Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of stories about congregations engaged in significant outreach and evangelism ministries, reflecting the General Assembly’s commitment to “Grow Christ’s Church Deep and Wide.” — Jerry L. Van Marter
God-seekers scouring the television listings or surfing the Internet in hopes of finding peace, comfort, guidance or divine inspiration through Jesus Christ can now find him by visiting The Well.
Inspired by a group of individuals from First Presbyterian Church of Orlando, Fla., who were not pleased with what they saw on television and the Internet, The Well is a Gospel-centered, nationally-televised program that gives viewers an alternative to watching what some organizers perceived as the standard “25 minutes of preaching followed by a call for donations.”
The television program works in conjunction with its own Web site and pages on popular social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
“We believe there is a need in the landscape of media ministry to present the living word in an applicable, personal way from a sound theological foundation,” states a message on The Well’s Web site. “We have produced The Well with high production standards so that the message is entertaining and engaging for the viewer — more than a rebroadcast of a worship service.”
Launched on Dec. 6 in four cities — Orlando and Fort Myers, Fla., Chattanooga, Tenn. and Dallas — each week The Well focuses on a particular theme, such as comfort or faithfulness. The 30-minute program opens with a brief welcome from the Rev. David Swanson, pastor at Orlando-First.
The welcome is followed by a five-minute documentary segment called “Living Waters.” The documentaries are based on the stories of people overcoming real-life struggles and tragedies by relying on faith. The events are factual and there are no actors. Swanson then offers viewers a personal, one-on-one conversational style message that hopefully they can relate to their own lives.
“We are very pleased with the number of people who tuned in to watch the first episodes and have logged on to our sites,” says Swanson. “Our hope is to fill a gap in terms of how the church is utilizing the media to communicate to God’s people.”
Early indications are that the interactive approach to the ministry is working. Ratings were good for the first week in all four markets and, as of today (Dec. 16), some 700 people have become friends on Facebook and more than 200 on Twitter.
“The internet is so very important,” says Swanson. “By way of friends on each site sharing with their friends, our message can reach 30,000 in about five seconds. That’s pretty amazing.”
The first three episodes of The Well have already been produced, ensuring the program will be aired through the end of the year. Financial support will be needed to help The Well to remain on the television airwaves and on the Internet in 2010.
Creating The Well
Swanson, a pastor for 19 years, has served First Presbyterian Church of Orlando since 2004. With 4,900 members, FPCO is one of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s largest congregations. Swanson recalls two of the church’s elders approaching him in January about the idea of creating a national television program that provided a message from a more modern perspective.
Elders Dianna Morgan, a former vice-president of marketing with the Walt Disney Company, and Robert Wolgenmuth, told Swanson of their displeasure with what they saw as a “void” in television and internet programming and the need for a Biblically-reformed voice.”
“We simply felt that David’s style of ministering would be ideal for reaching out through television and the internet,” says Morgan. “We wanted it to be more personable, making it more appealing to those not comfortable with a church setting. David has an extraordinary gift and we want as many to hear him as possible.”
The two asked if he would consider being involved in such a ministry. Swanson says he was initially intrigued by doing something a little different and saw potential in the proposal.
“I took the idea home to my wife Leigh, and we prayed about it,” Swanson says. “Once we decided that it was what God was calling us to do, we brought it before the session and the congregation. Both endorsed it with great enthusiasm.”
The program was named The Well, based on the Bible story of the woman at the well — “But whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life." (John 4:14) — and, according to Morgan, a past women’s ministry in Fort Myers that went by the same name.
“There was never any question as to what to call the program,” recalls Morgan. “It was perfect.”
The next step was the creation of a 10-person board to organize and oversee the endeavor. Among the board members are Morgan, Wolgenmuth and Mark Oldham, who spent 15 years at The Golf Channel.
Morgan recalls that the board initially focused on an Orlando-only ministry, but then decided to go in a much broader direction.
“We thought, if we are going through the effort to produce a program, why not take a multi-market approach,” says Morgan. “It would not take much more effort than if we focused strictly on Orlando.”
Swanson says the expertise in media and marketing on the board were invaluable, but that the diversity of knowledge in so many areas was vital to the creation of The Well.
