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Religion on the Internet: Community and Virtual Existence

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There is considerable controversy concerning the ability of the Internet to provide communal experiences. This article looks at the ability of the World Wide Web to foster religious community, particularly from a Christian perspective. It looks at the nature of religion and community and shows to what extent the Internet has and has not been successful in recreating religious community. It looks at the reaction of two particular groups of users and categorizes Web sites into five types: research sites, extensions of local community, independent sites, spiritual retreats, and online worship. Finally it discusses the limitations of disembodied experience and argues that most individuals use the media within these limitations.
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Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society
DOI: 10.1177/0270467603256085
2003; 23; 321 Bulletin of Science Technology Society
Franz Foltz and Frederick Foltz
Religion on the Internet: Community and Virtual Existence
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10.1177/0270467603256085ARTICLEBULLETIN OF SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY & SOCIETY / August 2003Foltz, Foltz / RELIGION ON THE INTERNET
Religion on the Internet:
Community and Virtual Existence
Franz Foltz
Rochester Institute of Technology
Frederick Foltz
Pastor Emeritus, St. James Lutheran Church
There is considerable controversy concerning the
ability of the Internet to provide communal experi-
ences. This article looks at the ability of the World
Wide Web to foster religious community, particularly
from a Christian perspective. It looks at the nature of
religion and community and shows to what extent the
Internet has and has not been successful in recreating
religious community. It looks at the reaction of two
particular groups of users and categorizes Web sites
into fivetypes:researchsites,extensions of local com-
munity, independent sites, spiritual retreats, and on-
lineworship.Finally itdiscussesthe limitations ofdis-
embodiedexperienceandarguesthatmostindividuals
use the media within these limitations.
Keywords: religion, technology, Web, Internet,
community
There are many books written concerning science
and religion as well as many conferences dedicated to
addressingthe perceivedconflict between them.How-
ever, very few people really look at the implications of
technology for religion. Although technology affects
allareasofchurchlife,itisusuallyacknowledgedonly
in normal business and communication decisions. Like
all other modern institutions, churches are constantly
challenged with the claim that they cannot operate
without the latest device, whether a fax machine or
networked computers. Sometimes, these advances are
embraced with little contemplation, and sometimes
the challenge is met with a concern that these gadgets
divert attention and time from the essential personal
presence ministry.
A more fundamental challenge relates to the nature
of technology and what that means for the church. Is
technologysimply aneutraltoolthatthechurchmustbe
carefulto useappropriately? AndrewCareaga (1999), a
leading advocate for the church going online, spoke of
theInternet beingonly asgood as the people who use it.
“It is just a tool that can be used to further God’s king-
domorthatofdarkness”(p.13).Oristechnology“agift
given by God” so that the church can more efficiently
hastenGod’smission? LeonardSweet (1999) called on
Christians to “hoist sail and catch God’s tidal wave”
when referring to her use of the Internet (p. 21). Or are
technology and the church rivals seeking people’s
devotion? Albert Borgmann (1984) claimed they are
“notsimplyopponents,but...forcesthat confront one
another at the deepest level” (p. 305). Of course, this
challenge is not unique to the church. It has also been
one of the central concerns of STS. Many classic STS
works address the issue of society treating technology
as simply a neutral tool without any implications other
than how humans choose to use it.
Fordecades, wehavebeendiscussingtheseideas as
father and son, parish pastor and interpreter of science
andtechnology.Wehavecontinuallystriventoexplore
the relationship between our two worlds. This study is
anattempt to expand our informal dialogueinto some-
thing with more substance. There are many types of
technology on which we could focus, but we chose to
lookattheInternet.Wefoundchurchmembersusually
talk first of the computer and Internet when asked for
the greatest cultural changes in the past decades. And
as Luther used the printing press to launch the Refor-
mation, church people are using the Internet for simi-
lar religious purposes.
The Pew Internet & American Life Project reports
28 million Americans, 3 million a day, 25% of all
Internetusers,havegoneonlineforreligiouspurposes.
Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, Vol. 23, No. 4, August 2003, 321-330
DOI: 10.1177/0270467603256085
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That is more than those who “have gambled online,
use Web auction sites, traded stocks online, placed
phone calls on the Internet, done online banking, or
used Internet-based dating services” (Larsen, 2001,
p. 2). The Barna Institute (2001) predicted,
Bytheendofthedecadewewillhaveinexcessof
ten per cent of our population who rely upon the
Internetfor their entirespiritualexperience.Some
of them will be individuals who have not had a
connection with a faith community, but millions
will be individuals who drop out of the physical
church in favor of the cyberchurch.
BrendaBrasher(2001,p.6)estimatedthereareatleast
a million religious Web sites. Many people speak of
these as the “Online Church.
We will examine this online church and see how it
compares to the traditional church. In particular, we
will explore the concept of computer-based religious
“cybercommunities”and see howtheycompare to tra-
ditional ideas concerning church and community. We
do this by asking one cyberreligious group a pair of
questionsandexaminingasimilarpoll taken by another
online religious community. Finally, we explore
numerous religious Web sites to see exactly what they
are offering.
