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Perspectives: Where Do We Go from Here?
Accessing Religion Online
by Wallys W. Conhaim
Link-Up Digital
November 1, 2002


A Sampling of Religious Sites

Here is a short list of religion sites:

General and Interdenominational Megasites

• About.com Religion & Spirituality guide
http://www.about.com/religion
• Beliefnet
http://www.beliefnet.com
• Christianity
http://www.christianity.com
• FaithandValues.com
http://www.faithandvalues.com
• ReligionLink: Resources for Reporters http://www.religionwriters.com/public/tips/main.html

Denominational Megasites

• Buddhism
http://www.buddhanet.net
• Church of Christ, Scientist
http://www.spirituality.com
• Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
http://www.lds.org
• Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America
http://www.goarch.org
• The Hindu Universe
http://www.hindunet.org
• Islam
http://www.islamonline.com
• Judaism and Jewish Resources
http://www.shamash.org/trb/judaism.html
• Roman Catholicism
http://www.catholic.org and catholic.net
• Sojourners community
http://www.sojo.net
• Southern Baptist Convention
http://www.sbc.net
• Unitarian Universalist Association
http://www.uua.org

Publications and Religious News Services

• Christianity Today
http://www.christianitytoday.com
• Crosswalk
http://www.crosswalk.com
• Harvard Pluralism Project
http://www.pluralism.org/news/
• Religion and Ethics Newsweekly
http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/
• Religion News Service
http://www.religionnews.com
• Worldwide Faith News
http://www.wfn.org

Major Newsgroups on Religion

alt.religion
soc.religion

Other Religious Sites of Interest

• Christian Book Distributors
http://www.christianbook.com
• CrossCurrents
http://www.aril.org/sugbscribe.htm
• Hartford Institute for Religion Research
http://hirr.hartsem.edu
• A Journalist’s Online Glossary of Religion
http://www.toadnet.com/~andrews/jhandbook.html
• OnePlace.com
http://www.oneplace.com
• Online Databases on Cults, Sects and Contemporary Religions http://www.ucalgary.ca/~nurelweb/links/database.html
• Religion Online
http://www.religion-online.org
• Religions on the WWW: Websites and Scriptures http://www.members.aol.com/porchfour/religion/religion.htm and http://www.members.aol.com/porchfour/religion/scriptur.htm
• World Religion Resources
http://www.refdesk.com/factrel.html
 

America has always been a religious nation. The Gallup Poll has consistently found very high percentages of U.S. citizens believing in God. In 2000, 94 percent of adults professed a belief in God or a “universal spirit or higher power.” Other recent surveys show that only 14 percent have no religious affiliation.

So it should come as no surprise that on the Web religion is a primary content category and ranks high in usage. According to academic scholar Brenda Brasher of Mount Union College, there are now over 1 million religion sites. These range from megasites with links to many denominations and resources to those that offer highly personal religious experiences such as retreats or meditation.

A December 2001 study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project [http://www.pewinternet.org/reports/toc.asp?Report=53] found that fully one-quarter of adult American Internet users had accessed the Net for religious purposes—about half to acquire information on religion and a minority to interact with others about religion or spirituality. That’s a higher portion than for banking, trading stocks, or gambling. Of the 28 million people who are seriously committed to their religion, 3 million go online daily for religious activities.

Growing Trend
Use of the Net for religion is a rapidly growing trend, as is the embracing of online communications by younger generations. The latter has strongly influenced American faith communities to strengthen their presence online. It’s a good way for them to meet these younger prospective congregants on their own turf and also to streamline communications with current members.

The nature of religious experience itself is beginning to change as churches, synagogues, and other spiritual groups become more sophisticated in their use of online tools. As early as the end of 2000, Barna Research Group, a California research firm that specializes in tracking religious trends, found that 1 percent of adults and 2 percent of teenagers were using Net experiences as a substitute for a physical church. (At the time, 8 percent of adults and 12 percent of teenagers reported using the Internet for religious or spiritual experiences.) Many more Net users—two-thirds of those surveyed—said they were likely to engage in such activities in the next decade. The survey results led Barna to project that by 2010, fully 10 percent of the population, or 50 million people, will be relying entirely on the Internet for their religious experience. Double that number will get at least some spiritual experience via the Internet.

The Effect of 9/11
The September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center towers, the tragic deaths of thousands of people of many nationalities and religions, the rippling of grief extending to the millions deeply affected, the subsequent revelations of extremist Islamic involvement, and finally the decision to wage war on Afghanistan’s Taliban leadership all contributed to a surge of interest in the Internet’s religious content and its capabilities for fostering global human interaction.

In the months following the attack, the Internet became a focal point for interfaith dialog and mutual support. Beliefnet [http://www.beliefnet.com], the largest multifaith Web site, became a spiritual gathering place for many who used the site’s varied offerings to participate in prayer circles, study Islam, and struggle with the religious questions raised by the tragedy and its aftermath. As did many other sites, Beliefnet invited prominent thinkers to write essays [http://www.beliefnet.com/features/911/2002.html] that probed and attempted to respond to the events of 9/11.

