April 18, 2002
MIT Media Lab
20 Ames Street
Web sites have received little academic attention, but new online
religious communities are being formed that actively reshape
traditional religious identities and practices. Megasites offer
information on everything from angels to Zoroastrianism, while
other sites are built by and cater to the members of a particular
faith. Some Web sites are oriented towards active discussion
boards and theological debates while others seek to create an
online religious experience through prayer, evangelism, meditation,
and virtual pilgrimages. Are Americans turning to the Web for
religious experiences and spiritual discussion, and if so how
are traditional religious institutions responding to and being
shaped by this shift? For this forum, we bring together three
experts actively involved in understanding how people are using
the Internet for religious purposes.
CHARLES HENDERSON described his experiences using computers
and the Internet and explained how this led to the creation
of The First Church of Cyberspace.
Henderson said, he began using a PC to write sermons. "It
was a convenience," he recalled, "but not life changing."
the Internet was becoming known to the public in the mid and
late 1980s, he discovered Ecunet,
a network for religious professionals founded in 1985, and the
advantages of the new medium quickly became obvious.
of a sudden, you are no longer alone" writing a sermon,
he said, but collaborating with two or three hundred others
who can work from the same text to formulate a sermon, and who
can then come back online after delivering the sermon to evaluate
its effectiveness. "That," Henderson said, "was
a life-transforming experience."
important event occurred in the days following the explosion
of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 when Henderson observed
spontaneous memorial services taking place online. "It
became apparent that the Internet was not only good for working
collaboratively, but for building community," he said.
Henderson launched The First Church of Cyberspace located at
The home page articulates the mission of this virtual church:
"an attempt to bring Christianity online with thoughtfulness,
humor and a willingness to address the more controversial questions
that tend to be avoided in the traditional church."
immediately generated attention from the press. Henderson was
contacted by television, radio and print reporters, whose reports
created greater exposure for the site.
plunged even more deeply into the Internet, becoming the Christianity
expert for the About.com
Web site. Today his contributions to these two sites register
more than a million hits per month. "I'm doing the same
thing I used to do at a local church. But rather than preaching
to 65 people, I reach several hundred thousand every week."
said that to his surprise his own Web site and his writing on
About.com have become financially rewarding, although he anticipated
a reduction in income from his online work in light of what
he called "the meltdown" of dot-com companies.
modest financial success led Henderson to speculate about the
problematic future of online religion as a money-making venture.
While the capacity for community building exists, he said, other
trends such as the ownership of Web sites by large corporations
raise concerns about "the commercialization of religion."
LARSEN presented findings from Pew
Internet & American Life Project: "CyberFaith: How
Americans Pursue Religion Online."
the study indicated that 25% of Internet users - about 28 million
people - have gotten religious or spiritual information online,
an increase from the 21% reported in 2000, and an indication
of an increasing use of religious Internet resources.
that 67% of what she called "religion surfers" have
accessed information on their own faith, while 50% have sought
information on other faiths. Twenty-one per cent of these users
have sought religious advice using email, Larsen said, and 38
% have used email to send prayer requests.
the September 11 terrorist attacks, Larsen said, there was a
surge of activity on some of the larger religious sites such
as Beliefnet.com and Faithandvalues.com as people not affiliated
with a particular faith or church congregated in chat rooms
to express their concerns and offer and seek support.
that after September 11, 41% of Internet users, many of whom
had never considered themselves online spiritual seekers, said
they sent or received email prayer requests; 23% of Internet
users turned to online sources to get information about Islam;
and 7% of Internet users contributed to relief charities online.
prediction by religion researcher George
that young people who currently attend church would eventually
leave their congregations and rely on the Internet for their
spiritual needs, Larsen said the Pew study found that the people
who go online for spiritual reasons most often (at least three
times a week) also tend to be the most active offline participants
in their faiths.
Larsen said, it appears that at least for the time being religious
surfers use Web sites to augment their offline religious activities
rather than replace them. In fact, 15% of survey respondents
said their use of the Internet has made them feel more committed
to their faith, and 27% say it has improved their spiritual
life to at least a modest degree. In addition, 35% believe that
the Internet has a "mostly positive" effect on the
religious life of others, and 62% said that the availability
of material on the Internet encourages religious tolerance.
At the same time, 53% reported some fear that the Internet makes
it easier for cults to promote themselves in ways that could
while users may be indicating their online use supplements their
offline religious activities, at the same time they are reporting
that key spiritual resources are easier to find online. Larsen
reported that 64% believe that the Internet provides easier
access to religious study and educational materials than they
can find offline, while nearly half (44%) believe that the Internet
provides easier access to prayer and other devotional materials
compared to what is available offline.
Larsen said that about 90% of the respondents to the most recent
Pew study were Christian, and that an effort is underway to
collect more information from non-Christian Internet users.