Community
While exploring official statements, theological
interpretations, religious Web sites, as well as numer-
ous books and reports on this online church, we
encountered many challenging issues. But we always
came back to the same basic concern, the promise of a
“new and improved” form of community. At the root
of our concern seemed to be fundamentally different
conceptions. The church when examined as a social
institution has primarily regarded community as gath-
erings of people in localized communities. Many in
information communications technology describe a
version of community bound together by electronic
mediums.
Our article will examinewhatkind of community,
if any,can be found on the Internet. It will report the
experience of people who have used the Internet for
religious purposes and analyze Web sites that pur-
port to be the online church. Finally, we shall offer
some guidelines for appropriate church use of the
Internet.
Two Forms of Community
Though the concept of community has many possi-
bleconnotations,wewilluseitinitssimplestform.By
community, we mean the way people interrelate to
each other. Standard sociological literature provides
two forms in which community can come, which we
shall label local and associative. Our analysis will be
based on these two forms.
Most people think of the local form first when they
hear the word community. This is also the most com-
mon definition of community found in sociology. It
focuses on an aggregate of people who share a com-
mon interest in a particular locality. By definition,
local community is related to a specific geographical
location—an environment shared by all members of
the community. Ferdinand Tönnies’s (1957) concept of
Gemeinschaft readily maps onto an idea of local com-
munity. It can be defined totally as “territorially based
social organizations and social activity” (Bender,
1978, p. 5). “Community as a place and community as
an experience were one” (Bender, 1978, p. 62).
Because of this, local communities must be thought of
as more than just groups of people living in specific
locations. They are specific groups of people who
interact with each other in specific ways,because they
live in close proximity to each other. The idea of local
community“evokesimagesofpeoplewhotakecareof
each other and of themselves, of quiet, of peaceful-
ness, of safety, of freedom and self-determination, of
easy access to the resources necessary for survival, of
the security of home” (Vanderwolk, 1991).
An important component of a local community’s
shared experience is that these experiences are envi-
ronmentally dependent (Vanderwolk, 1983). By this
wemeanthatthe geographic locality providesasignif-
icant contribution to the experiences that members of
local communities share. If the community would be
movedtoa differentlocation,these experienceswould
be different, and hence the community would be sig-
nificantly altered. Therefore, a Midwestern farming
village and a New England fishing village are both
communities, similar in many respects but also very
different. Neither would fit into the other’s specific
location, but neither would ever try.
Very few people have examined associative forms
of community. Referring it to Tönnies’s (1957)
Gesellschaft does it an injustice but may be the best
way to understand it. The rise of professional commu-
nities provides us with the best example of research.
Technological innovations in communication, espe-
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cially in the written word, created a plethora of maga
-
zines and journals on every imaginable topic. People
became linked through magazines to people with
related interests (Bledstein, 1978). Through the writ-
ten words, ideas could be shared with thousands of
people without requiring face-to-face contact. More
than 200 years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville (1945)
showed the influence that the written word had for
bringing together groups of Americans and linking
them together into associative groups.
When Bledstein (1978) reported how these factors
combined to create “the vertical vision of the middle
class, he revealed a possible restrictive aspect. This
vertical vision included the idea that everybody could
become a member of the wealthy elite and that the
professionalization of the middle class was the road to
becoming rich. This created a distinct focusing on
moving upwards while totally ignoring one’s neigh-
bors and fellow middle-class members. As this hap-
pened, the worth of geographical communities broke
down.Professionals now attributedbelonging toa dis-
persedgroup of individualswith some shared attribute
that could be a vocation or even a leisure activity like
hikingor birdwatching. The shared experiences of the
localcommunitywerereplacedbysimilarexperiences
with no connection to the local neighborhoods. This
group stays in contact through some printed magazine
or journal or, in our case, the Internet.
The Internet and Community
The Pew Internet & American Life Project finds
people are using the Internet to intensify their
connection to their local community. They employ
emailtoplanchurchmeetings,arrangeneighbor-
hood gatherings, and petition local politicians.
They use the web to find out about local mer-
chants get community news and check out area
fraternal organizations. (Horrigan, 2001, p. 2)
The survey showed 84% of Internet users, about 90
million Americans, have used the Web to contact a
group. About 26% or 28 million people have used it to
contact or get information about local groups, “partic-
ularly church groups. The report suggests these find-
ingsoffersomecorrectiontothosethatcharthowelec-
tronic media is destroying local community. It speaks
of these online communities as virtual third places
where people can “hang out with others or more ac
-
tively engage with professional associations, hobby
groups,religious organizations,or sports leagues, but
it sees signs thattheyaugment rather than negateother
forms of community (Horrigan, 2001, pp. 2-3).
