeled in the southern United States by a ministry called Church Pond. “We added a news aspect, announcements, and devotionals,” Saunders explains.
They launched Praizevision.com (the “s” had already been taken) on February 1, 2005, with the motto “Where Technology Meets Worship and Praise,” but quickly morphed from only streaming programs to producing them. “We created our own shows, interviewing renowned gospel artists such as Fred Hammond, Kierra ‘KiKi’ Sheard, and Richard Smallwood, as well as Adventist leaders such as Trevor Baker (president of Northeastern Conference), evangelists E. E. Cleveland (now deceased) and C. D. Brooks, and musician T. Marshall Kelly,” notes Saunders.
While Miracle Temple member Fabian Morrison covers many of the entertainment interviews through a show called Artist Spotlight, Shaunee Wallace, Ph.D., hosts Praizevision Today from the Ephesus church in Harlem, New York. This 30-minute program, which Saunders would like to syndicate, features current events and includes man-on-the-street interviews. There are also commercials, the PraizeBlog, PVTV, and a link to The Christian JukeBox, an Adventist-run, online radio station.
His cell phone rings frequently, prompting him to share another innovative aspect of Praizevision, one that none of the team imagined in the beginning—live streaming of major church events. “We’re going to do a Sabbath School Federation for Northeastern Conference, and we’re coordinating the production plan,” he explains, after the interruption. “We do camp meetings, youth congresses, and funerals, most recently that of E. E. Cleveland from Oakwood University [in Huntsville, Alabama].”
In addition to these services, the group discovered that many of these churches, conferences, and ministries wanted more than streaming capability. They needed help producing high-quality programs to stream. “We’re a full-fledged media production company,” says Saunders. “We’ve become a one-stop-shop for consulting, Web development, marketing, streaming, video production, live video production, postproduction and editing, and graphic and Web design.”
When a church calls, Saunders makes a site visit to determine what equipment is needed to make them “television-ready.” Then he sets it up and trains church members to run it. At Mt. Sinai in Orlando, Florida, for instance, he helped the church get three cameras, a video mixer, a video matrix, and other necessary items. Then they linked the video and audio systems to ensure quality sound. “Most churches have equipment but want a higher quality production,” he explains. “We help them achieve that.”
Interestingly, as from the beginning, the Praizevision team rarely meets in person. “It’s kind of weird,” laughs Dizárd. “Until recently, I hadn’t seen Terrance in a long time. We all communicate by e-mail, texting, monthly phone conferences, ‘Go to Meeting’ [sessions], and [in-person] meetings about twice a year.”
With technology, it’s really not necessary to be in the same place.
As founder and CEO, the New York-based Saunders, 32, works with clients, oversees the administrative functions (churches pay a monthly subscription fee), and handles streaming and technical support.
Bowen, 41,who now lives outside Atlanta and works full-time as a maintenance trainer for Atlantic Southeast Airlines, still manages development and programming, and updates content, banners, flyers, and advertisements.
From Baltimore, Dizárd, 38, handles marketing and video editing, and posts announcements and news. He also assists in getting new churches online.
To handle the 32 churches Praizevision streams from coast to coast, they added two partners—Levon Hannah of Hannah Enterprises in Huntsville, Alabama, who manages the South; and Travis Tramel of Trinity Web Media, who represents Praizevision’s interests in the West.
There are also a number of other church members in
various places who support the ministry, including George Johnson, Jr., associate director of communication for the North American Division. On several occasions he has served as a reporter when Praizevision covered major church events and camp meetings. “No longer do you have to wait until Wednesday night prayer meeting or Sabbath worship to hear inspiring messages,” he says, adding that access to these programs is valuable to those who are sick and shut-in, and people who are traveling. He also sees great potential for virtual witnessing: “Some people are nervous when it comes to witnessing,” notes Johnson. “Praizevision provides a new and improved way to witness to your circle of influence. Just click ‘Forward.’”
Paula Webber, communication director for Adventist Risk Management, is also a fan. “When I’m traveling overseas or can’t go to church, I connect to Praizevision and view the sermon archives, sometimes several in a day,” she says. “I just love it.”
And she’s not alone. Google Analytics records show that just over 419,000 unique viewers tuned in from around the world last year. From South Korea, Kuwait, Turkey, Australia, and New Zealand to Germany, Jamaica, Trinidad, Argentina, Canada, and France, people of all ages and cultures are tuning in and drawing closer to Christ through this portal for praise (see sidebar for letters).
“I know the Lord is returning soon, and we have to do everything possible to get the word out,” says Bowen. “This shows us that we’re touching lives and really reaching people.”
It’s also changed their lives. “Everywhere we go, people know Praizevision,” Saunders says. “That’s very humbling.”
Conduit for Christ
While there’s no shortage of viewers and plenty of
evidence of its value, the Praizevision team sees room for growth. They’re looking for churches and partners in the Midwest, mid-America, and Canada. This will help them fulfill their mission to “empower churches to share the gospel of the kingdom of God anywhere in the world.”
As Dizárd explains: “We really want to be a resource for the world church, a conduit that helps churches get the message out and brings people to Christ through technology.”
After only five years online, Praizevision is doing just that.
Celeste Ryan Blyden watches Praizevision from Takoma Park, Maryland. The article was published February 25, 2010.