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.
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.
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
that probed and attempted to respond to the events of
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.
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.
Some people use the Web for virtual meditation, retreats,
- 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
- 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
- The Irish Jesuits operate a popular Sacred Space
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
- 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
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
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.
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
- 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
- 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
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
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
- 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
Furthermore, as a virtual marketplace of religious ideas,
the power is with the individual, not with the established
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].
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
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