Many regard this as just the beginning of an evolu-
tion that will completely transform community as we
know it (see Barlow, 1996; Kurzweil, 2000; Moravec,
1988). These individuals believe that cybercommuni-
ties will provide users with richer experiences than
now offered by local communities. This group usually
cites Moore’slaw, whichreports the processing power
of the microchip doubles at least every 18 months, as
somehowensuringthe formationofa newglobalcom-
munity arriving in the near future, whether we are
ready or not. They speak of the Internet replacing
rather than strengthening local community.
One such group of futurists, Esther Dyson, George
Gilder,GeorgeKeyworth,and AlvinToffler(1994), in
their oft-cited Cyberspace and the American Dream:
AMagnaCarta forthe KnowledgeAge,claimed, “The
central event of the 20th century is the overthrow of
matter....Thepowers of the mind are everywhere
ascendant over the brute force of things” (p. 1). They
called for a redefinition of community, claiming we
are on an “electronic frontier” of knowledge. This
inevitable global community will feature electronic
neighborhoods bound together by shared interests not
geography.Putting“advancedcomputingpowerin the
handsofanentire population will alleviatepressureon
highways, reduce air pollution, allow people to live
further away from crowded and dangerous urban
areas [italics added] and expand family time” (p. 8).
Suddenly, there is an electronic place called cyber-
space where people can meet and formnewcommuni-
ties. The Internet is no longer simply a form of com-
munication around which people can form associative
community.Now,itis a place where peoplecanbuilda
newcommunity thatassumesrolesformerlyplayedby
the local form. Graham Ward (2000) observed, “What
had once been a praxis, is nowregardedas reality in it-
self”(p.149).Therefore,itfollowsthatthe main thrust
of this “magna carta” is
clear and enforceable property rights are essen-
tial for markets to work. Defining them is a cen-
tral function of government. Most of us have
“known” that for a long time. But to create a new
cyberspace environment is to create new prop-
erty—that is, new means of creating goods
(includingideas)thatservepeople. (Dyson etal.,
1994, p. 3)
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Many call on the church to become part of this
“emergingelectroniccommunity.Althoughtheyusu-
ally mention the dangers, such as making the market
the standard and equating anonymity with freedom,
they believe the Internet has great potential for creat-
ing new communities that will foster global under-
standing and peace. Some seem to be caught up in the
hype and pass too quickly over some basic Christian
concerns.
Church and Community
The church expresses herself primarily as local
community. At the same time, she has always exhib-
itedcharacteristics ofassociativecommunity. And she
confesses herself to be a global community when she
speaks of the “holy Catholic church.
Although there are many church traditions with
manyvarieddefinitionsofcommunity, theyallwantto
be founded on Jesus’ words in Matthew: “Where two
or three are gathered in my name, I am in the midst of
them” (Matthew 18:20). One sees this reflected in the
very minimalist Lutheran definition that defines the
church simply as a gathering of believersaround word
and sacrament (Tappert, 1959, p. 32). Community
demandsatleasttwopeople:onetospeakthewordand
one to hear, one to confess and one to forgive, one to
pour the water and one to receivethe water, and twoto
share a meal.
The local community is needed at least to perform
the ministries demanding personal presence.
When we say that a human being is “personally
present, as a rule we mean that this person is
with us “as a whole” in her full identity. Not
merely an image, a letter, a representative, a
shared conception or memory, but this human
being is bodily present. (Welker, 2000, p. 93)
Those ministries would include the sacraments, such
as baptism and Eucharist, but also other acts demand-
ing touch. Certainly caring for the neighbor in need is
most fully enacted in local community.
The associative community of the early church
interrelatedthroughletters,someofwhichareretained
in the official canon. The letters primarily communi-
cated information, such as current events and teach-
ings.But theyalso bestowedblessings and reprimands
as well as requests for prayer and financial assistance.
Thefoundationalcharacterofthelocalcongregationis
acknowledged when the letter writers often promise a
future personal appearance when fuller communion
will be possible (Romans 15:22-33).
Graham Ward (2002, p. 62) and the Pew Project
(Horrigan, 2001, p. 2) used the economic term
glocalization to characterize the church’s position.
The term originates in the desire to overcome the radi-
cal break between global and local community associ-
ated with the term globalization. Glocalization tries to
bring together the interests of the two communities.
Two characteristics of Christian community are
importantfor ourstudy.Thefirstisitsinclusivenature.
The church has always accepted Paul’s description—
“there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer
slaveor free,thereisnolonger male and female,forall
of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28)—as
herstandard,evenifthishasnotalwaysbeenevidentin
her practice. A customized community based on the
commoninterests ofthe samekind ofpeople wouldbe
an incomplete Christian community, especially if it
was formed to escape the pain experienced by others.
Paul emphasizes if “any part suffers, all suffer” (I
Corinthians 12:24-26).
