The Internet is giving some congregations another medium for reaching members, prospective members and people from around the world who are interested.
Tiny Harrison Methodist Church in Pine-ville, N.C., welcomes visitors from around the world, sometimes several times a week. They're Web surfers _ from as far away as New Zealand _ who request prayers by using a standard form on the church's site. The prayer request is then zapped to a church volunteer, who offers a prayer and then writes a personal reply to the visitor.
Such spiritual outreach wouldn't be possible for a church the size of Harrison without the Internet, said Bill Sample, the church's volunteer Webmaster, who suggested starting the site five years ago. The church has 700 members and an annual budget of $285,000.
"We're a church in Pineville, N.C., and now we could reach out to people in Indiana or India who are dealing with divorce or a loved one diagnosed with an illness," Sample said.
The Pineville church is not alone in the religious cyberworld. A report released last week by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that churches and religious leaders are using the Internet in many of the same ways as everyone else: to post information, to recruit new members and to communicate with colleagues around the world.
"I knew going into this that some churches were going online, and so we would be finding some degree of usefulness," said Lee Rainie, the director of the Pew project, which studies the social effects of the Internet. "But it was surprising to me how intense the response was and how broadly churches are using the Internet."
The group surveyed 1,309 congregations in 49 states that responded to an online survey. An overwhelming 83 percent of respondents said that the Internet has helped congregational life. The 471 rabbis and ministers who responded to the survey said they use the Internet like a vast library, retrieving information for services or educational programs. In particular, the study found that e-mail has aided church members and the clergy to stay more in touch with each other.
Don Stein, pastor of Calvary Lutheran Church in Whitewater, Wis., said e-mail has made it easier to reach students at the nearby University of Wisconsin at Whitewater. Stein said students on the campus regularly e-mail him about spiritual issues, life concerns or general religious questions.
"Before e-mail, it was really difficult to talk to students, because the dorms would be locked or they wouldn't be there," Stein said. "Nothing is as good as talking to them face-to-face, of course, but students are much more comfortable with e-mail."
Students, as well as other newcomers to the college town, also discover the church through the Web before they arrive, Stein said. Indeed, Rainie said that the "church shopping experience" seems to be migrating from the Yellow Pages to the Web. "It's quite appealing to people that they could get a sense of the church architecture and minister online," he added.
Most church Web sites are simplistic in their features, perhaps reflecting the ad hoc nature of their creation usually by one or two volunteers, the survey found. Many church sites post sermons and bulletins, link to faith-related sites or share photos of congregational events. But some church sites have become a lot more sophisticated.
First Community Church in Columbus, Ohio, for instance, offers streaming video and audio samples of its services. The Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation in Atlanta offers a virtual tour of the church and welcomes visitors with organ music. St. Stephen Catholic Church in Valrico has an e-mail directory of members and offers electronic religious greeting cards.
Overall, the survey had its limitations, Rainie said. It's not scientifically accurate, he said, because there is no single registry of congregational Web sites from which to draw a random sample. Major religious organizations such as the Roman Catholic and Southern Baptist churches do not operate portals listing church Web sites. As a result, the survey skewed somewhat toward the United Methodist and Lutheran churches, which were easier to find and made up about 52 percent of the sample.
Although individual church sites may generate very little traffic _ some only had a few hundred visitors in the past year _ the audience for online spiritual growth is immense, according to an ongoing phone survey by the Pew Internet project. About 21 percent of Internet users, 19-million to 20-million people, have searched online for religious or spiritual information. That's more people than have used online banking (18 percent), participated in online auctions (15 percent) or used online dating services (15 percent). Blacks and Southerners are more likely to seek spiritual information online; whites and Northeasterners are least likely, according to Pew.
But even religious leaders who use the Internet say they have mixed feelings about its appropriateness as a spiritual instrument. Charles Emery, pastor at Calvary United Methodist Church in Villa Park, Ill., compared the Internet to televangelism. "We have to guard ourselves so we don't allow the tool to become the means of really connecting," he said. "Church is not a spectator sport. It really is a community."