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Worship with warriors: Chaplain uses tech to connect families spiritually during deployment

In World War I, letters were the only way for soldiers and their families to stay in touch. It was the same during World War II, the Korean and Vietnam Wars and even Desert Storm. But since mobile and Internet technology came of age, the deployed women and men of the armed forces have more, and simpler, options to communicate with their families.

Now, thanks to the creativity of one chaplain, soldiers can even worship or enjoy other religious services with their families back home.

The program is called “Worship with Warriors” and it is the brain child of Deputy Wing Chaplain James Buckman, a Lutheran house-church planter from New Jersey currently deployed with 108th Air Refueling Wing at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar.

Using UStream, an online video service meant to connect service members with their families via the Internet, Buckman developed a platform to broadcast Bible studies, worship services and other religious rites in real time so that families and service members could contribute and interact together.

One of Buckman’s responsibilities is to provide spiritual care for deployed men and women at the base. He found he could not do this without ministering to the whole family and continuing to foster relationships at home. This is why Worship with Warriors got started.

“The idea behind ‘Worship with Warriors’ is very simple — leverage technology to connect our deployed service members with their loved ones back home as we provide ministry for them," Buckman said.

Services provided via Worship with Warriors include Bible studies, prayer ministry, premarital counseling, renewal of wedding vows, worship and even memorial services for servicemen and women who lose their life in the field.

Buckman shared one story about a 1 a.m. Bible study he offers for second-shift base workers. Senior Airman Mike Vargas enjoys the Ustream service because through it he connects with his wife deployed at another base and his father, a pastor, back home in the U.S.

“Mike will often turn, look over his shoulder into my smartphone and comment to his wife about a point we are discussing,” Buckman said. “They share in the Bible study experience even though they are on different continents.”

Worship with Warriors is a single tributary in a diverse current of contemporary religious uses of technology. The evangelical Christian research firm Barna Group, which does extensive research on millennials, wrote on its website, “The Church has always used regular habits and practices designed to help people worship.”

However, now “there’s a new dimension that is reshaping personal spirituality,” said David Kinnaman, Barna's president. “Technology has infiltrated every area of millennial life, and the realm of faith is no exception.”

Young people use Internet and mobile technology to read scripture digitally, fact-check sermons, research places of worship and even make monetary contributions to ministries.

Churches, synagogues and other religious communities across the U.S. are responding by overhauling their websites, creating congregational mobile apps and “livestreaming,” or broadcasting worship services live online.

Kinnaman asserted that how religious institutions and leaders acknowledge and engage “the digital domain” will determine their effectiveness with younger generations.

An increasing number of tech-savvy soldiers, chaplains and spiritual care providers in the military are taking note and using technology to augment their ministry in the field.

Even so, since Buckman's setting — and that of other chaplains — is not a comfortable, fiber-obtic wired, multimillion-dollar church campus in the American suburbs, there were some hurdles in getting the service set up on base in the Middle East.

“First of all, we are talking about the military, and implementation needs to be discussed carefully; second, Wi-Fi isn’t the easiest to connect to on base,” Buckman said.

“Technology also has its limits and frustrations: there are blackouts and there is a war that upsets the best-planned schedules.” Still, Buckman knows that it’s a privilege to offer the service, so he puts his best efforts into making this gift of ministry work for people like Maj. Miriam Carter, who renewed her wedding vows with her husband of 14 years via Worship with Warriors.

“It was a tremendous blessing to renew our vows via technology,” Carter said. “The ceremony was beautiful and distance disappeared as we looked into each other's eyes and pledged our love and devotion to each other.”

Carter continued, “During my seven-month deployment, the renewal of my wedding vows was truly one of the highlights.”

Technology may change, Wi-fi signals may fade in and out, and physical touch may be impossible during deployment, but, still, Buckman said, “Everyone knows that the ability to connect over widely separated geographical areas for worship is something that is pretty amazing.”

Ken Chitwood is a religion scholar, PhD student, and graduate assistant at the University of Florida studying ethnography of Religion in the Americas with emphases on globalization, transnationalism, immigration, Latina/o religion, and Islam. You may contact him at kchitwood27@gmail.com.

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