Official church statements about Internet use usu-
ally address the “digital divide. The National Council
of Churches (1995) and the Vatican call for including
all people in the benefits of the Internet. The Vatican
maintains a basic principle of communication ethics
must be that “the good of persons cannot be realized
apart from the common good of the communities to
whichtheybelong”(Vatican,2000,No.22).Solidarity
is identified as the relevant virtue with a comment
seemingly directed at a constant danger of associative
communities. “It (solidarity) is not a feeling of vague
compassion and shallow distress at other people’s
troubles, but a firm and persevering determination to
commit oneself to the common good of their commu-
nities” (Vatican, 2002, No. 3).
Thesecondconcernisthebodilypresenceofpeople
in the local community. Although the church is often,
too often, pictured as disparaging the body, in truth,
likeallWesternreligions,itisverymaterialistandcon-
cerned with bodily needs and presence. Until recently,
most biblical scholars believed the Hebrew concept of
the human found in both Old and New Testaments had
no concept of the person apart from bodily presence.
They felt the Bible never speaks of an incarnated soul
butrather an animated body—never speaks of the soul
having a body but a body that is alive (McCasland,
1962, pp. 243-244). Recently, some scholars have
pointed to some few exceptions while still accepting
Nancey Murphy’s (Brown, Murphy, & Malony, 1998)
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suggestion that the Christian understanding of the
human can still be described as “nonreductive physi-
calism” (pp. 127-148).
This is so central to Christian belief that its basic
creedal statement, the Apostles’ Creed, affirms “the
resurrection of the Body. This reflects the scripture’s
description of the resurrected Jesus as embodied,
deliberately eating with his followers and inviting
them to touch him. Jesus remains embodied even after
his ascension in the church that is named “the Body of
Christ”and,forsome,in the elements oftheEucharist.
Perhaps Matthew means much the same when he
speaks of helping “the least of these my brothers and
sisters” as helping Jesus himself. Embodiment plays a
crucial role in church community. By confessing life
after death will be an embodied life, the creedal state-
ment affirms bodily presence as essential for defining
personhood.
What Church People Say About
the Community They Find Online
We examined what kind of community, if any, peo-
ple have found online. They certainly report having
found an associative form that has enabled them to
interrelate with others who use the Internet. However,
the overwhelming majority do not think this replaces
the need for local community. In fact, most see online
community to be quite a bit less satisfactory than local
forms. The results of the two polls reported below
correspond with views expressed in many personal
conversations.
One Group’s Response
We queried agroup that participates in online devo-
tions written by Pastor David Sonnenberg. The group
is about 300 people, mostly from Good Shepherd
Lutheran Church in Maryland’s sophisticated Mont-
gomery County. Withthe usual forwarding of e-mails,
the group now reaches people across the country. We
received 40 responses, more than we expected from a
group organized for another purpose.
The first question we asked was, Is Jesus present
when people meet online for religious purposes as he
promised to be when two or three gather in the local
congregation? Most of the respondents were very
carefulinanswering.About half spokeof God’s omni-
presence, enabling him to be “present in cyberspace.
The other half emphasized God being present when
people meet. This second group spoke of the Internet
asamediumlikebooksandphones.OnewroteJesusis
present “just as when one reads a religious book, the
authorandreaderarecommunicating.Wellmorethan
half of the participants qualified their answers with
something such as, “Jesus is not ‘present’when I face
the monitor the same way he is present when I gather
with others in his name. Two claimed Jesus is present
if we invoke him.
We then asked, What differences do you see be-
tween meeting for a religious purpose online and at a
local congregation? We found the people who re-
sponded to the poll and others we queried in conversa-
tion became obviously enthusiastic when they began
to list or debate the differencebetween associative on-
line and local congregational community. They spoke
most frequently of the need for embodied presence.
This was often in terms of “hugs. One woman wrote,
“When my fellow Christians hug me, God is hugging
me.” Another wrote,
I love the smells of my church, the touch of
elderly women who fawn over my small chil-
dren, who offer me their sweaters if I look cold,
the smell of the coffee and food in fellowship
hall, the sight of the cross. Of course that is lost
online. But the online may be better than none at
all.
And yet another wrote, “The touch, the observed
smileor tearsare hardto ‘see’ (online).One spokeof
theneedforthe“holykiss. A number referred to body
language.
Some pointed to the danger of people “isolating
themselves from face-to-face interaction and in-depth
conversation” by going online, just as “one can use
reading to isolate themselves from the community if
they wish, instead of using it as a tool to enhance the
worship experience.” Some cited the Internet’s capac-
ityforministryto shut-ins andthoserelativelyisolated
in small towns.
The Ooze Poll
We also examined a poll taken by “The Ooze, Con-
versation for the Journey” (theooze.com). This is a
sophisticated online community that regards itself as
part of “the emerging church. Although The Ooze
qualifies as an associative community, most of its par-
ticipants seem to be members of traditional churches
throughout the United States. Their question was, Is it
okaytoonlyattendchurchincyberspace?Itwasapop
-
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ulartopic,with 960 peopleresponding:128 or13.33%
replied “yes, 770 or 80.21% “no, and 62 or 6.46%
“not sure.