The usage of the Net by spiritual seekers, which burgeoned right after the World Trade Center attack, has subsided somewhat. Nevertheless, Jupiter Media Metrix, the audience measurement firm, said that religion traffic was still growing faster than any other category in mid-2002.

Online Outreach
While many houses of worship are now online, few have developed their sites and online services into much more than “brochureware.” However, for some religious institutions, the Web has already become an important tool for service and outreach. 

  • In an August 2001 feature article, the Orlando (Florida) Sentinel placed this caption under a picture: “Fishers of men make use of the Net.” The article highlighted the innovative work being done by the Orlando area Family Bible Church [http://www.fambible.org], which has been using its site for outreach, marketing tapes of the pastor’s weekly messages worldwide. It also featured the Logos Christian Fellowship [http://www.logoschristian.org], which highlights international missions and even a “school of exorcism” available in 24 languages.

  •  
  • The Catholic Archdiocese of St. Louis [http://www.archstl.org/] provides daily homilies during Lent, daily scripture readings, a popular prayer request section, archdiocesan records for genealogical research, faith and study materials, Catholic news, and future planning documents.

  •  
  • Chabad of California, part of an international Orthodox Jewish educational and outreach group [http://www.chabad.com], hosts a multilingual chat room [http://www.AskMoses.com] and staffs the site with rabbis and other scholars 24 hours daily except during the Sabbath.

  •  
  • The Fellowship Church of Grapevine, Texas [http://www.fellowshipchurch.com], has created a personalized, comprehensive “destination” Web site that includes weather reports and sports news in addition to traditional religious offerings, and has both a technology pastor and a marketing manager on staff.

  •  
  • Grace Cathedral, an Episcopal church in San Francisco, won a 2002 Webby award for its Internet site [http://www.gracecathedral.com], whose logo is “reconnecting your spirit without disconnecting your mind.” It features tours of the church, daily meditations, news and stories about congregants, recordings of sermons and church music, interviews with religious thinkers, a virtual “finger meditation” version of its labyrinth walk that uses a mouse to guide the “walker,” the opportunity for congregants to respond to sermons, audio talk shows, and sale of books and event tickets.

  •  
Some people use the Web for virtual meditation, retreats, or pilgrimages:
  • The Irish Jesuits operate a popular Sacred Space [http://www.jesuit.ie/prayer], which provides a 10-minute online prayer experience in 13 languages. The site has had almost 5 million visitors since its launch in the spring of 1999.

  •  
  • Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, a long-time innovator in satellite education, provides a much more extensive, 34-week Ignatian Retreat, with downloadable literature for each week’s thoughts [http://www.creighton.edu/CollaborativeMinistry/cmo-retreat.html] and links to related music, organized by Ignatian themes.

  •  
  • The Christ in the Desert Benedictine monastery north of Santa Fe, New Mexico [http://www.christdesert.org] offers information on the Benedictive order, monastic studies and the holy rule, audios of chants, bios of monks residing at the monastery, and ways to reserve lodging there, as well as an online gift shop.


Some churches are beginning to use electronic funds transfer to collect donations in a practice known as e-tithing.

Some religious sites go far beyond liturgy and prayer to how religious principles may be applied regarding broader social concerns. In Minneapolis and St. Paul, the Catholic Archdiocese operates the Office for Social Justice [http://www.osjspm.org], which informs the public, teachers, and social action groups on ways they can act on their faith to promote social justice, provides materials on such issues as housing for the poor, just wages, landmines and child labor, and posts legislative action alerts.

Churches don’t take care of all their business via online methods, however. The Catholic Church, for example, has taken the position that confession must only take place in person with a priest.

Of churches and synagogues with Web sites, some 83 percent responding to the Pew Internet & American Life Project in late 2000 [http://www.pewinternet.org/reports/toc.asp?Report=28] said that the Internet had helped their communities and created stronger ties among members.

CyberChurches: Moving Beyond Outreach
Some pastors are moving beyond use of the Internet as a tool for traditional congregational outreach. They are actually building cyberchurches. These are virtual places worship where participants can actually belong and make contributions. Here are some examples:

  • In 1995, an Idaho pastor founded an online-only, all-faith church called The Church Within [http://www.churchwithin.org], which features e-mailed as well as archived sermons, scriptures of world religions, an inspirational “story of the week,” and spiritual counseling. It also markets collections of inspirational sayings and links to other spiritual sites. So far, this site has attracted 1,000 members in 21 countries, according to one published account.

  •  
  • Liveprayer.com [http://www.liveprayer.com], a division of evangelist Bill Keller’s Ministries launched in 1999, offers multimedia prayer experiences online. Supported entirely through donations and operating out of St. Petersburg, Florida, on a $30,000 monthly budget, Liveprayer offers a daily e-mailed devotional, a weekly church service video, a Christian chatroom, a Miracle Center where people dealing with specific problems may request help, praise, worship, and revival videos on demand, Christian personals and other classified ads, and a mall for selling music, books, and health items.
  • The site reports that it gets 20,000 daily visitors, one-quarter of them from outside the U.S., and that over 1,200,000 people now subscribe to the daily e-mails. Amazingly, the site receives 20,000 e-mail prayer requests to which personal responses are sent by ministry staff members. The service claims to minister to more people daily than any church in the country.
     

