While religion has carved out its own niche on the Internet, observers are questioning how “cyber-faiths” will impact actual religious involvement and institutions.
This concern has come to the surface especially in recent months as churches and individuals have established web sites devoted to delivering sermons from a wide variety of faiths to believers and seekers in both text and audio formats. There are a growing number of “web cams” in churches that enables arm’s-length religious participation. Some organizations, such as the Vatican, also broadcast services live in real time on the Internet. Other less technologically advanced sites offer access to recorded services.
For millions of believers, the Internet has become a place where one can easily find God–or at least His followers. An Internet search by the Dallas Morning News (Dec. 26) picked up 5 million hits for the word Christian, 500,000 for Islam, 230,000 for Hindu, and 8,000 for Wicca. Free discussion list host sites such as Onelist.com have hundreds of religiously oriented lists to choose from. Churches and denominations worldwide have established web sites in hopes of serving their members and converting the as yet unchurched.
One popular Islamic site is Islamicity.com, devoted to spreading Muslim teachings worldwide. Gemal Seede, the Los Angeles-based webmaster, built his site in an effort to help believers stay spiritually connected with each other. Zoroastrians, members of one of the oldest world religions, have embraced the Internet as a means of creating virtual communities for their frequently isolated believers and to preserve their faith.
Christian sites are plentiful, as one might expect. One large site is the Cyberchurch of the Remnant, “formed for Christians who are not aligned with a church.” The Cyberchurch seeks those who have abandoned denominations and churches that have “hindered their walk with Christ.” Based in Hawaii, it mostly appeals to conservative Christians, and offers chat rooms, devotionals, and sermons. Prayer is one of the most popular activities on the various religious sites. A recent survey conducted by Ken Bedell and the Forum Foundation in Seattle found that 52 percent of respondents said they have asked other people to pray for them in e-mail messages; 70 percent said they have prayed for people because of getting e-mail.
The appeal of cybersermons and other types of religious web sites is varied, according to interviews conducted by this writer. Some users, such as Kate O’Donnell, rely on online worship to substitute for physical attendance at church services. As a health care worker, her hours often prevent regular visits to churches. She says, “by using online sites, I can read sermons, devotionals, and use chat rooms to fellowship with believers it might be difficult to meet because of my job.”
She says that someday her schedule will permit her to join a church and attend regularly, but for now, “this helps me on my journey.” Kevin Neese uses sermons in both text and audio formats, often perusing “old sermons by preachers I am familiar with, and I enjoy the opportunity of hearing a famous sermon I had not been able to find on tape.” He has also used sermon sites as teaching resources for his Sunday School classes.
Many net observers caution that religious web sites in themselves should not be considered all-in-one tools. John Morehead, of Watchman Fellowship, finds the Internet to be useful in offering apologetics resources, but thinks that face-to-face evangelism is more effective in bringing believers to a religious faith. Mark Johns, a Lutheran pastor and doctoral candidate at the University of Iowa School of Journalism, calls Internet religion “preaching to the choir” for the most part. “It offers persons already committed to the faith some additional options for community fellowship and support.” It also provides information that enables believers to shop for a denomination — or even a congregation — in a non-threatening, relaxed manner.
Brenda Brasher, a theorist focusing on cyberspace and religion believes that cyber- religion prompts “new instances of convergences and cooperation” among faith groups. This is especially true, she says, in cyber-millennialism, where Christian millennial web sites will often be linked to Jewish Zionist web sites. In the case of cyber-evangelism, it may be a similar situation to televangelism.
Scholars and observers questioned just how many believers actually were drawn to new faiths via new media forms, an issue never satisfactorily answered. In any case, Brasher is convinced that cyber-evangelism will continue and even increase. Religious groups, traditional or alternative, “have almost unanimously concurred that cyberspace is a place where they must be active” in order to grow and to survive.
— By Lin Collette, a RW contributing editor based in Pawtucket, R.I.