The Ooze also invited people to participate in a
scroll-down forum discussing the question. For this
portion,theleaderposedthequestionas,Cansomeone
only attend church in cyberspace? What would they
gainorlose?Therewere151responses,somefromthe
same people offering multiple comments. Most spoke
of attending a local church. A few described them-
selves being or once having been ministers. A few
made clear they were through with traditional
churches. Those traditional churches were often
described as the “physical” or “flesh” church.
Much of the discussion echoed that of the Good
Shepherd group. Those who spoke for the necessity of
the traditional church mentioned the need to feed the
hungry, care for real people, be accountable to others,
see, hug, and kiss. A few wondered how pastoral acts
suchasbaptismsandweddingswouldbedonewithout
a local community. Many spoke of eating together
either in Eucharistic worship or simply coffee and
donut fellowship.
The lack of discipline online was central at one
point.The discussionrevolvedaroundtheneedtohave
checks and balances on one’s opinion, which the local
face-to-face community offered. Online church
groups, including The Ooze, were criticized as shal-
low. One described them as “talk, talk, talk, an exten-
sionoftheProtestantproblemofmakingChristianitya
buffet where you pick and choose. Another lamented
thatthere is“too littleopportunity for people to irritate
you”online, towhich some repliedthere wasplenty of
that online as well.
Those who championed The Ooze as a church cited
its convenience. You could attend when you felt the
need. Only one spoke of the impossibility of attending
traditional church. He was always on the road travel-
ing. Online community was described as a safe place.
A few spoke of being “scared” by the flesh church.
Some felt online was more intimate because they
could say what they wanted. There was a great deal of
kidding about faking it online as well as in offline
churches. In fact, we could not always tell what was
sarcasm and what was serious.
Both of these groups discussed the weakness of
present traditional churches, wondering if online
Christiangroupsareareformmovement.Onespokeof
The Ooze placing a shot across the bow of the church.
One mused whether The Ooze is only a temporary
stopgap until normal congregations reform or if “this
is birthing something new?” Only a couple said they
would never return to traditional congregations.
Community Found on Web Sites
WealsosearchedWebsitesforevidenceofcommu-
nity. People speak loosely about every kind of site
being the online church. Many could hardly be
regarded as serving community. We did find sites that
served as extensions of local community, others that
were used by associative forms of community, and
others that claimed to offer functions traditionally
linked to local communities.
Research Sites
By far, most church Web sites offer information,
serving a research function as the Internet was origi-
nally intended to provide. They are primarily offering
resources pastors and laypeople can use in their per-
sonal or church lives. The Pew Project indicates this is
exactly how people are using the Internet for religious
purposes. Most do not use it as a place to meet people
but “as a vast ecclesiastical library. Sixty-seven per-
cent use it to access information on their own faith.
Fifty percent have used it to access information on
otherfaiths.AfterSeptember11,23%ofInternetusers
turnedtoonlinesourcestogetinformationaboutIslam
(Larsen, 2001, pp. 2, 13).
Two examples among a multitude of Web sites are
http://www.textweek.com and http://bible.gospelcom.
net/cgi-bin/bible. The firstoffers the pastor all sorts of
aids in planning each week’s worship. The second
enables searches of many versions of the Bible.
Extensions of Local Communities
Most of the calls for the online church are simply
pleasfortraditionalchurchestousetheWebinextend-
ing their ministries. The Web sites maintained by
regional and national traditional church bodies pro-
vide this kind of service by offering information, offi-
cial statements, help for congregational life, and aids
in finding a local congregation near you. They feature
little or no interaction.
The Barna Institute (2001) estimated one of every
threecongregationshadaWebsitein2001andreported
this number is quickly growing. Ginghamsburg.org is
the home page ofa verylargeunited Methodist church
thatisoftencitedashavinganexemplaryonlineminis-
try. The site acknowledges it is not a substitute for its
face-to-faceministry.Instead,it isregardedasoffering
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information and providing aid in building Christian
community. In conversation, the leaders reported that
by far the site is visited most often to download ser-
mons. Its current emphasis is on “transformation, a
ministry that encourages the congregation to read the
same Bible passages and use the same devotionals
daily. These are sent by e-mail and promoted at
Sunday services. The site also provides local and
global “cyberministries” opportunities. These enable
people to participate in scroll-down forums with oth-
ers sharing common interests. The local ministry
opportunities include topics such as raising a family,
home schooling, and singles’connections. The global
cyberministryforums seemto focusprimarilyon local
activity as well. They offer discussions on educational
and music ministries as well as small group and lay
leadershipopportunities.Theyalsoadvertisedanddis-
cussed conferences.
Christdesert.orgiscitedfrequentlyasanexampleof
the Internet overcoming distance barriers. A Benedic-
tinemonastery locatedfarintotheNewMexicodesert,
it offers a ministry over the Internet that again focuses
on providing study resources and spiritual life guid-
ance.Its “seeking God”featuresimply offersthehom-
ily from the daily chapel services, receives prayer
requests to be offered at those services, and makes
available chants that one can play while using the site.