SCOTT THUMMA, a faculty associate at the Hartford
Institute for Religion Research, maintains the Institute's
Web site, and studies the use of Web sites by religious institutions.
that over the past four years the percentage of churches with
Web sites had grown from about 11% to around 45%. At that rate
of growth, about 90% of all congregations will have Web sites
in five years.
to post Web sites has been undertaken by wealthy congregations,
Thumma said, and there are strong correlations between the size
and wealth of churches and the use of Web sites and email communication
within a congregation. All "megachurches" - those
with weekly attendance of more than 2,000 -- have Web sites,
Thumma said, and most of these take advantage of the dynamic
features of the Web such as interactivity.
posted additional statistics about congregations and the Internet
on a page
on the Hartford Institute's Web site.
while the trend is toward increased use of the Internet, in
nearly half of all churches fewer than 100 people regularly
attend services. Given their limited resources, such congregations
are unlikely to be able to build Web sites that take full advantage
of the Internet.
Thumma concluded with some speculations concerning the impact
of Web sites on churches themselves. There are some indications
that "a whole-hearted embrace of new technologies"
may alter the cultural, interpersonal and social dynamics within
a congregation. For example, Thumma while the use of email has
enabled congregations to improve communication among many of
its members, email communication could come to replace the face-to-face
interaction that takes place within the church setting. "An
electronic email from a pastor is not the same thing as a personal
visit," Thumma said.
reliance on the Internet is also changing and will change the
power structure of congregations by pushing previously "marginalized
techies" into new leadership roles such as "church
webmaster." In addition, the maintenance of these sites
puts public relations responsibilities in the hands of members
who previously might not have played a role in constructing
and retaining a congregation's image.
to what extent some churches might construct online identities
designed for broad appeal that would misrepresent to some degree
a church's core mission. "Will congregations fabricate
a public persona, and then have trouble living up to the HTML
image it has created for itself?" he asked. "Perhaps
in five years, we'll know."
Which Internet features or activities are the most popular with
We found that while the most common reason to have a Web site
was reach outsiders, it's email that is used most successfully
within a congregation.
We asked church webmasters what on their sites got the most
traffic, and many of them had no idea. That's the level of sophistication
with some of the people, often volunteers, building congregational
though, is the online sermon, whether text or audio.
Most of our traffic right now is people reading content, a one-to-many
communication activity. That will change as people increase
their use of the interactive aspects if the Web.
the forum or discussion area in which you have several hundred
people involved in an ongoing dialogue tends to be the second
most popular feature. The third most popular is the chat area
where 25 or 30 people can form a community that can last for
As a Catholic, I feel there is not a lot of debate in the church.
In the past, there may have been a greater simultaneity of communication.
As these faiths initiate dialogue within their online communities,
will there be a return to more public debate?
Most religious communication is hierarchical, based on that
one-to-many model. When people take religion online there is
a liberating effect; people feel they have an equal voice. I
get attacked much more often online for things I write than
I would in a church setting. People thrive on the conflicts
in the forums in a way they never did in a church.
of simultaneity is a problem with online worship, but in the
future with high bandwidth you will be able to hear people singing
and you can sing or pray along with them. In the future, you
will have a greater sense of people being physical present in
the same space even if it is virtual space. This is going to
change everything. It'll involve all the senses.
WEIGEL, CMS: Often technology is posited as counter to religion
and faith, especially among more fundamentalist groups. Have
you encountered this kind of bias against this technology?
In our surveys, the more conservative groups, and I mean fundamentalist
groups, are not afraid of the technology. There are certain
aspects of the Internet they don't like and would like to change,
but they appreciate that ability to go after content on their
own and get prayer resources sent to them via email.
most part, Christians are more likely than non-Christians to
worry that there is too much sacrilegious content available
on the Internet.
HUECKER, CMS: We have been speaking for the most part about
institutional Web sites that are used to communicate both within
congregations and with the outside world. Could comment about
two other types of religious sites: the large information warehouses
on religion that don't favor any particular religious perspective,
and those that are created by individuals that express an opinion
about a particular religion or about religion in general.
This is a point I wanted to make when Charles was talking about
the privatization and commercialization of the big religious
sites. I am mostly thinking about Beliefnet.com [LINK: http://www.beliefnet.com]
, but there are a number of others like that that are operated
by large companies where everyone can have a religious experience,
and such sites are operated for profit.
We did a
class about Islam using Beliefnet, and in a corner of the page
was an ad showing a pink pig wearing sunglasses. It didn't mesh
with the study of Islam.
LARSEN: On your question about personal religious Web
sites, we found that for the most part organizations such as
congregations make Christian Web sites, and individuals put
up pagan Web sites.
I look at a lot of evangelical Protestant Web sites and I've
noticed a heavy reliance on a handful of companies that market
one piece of digital technology to churches. There's one company,
for example, that provides streaming media services to religious
Web sites. So there is a kind of commercialization of even the
local sites that is somewhat disturbing.
Scott, you referred to quality Web sites. What is a quality
religious Web site?
We list the criteria
for reviews on our site. These criteria include design basics,
such as the inclusion of contact information, an indication
of when the site was last updated, and a fast-loading home page;
site aesthetics, such as the use of color and balance between
text and graphics; and the effectiveness of site content.
If you want
to attract younger families who are out on the Web looking for
a new church or synagogue, you have to have a good-looking site.
If they find a lousy site they won't visit the church. If you
want to appeal to that demographic, you can't have a bad site.
I know of one church that has a whole team that is basically
a video and Web production company. They project images on a
screen behind the pulpit during a sermon, and this goes up on
the Web site. They are serious about providing this level of
quality to church Web sites.
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