  • TheRanch.com [http://www.theranch.org] is a spiritual retreat center that exists only online. Operated by Illinois pastor Eric Elder’s ministry, this creative retreat is designed to provide a way people can slow down to deal with their otherwise stressful lives. This Christian but non-denominational site invites visitors to take a walk through the woods and listen to crickets, enjoy music, read a story, hear a message, or pull up a chair and talk to someone. 
  • There are multimedia offerings as well as extensive text and a daily devotional keyed to the messages of music. Statistics posted on the site indicate that it has had over 60,000 visitors over the past 2 years. Ordained as a minister in 1996 and devoted to online ministry since then, Elder was a researcher for Texaco’s Advanced Technology Group and designed the company’s original Web site.


Cyberchurch efforts have not been universally successful. About a year ago, the Church on the Rock in San Antonio launched a spin-off, non-denominational cyberchurch, 777live.com, claiming to be the first entirely online church experience—clearly, it was not! Operated and initially funded by the entrepreneurial son of the church’s pastor, the venture was designed to reach homebound individuals, those who had been turned off by traditional religious experiences, or those who live abroad under restrictive regimes.

Members were to receive e-mails from the pastor and could participate in chat rooms. Its ambitious goal was to be the primary source of biblical teaching worldwide. Plans included online Bible study, live Webcasts of services, and prayer meetings. Initially, the effort received overwhelming response, attracting 40,000 people as members during pre-launch promotion. However, the Web site is no longer online, and news articles indicate that the site was unable to raise enough contribution dollars to stay afloat.
 

Concerns About Going Online
Religious organizations are being profoundly challenged by the question of how best to integrate the new realities of online communications with the tried-and-true practice of congregational life. 

The Internet does help religious communities overcome the limitations of time and space. And the anonymity of the Web helps some people open up more than they would in face-to-face encounters.

Yet, these very same institutions are threatened by some aspects of online religion:

  • the easy availability of information about many faiths
  • the aggressive recruitment tactics and expertise of evangelistic groups
  • the ready access to misinformation about belief systems and practices
  • the ease with which people can shift their loyalties from one online venue to another
  • a strong undercurrent of spiritual seekers (some studies say these are 25 percent of Americans) pursuing a personal and decidedly non-institutional spiritual path 


Furthermore, as a virtual marketplace of religious ideas, the power is with the individual, not with the established authority.

Questions remain about the real meaning of community, the apparent impersonality and lack of commitment in virtual spiritual encounters, and the quick fix that the Internet seems to provide to a seeker. One also has to wonder whether those with Internet access are becoming a privileged elite among the faithful.

Communications scholar Quentin Schultze is concerned about the ability of the Internet to lure seekers away from actual physical religious communities. He feels that the appeal of the online spiritual quest arises from the human needs for identity and intimacy, the very same needs that turn some toward pornography. In both cases, he says, people who fulfill these needs online get a dehumanized, limited fantasy instead of the real thing.

However, Brenda Brasher, author of Give Me That Online Religion, a thoughtful analysis published last year, argues that online environments can indeed provide individuals with the emotional interconnectedness and spiritual contemplation that characterize more traditional forms of religious participation. She says online religion is “a vital cultural vehicle for the emergence of religious experience and expression.” Brasher, a professor of religion and philosophy at Mount Union College in Alliance, Ohio, maintains a list of interesting religious Web sites at her own home page [http://www.brendabrasher.com].

Looking Ahead
Religious thinkers need to do more to envision the religion and spirituality of the future, Brasher contends, and it is not too soon for them to get deeply involved in understanding the impact new communications technologies like the Internet are already beginning to play in the world of the spirit today.

“Like the Diaspora synagogues of Judaism after the Second Temple, like the cathedrals of medieval Latin Christianity, and like the Bibles of European Protestantism,” she writes, “online religion is a form of new religious practice that possesses the capacity to transform the religious alternatives with which it now competes for human attention. Thus from young to old, from East to West, our religious landscapes could change dramatically in the next decade.”

“For the sacred to have substance,” she adds, “each generation must articulate ideas of the divine that are credible and meaningful against the backdrop of its time.” 

Brasher believes the Internet revolution has already redefined people’s understanding of themselves as human beings and their view of community. Cyberspace equally allows newcomers to disseminate new religious ideas as it allows traditional religious voices to disseminate their authoritative views. It makes location irrelevant in pursuit of a religious identity. She believes religious content can make a unique contribution to global fellowship and interreligious understanding.

Will mainstream religions become more inclusive and tolerant of divergent views? Or will we see a fragmentation of religious identity and loss of the power major religious institutions now hold? What role will online religion play in unforeseen changes on the horizon? Time will tell, but surely the impact of online religion will not be insignificant.


Wallys W. Conhaim is a Minneapolis-based independent consultant providing research, planning and analysis in the field of interactive services.

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