The site is essentially an extensionof the local monas-
tic community’s ministry. Those who use the service
are somewhatlike the traditional monasticoblates, lay
supporters of the monastery who are allowed to use its
resources.
Suchextendedministrysitescanbeextremelyhelp-
ful in unusual crisis situations. When Spiritus Christi
Church in Rochester,New York, left the Roman Cath-
oliccommunitybecauseofcontroversy,memberskept
contact with each other through its Web site
(www.spirituschristi.org). This was crucial as the par-
ish met for a long time at different locations each
week.
Independent Sites That Offer
Associative Community
Partenia.org claims to be a “diocese without bor-
ders.” Jacques Gaillot, a Roman Catholic bishop, was
essentially exiled after he got in trouble with the Vati-
can. When his diocese in France was declared vacant,
he was reassigned to one surrounded by sand in Alge-
ria. Rather than remain silent, he established a Web
site. Again, he primarily offers a chance to study, par
-
ticipate in text-based forums, or seek personal advice.
Like a large number of sites, this one seems to offer
whatwouldtraditionally beregardedas pastoral coun-
seling. The bishop also writes freely about controver-
sial issues, such as the war in Iraq.
Thesite also addsa chat roomthat operates periodi-
cally each day. Chat rooms are often cited as examples
of how the Internet offers great interactivity. There is
obviously greater interaction in a conference phone
call, but the chat room is more accessible. A large
number of people with whom we spoke reported they
received valuable support speaking to someone else
with the same problem in a chat room. Some estab-
lished lasting friendships. However, none of these
were on church-related sites. Those evaluating online
church chat rooms with us spoke of the conversations
being shallow and dominated by pushy evangelism.
Another Web siteis dailyguideposts.com, an online
prayer circle. It accepts prayer requests, more than
20,000 a month. Prayer volunteers promise to ponder
the requests and spend about 3 minutes in prayer over
each.The PewProject reportsabout 38%of those who
use the Internet for religious purposes say they have
sent or received e-mail prayer requests. After Septem-
ber11, 41%of all Internet users, manywhonevercon-
sidered themselves online spiritual seekers, sent or
received such e-mails (Larsen, 2001, pp. 2, 13).
Certainly, theooze.com qualifies as an online asso-
ciative church community. This sophisticated site,
“The Ooze, Conversation for the Journey, operates
somewhat like a professional journal. Those who use
the site are invited to an annual convention that moves
around the nation. Its leader, Spencer Burke, states in
“cliff notes for the emerging church” that the church
has no essential structure. All that matters is “the
inward journey, the outward journey, and the journey
together. Spencer believes online church groups like
his might be accepted as primary Christian communi-
ties in the future. Right now, we are to wait and see,
leaving all options open.
True to its name, the site tries to offer conversation.
Participants can suggest questions for polls and con-
tributeto“discussionthreads,suchasthescroll-down
forumwereported above.Chatroomsare availablefor
achancetospeakwithpeopleofsimilarinterests.“The
Wall” is a bulletin board on which participants can
“spraypaint”graffiti.Theycan alsorentfilmsandvid-
eos from the theater. Those participating are invited to
submitarticles for thesiteand artwork to “thegallery.
At present, they are seeking funding for a newfeature,
oozetank, “a collaborative digital workspace where
Foltz, Foltz / RELIGION ON THE INTERNET 327
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artists, musicians, literary storytellers, and theolo
-
gians can come together to create and share their cre-
ative work. In spite of all these opportunities to inter-
act, the chance to download essays on culture, faith,
ministry, and community is most prominent.
Sites That Serve as Spiritual Retreats
A lot of Internet religion functions like an online
spiritual retreat center, available when you need it.
Peoplereporttheylikethisfeatureofonlinedevotional
services. When things get tense at the office, they can
take a break with the devotions to gain perspective.
The sites also provide a safe place to discuss issues
such as homosexuality and peace. Traditional retreat
centers have always offeredsafe places to discuss top-
ics more difficult to confront in some local congrega-
tions.
Ericelder.compresentsitselfas a virtual retreat cen-
ter. It is the site of the full-time Eric Elder ministries.
“The Ranch, a place of healing and restoration, offers
the options of taking a walk in the woods, listening to
soothing Christian music, hearing an inspirational
story, or sometimes talking with someone. It invites
people wanting personalconversationto enterthe chat
room that is promised to be manned some time during
most days. Like many such sites, it offers essays peo-
plemightdownloadthatprovideinformation,counsel-
ing, and support on controversial issues.
Sites That Offer Online Worship
Some sites do offer worship opportunities that
would normally be considered a function of the local
congregation.ThePewProject reports only 4%ofreli-
gious surfers have ever used the Web for worship pur-
poses (Larsen, 2001, pp. 1, 13).