“Each person brought unique skills and expertise to the table,” he says.
It was agreed that a pilot episode would be produced in February. Four markets were targeted for viewership. The markets were chosen in large part because Swanson had served as the pastor of a church in each of the cities. It was felt that his ties to the community would allow them an advantage in creating partnerships and raising funds to develop and create The Well.
Covenant Communications of Orlando was chosen to produce the television program and Web site. Justin Ramb, a member of First-Orlando, works at Covenant Communications and was instrumental in the production of the pilot, the Web site and the program.
“They wanted something that was different than what is typically seen on television and the Internet,” says Ramb. “We created a personable studio-type atmosphere for Dr. Swanson’s message. The ‘Living Water’ segments took two days to shoot a five-minute video. We went directly to the person’s home and reenacted the events as best we could to make them more realistic. We were very pleased with the finished product as was the board.”
Ramb said it took three weeks to produce the pilot and have it ready for the marketing luncheons.
The marketing luncheons took place in April and, according to Swanson, went exceedingly well. Commitments totaling $150,000 were received, enough to pay for the pilot, the creation of the Web site, the production of the first three episodes and, of course, legal fees.
Although most of the money raised has now been spent, Swanson says he has faith that The Well will continue to provide spiritual nourishment to its viewers in the coming year.
“We knew we were stepping out on faith,” says Swanson. “In some form or fashion, God will provide.”
The Well’s first “Living Waters” segment tells the story of Cary and Andy Burchak. The couple tells how they found comfort in the love, compassion and caring of their church family after their college-aged son, Barrett, was killed in an automobile accident. The Burchaks tearfully recall the torrent of emotions they felt and try to reenact them on camera.
“I had wrestled with God,” says Cary Burchak in the segment. “I have cried. I have journaled. I have wanted an answer. Ultimately, I just had to learn to rest on the knowledge that God is who He says He is and I can trust him.
“It was so amazing, because God truly, truly met me here. He met me every day. I think in seeking God in His word and looking for who He was to me that I found a deeper relationship with who Jesus is. I pray now that God will use my life to make difference in the life of others.”
Swanson says the ‘Living Waters” segment is vital to the program.
“It is important that we show God in action,” says Swanson. “It’s not just someone speaking words. These are not actors. These are real people reliving very real stories.”
Swanson says the message from the “Living Waters” segment and his own portion of the program are non-denominational and meant for every ear and every heart.
The “Living Waters” segment from the second episode is based on the theme of faithfulness. It tells the story of Orlando residents Pam and Mark Oldham. Pam was diagnosed with breast cancer five years ago. Since then, she has questioned why God would allow her, the mother of two, to be stricken by cancer. Fighting through the uncertainties and struggles, Pam maintained her faith in God. She is now cancer-free and has grown closer to God through her experiences.
“We have so many other stories to tell,” says Morgan. “There are countless others out there who have testimonies to share. Each of them renews your faith and allows you to draw closer to God.”
Ramb says the success and the need for just such a multi-media-based approach to evangelism can be seen in just one posting on The Well’s Facebook page.
The posting, written by Jeniffer Jones of Hillside, NJ, reads: “God bless you!! I needed a word from God and stumbled upon this page which led me to your website where I received what I needed and more! Glory to God for all that he is doing through you!!”
“Here is a young, African-American woman who was on Facebook and found us,” says Ramb. “From there she went to our Web site and watched an episode of The Well. She had her spirit and faith were renewed. This type of response is what the multi-market approach is designed to generate. There are people out there, we just need to reach them.”
As for the future of The Well, Swanson says that later this month the board will meet and discuss its post-February strategy.
“We will go in whatever direction the Lord takes us,” he says.
Morgan says the board is considering many possibilities, even venturing into cable television.
“We are trying to think ahead and determine what is the best approach,” said Morgan. “We don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves, but we want to do what is in the best interest of The Well and its ministry.”
For information or to make a donation, contact The Well on its Web site, by email, or by regular mail at The Well, c/o First Presbyterian Church Orlando, 106 East Church St., Orlando, Fla., 32801.