Godweb.org is the Web site of the First Church of
Cyberspace run since 1994 by a Presbyterianminister,
Charles Henderson. Henderson is also the executive
director of the highly respected Cross Currents maga-
zine. Besides the usual music, sermons, multimedia
bible, movie reviews, art gallery, forum discussions,
and evening chat room, Henderson provides a sanctu-
ary where one can worship. Icons and other symbols
that can be changed according to your preference
appear on your monitor. Interestingly, a communion
cup was featured as one of the symbols, even though
theEucharistisnotoffered.Those“entering”thesanc-
tuary are offered a variety of sermons, music, and
prayersfromwhich theycan choose whattheyneed.A
link directs attention to the homeless as object of
prayer.Ifonefollowsthatlink,heorsheendsuponthe
Web site of the National Coalition for the Homeless.
Its ministry is described and funds are solicited. The
worship experience certainly demonstrates a custom-
ized religious experience that is often criticized as a
failure of associative church communities.
We did not participate in a “multiuser virtual reality
church. In many ways, these are less welcoming than
traditional local congregations, perhaps because the
worshipper needs certain technological knowledge.
They also seem to be very private. In fact, because of
this privacy factor, researchers are attempting to form
ethical guidelines for reporting on them.
Ralph Schroeder, Noel Heather, and Raymond Lee
(1998) reported on these communities in which the
worshippersuse avatarsto representthemselves.It isa
form of Sim church, where individuals can move their
avatars around. They described the worship as an in-
formal, “charismatic-style” prayer meeting (p. 7). The
authors reported,
The relationships between participants in the E-
Churchworld...arequiteweakand unidimensional:
what the believers knowabout each other is typi-
cally limited to...thedifficulties they are seek-
ingrelieffrom(whichformalargepartoftheser-
vice), their religious ideas, and the like. (p. 5)
Forinstance,whenaspeakerspokeofhismaritalprob-
lems, one of the leaders first offered counseling and
then revealed he was coming to divorce himself (pp.
10, 11). The authors discerned some practices that
were
transformed by the technology, and may detract
from the sense of a religious gathering: verbal
exchanges become shorter, emotional solidarity
with co-participants is weaker, and there is less
orderliness to the prayer meetings. But the tech-
nology also brings certain gains: the virtual
church allows for more candid exchanges
between participants, it enables a kind of access
from all over the world that is not available in
conventional services, and it permits experimen-
tation in the use (and prior to that, the design) of
the virtual space that is less constrained than a
church in the real world. (pp. 5, 11)
Itwouldseemworshipperscouldusetheiravatarsto
celebrate baptism and Eucharist, as well as weddings
and other rituals. However, the authors reported that
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the most activity they observed was when the partici
-
pants rearranged their avatars so they could become
moreintimatebyfacingoneanother.Afterreadingthis
report and examining some related sites, we felt the
impact of such worship was much like that of a video
game.
Discussion/Conclusions
Our study finds Christians are using the Internet
extensively and enthusiastically. Some are forming
associative communities. We did not find evidence of
many, including those most involved in the “emerging
electronic church, regarding these communities as
replacements for local church communities. We found
those Web sites that did try to replicate personal pres-
ence local ministries to be extremely shallow.
The findings would seem to agree with writers such
as Graham Ward (2000), Katherine Hayles (1999),
Hubert Dreyfus (2001), and Albert Borgmann (2000),
who spoke of the necessity for embodiment in order to
fully experience one another and “hold on to reality.
Borgmann wrote,
We are essentially bodily creatures that have
evolved over many hundreds of thousands of
years to be mindful of the world not just through
our intellect or our sense but through our very
musclesand bones.We are stunting and ignoring
this ancestral attunement to reality at our peril.
(p. 220)
Most people using the Internet for religious pur-
poses feel strongly the local church community can
benefit by extending her ministry online. We charac-
terized this as extending local community, very much
asthechurchhasalwaysdonethroughcommunication
media.TheInternetalsoprovidesavehicleofgreatpo-
tential for gathering an associative form of commu-
nity,suchasThe Ooze. Becausethisremainsaweaker,
narrower, shallower form, some theologians, such as
Robert Jenson (1995), refuse to name it “community”
at all. He believes
the media cannot create or foster a community.
What they create and foster is precisely a mass, a
collection of persons who have a common pur-
pose...butwhocontact each other,if at all, only
by way of that focus. (p. 158)
Regardless of our difference in labeling, our find
-
ings agree with Jenson when he claimed the political
andtechnologicalstructure of theInternetpreventsthe
church from fully proclaiming the gospel through it
(Jenson,1995,p. 161). Aproclamationoverthe Internet,
suchas“God lovesyouandso do I,remainsalmost as
shallow as when expressed over television. He did be-
lieve the church can use the Internet “to teach theol-
ogy” and “to invite the world’s observation” (Jenson,
1995, p. 162). Our findings suggest users would add
manyother functions, such assharing experiencesand
opinions, bestowing blessings and reprimands, mak-
ing requests for prayer and other needs, providing re-
sourcesandteaching,callingtoaction,and praying for
oneanother.Itis alsoobviousthat many Christians are
turningtotheInternetandonlinechurches to seek help
for personal problems and support on controversial is-
sues. We characterized this function as a spiritual re-
treat center. Perhaps, more than anything else, we
found Christians using the Internet to share experi-
ences and prayers. This might be expected when con-
temporary society, largely as a result of the electronic
media’s influence, regards all teaching as opinion.
Dreyfus(2001) also did not believe the Internet can
be used for religion as it undermines unconditional
commitments. He viewed cyberexperiencesto be sim-
ilar to playing games and watching movies. They are
interesting, but because the disembodied nature of the
Internet eliminates risk, it is simply unreal theater.
Like Jenson, Dreyfus believed the Web with its vast
nonhierarchical nature cannot produce a community.
Caught up in limitless information without any means
to bring order, the best it can yield is a mass. The end
result is despair.
Although we agree the media itself provides no
hierarchy or risk, we found this limitation is abated by
the way the church people we studied use it. The study
found that most people using the Internet for religious
purposes use it wisely, well aware of the limitations of
electronic communities. It is the media that is limited,
not the participants. Most participants realize the poor
andhungry arenot foundin cyberspace,especially not
in customized disembodied communities. Most warn
against using the Internet as an escape from the real
needsofrealpeople.Mostareawarethatwehavemore
to say to one another than can be conveyed in binary-
structured sentences.
At the same time, we did not hear people speaking
much about the need for an electronic global commu-
Foltz, Foltz / RELIGION ON THE INTERNET 329
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by abdolmajid taheri on May 25, 2008 http://bst.sagepub.comDownloaded from
nity. Nor did we find much evidence of such on the
Web sites we visited. Mention was made of communi-
cating with people around the world, and hope was
expressed that this might lead to better understanding.
But most people again recognized the limitations of
the electronic media in accomplishing this. They
wouldobservethat lackof informationisnot thecause
of our failure to solve even the basic human problems
such as hunger and homelessness. Many noted the
Internet is not going to unite a world when only a third
of its people have electricity 24 hours a day, another
thirdafewhours a day,andthefinalthirdnoelectricity
at all.
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Franz Foltz is an assistant professor of Science, Technology
and Society at Rochester Institute of Technology. His re-
search interests include public participation and technol-
ogy, research policy, and social impacts of technology.
Frederick Foltzisa retiredLutheran pastor living in Gettys-
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withouthierarchyandsharedministry withalargecongre-
gation.
330 BULLETIN OF SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY & SOCIETY / August 2003
© 2003 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.
by abdolmajid taheri on May 25, 2008 http://bst.sagepub.comDownloaded from
... It provides material to reinforce the beliefs of those already engaged with their faith as well as information to those exploring different faith communities. Members of religious groups frequently use the Internet to undertake activities, such as online worship and making requests for prayers, seeking advice and information, sharing experiences and opinions, bestowing blessings and reprimands, listening to sermons, social networking and even shopping for religious merchandise (McKenna and West, 2007;Cheong et al., 2009;Campbell, 2005a;Hoover et al., 2004;Helland, 2002;Foltz & Foltz, 2003;Casey, 2001;Larsen & Rainie, 2001). Højsgaard and Warburg (2005) reported that by the year 2004 there were approximately 51 million religious websites on the Internet, disseminating information and communicating with followers. ...
... found that among the activities undertaken in these online communities are worship, making requests for prayers, seeking advice/information, sharing experiences/opinions, and bestowing blessings or reprimands (McKenna and West, 2007;Foltz and Foltz, 2003;Casey, 2001). One prime benefit of these online religious communities was that members or religious followers were able to express their opinion or ask sensitive questions allowing for open discussions on faith matters and sensitive or controversial issues (Casey, 2001;Foltz & Foltz, 2003). ...
... found that among the activities undertaken in these online communities are worship, making requests for prayers, seeking advice/information, sharing experiences/opinions, and bestowing blessings or reprimands (McKenna and West, 2007;Foltz and Foltz, 2003;Casey, 2001). One prime benefit of these online religious communities was that members or religious followers were able to express their opinion or ask sensitive questions allowing for open discussions on faith matters and sensitive or controversial issues (Casey, 2001;Foltz & Foltz, 2003). ...
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In this paper we present results from an investigation of religious information searching based on analyzing log files from a large general-purpose search engine. From approximately 15 million queries, we identified 124,422 that were part of 60,759 user sessions. We present a method for categorizing queries based on related terms and show differences in search patterns between religious searches and web searching more generally. We also investigate the search patterns found in queries related to 5 religions: Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism. Different search patterns are found to emerge. Results from this study complement existing studies of religious information searching and provide a level of detailed analysis not reported to date. We show, for example, that sessions involving religion-related queries tend to last longer, that the lengths of religion-related queries are greater, and that the number of unique URLs clicked is higher when compared to all queries. The results of the study can serve to provide information on what this large population of users is actually searching for.
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