Churches Extend Outreach to World Wide Web

Movement to put religion on-line means 'Net' surfers can find everything from Christian bookstores to Buddhist chat groups

The Web Chapel sounds like a church. It has a chaplain, a Bible study program, and a place where people can ask for help through prayer.

But it's not a church. Instead of four walls and a steeple, it has an Internet address. Its members take prayer requests on-line. Even its chaplain, Steve Woods, communicates with visitors via electronic mail. ''The Internet is the next great avenue for communicating the Gospel to the world,'' he says.

The Web Chapel is part of an international movement to put religion on-line. Today the computer user surfing the Internet is likely to run across on-line Christian bookstores and Buddhist discussion groups, church-software salesmen and religious scholars. In the last few years a steady stream of church groups has come on-line. In the last few months, there's been a torrent of interest. ''All of a sudden ... it just came to mushroom,'' says Bob Rudis of Media Management, a Roanoke, Va., consulting firm that helps Christian groups get onto the Internet.

''The evangelical activity is really starting to explode,'' adds Quentin Schultze, professor of communications at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Mr. Schultze, who edits a biweekly Internet newsletter for Christians, started noticing the move in the early 1990s. First, such mainline Christian groups as Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians began hosting Internet discussion groups. Now, Methodists, Baptists, and others are jumping onto the bandwagon and setting up sites on the graphical part of the Internet, called the World Wide Web. Every issue of Schultze's newsletter lists some 50 to 100 new Christian Web sites. (For users with access to the Web, the newsletter can be found at http://www.gospelcom. net/ifc/index.html.)

Although Christian groups predominate, the Web plays host to religions of all kinds. A quick search earlier this week turned up dozens of groups, including the Islamic Resources Home Page (http://latif.com/welcome.html), the Global Hindu Electronic Network (http://rbhatnagar.csm.uc. edu:8080/ajay_old.html), and the Web site for the Talk.Religion. Buddhism on-line discussion group (http://www.lib.ox.ac.uk/ internet/news/faq/talk.religion. buddhism.html.

Much of what religious groups do on-line is communicate. Sometimes they share ideas via discussion groups. The Religion forum on the CompuServe on-line service, for example, hosts electronic conversations on such topics as ''creation versus evolution'' and the role of the Virgin Mary. Other groups are using the technology to reach out to the world.

On-line advantages

''We're trying to put a Christian presence on the Internet,'' says Duane Smith, marketing director for Gospel Communications Network, a part of Gospel Films Inc. in Muskegon, Mich. The technology has some advantages over other electronic media, he adds. ''Television is one-directional. You sit there and watch it, but how do you respond? With the Internet, you can react.''

Mr. Smith's Web site (http://www.gospelcom.net/new. html) accommodates a variety of interests from religious testimonials to the Christian Sports Flash Weekly (the latest news on Christian athletes). The most popular feature is the Bible Gateway, where users can search for words and passages in up to five versions of the Bible. Smith says, ''People are more interested in getting to the word of God rather than the other printed material that goes along with it.''

Another example is The First Church of Christ, Scientist - the Boston-based church that publishes this newspaper. Instead of putting its own religious writings on-line, the church's communications arm, the Committee on Publication, sponsors an informational Web site on religious freedom (http://northshore.shore. net/~compub/welcome.html).

So many believers are gaining access to the Internet that even individual churches, looking to attract local audiences, are going on-line. Two examples are the Henderson Hills Baptist Church in Edmond, Okla. (http://www. ionet.net/~hhbc/index.shtml), and the First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Bellingham, Wash. (http://www.pacificrim.net/ ~csbell). The sites include the churches' addresses and meeting times as well as information on upcoming events. The latter site includes a link to another Christian Science church that has set up Web pages - an example of networking among churches that experts say is a growing trend.

Coursework via the Web

Some religious groups are pushing the technology further. In January, Trinity College and Theological Seminary in Newburgh, Ind., began offering its courses on-line (go ''tdelta'' to reach its forum on CompuServe). Several hundred students are now studying everything from undergraduate Old Testament to contemporary theological perspectives through their computers.

The only courses not offered on-line are Greek and Hebrew, because the languages use characters that most computers can't handle. The college is working on software to handle that problem.

''The on-line concept allows professors to have direct, immediate contact with the student,'' says Dennis Frey, the college's vice president of computer-integrated studies. And it saves money at a time when many seminaries are strapped for cash. ''You don't have to heat or air-condition the on-line division,'' Mr. Frey adds. The college is also reachable through the Web (http://www.goshen.net/ TrinityCollege).

Another Internet innovation is the on-line text. Many sites include digital versions of religious works, histories, and translations. The only problem is that scholars have a hard time discerning on-line between good texts and mediocre ones. ''How good are the translations?'' asks Michael Attridge, a graduate student of theology at University of St. Michael's College, a Roman Catholic college in Toronto. ''The greatest and worst thing about the World Wide Web is that there's no regulation.''

The problem of authenticity is also a potential bugaboo for Internet religious groups. For example, is the Church of Euthanasia (whose slogan is: ''Save the Planet - Kill Yourself.'') a legitimate group or the work of a single individual? On-line, it's impossible to tell.

''Cyberspace is an easy and inexpensive way for crackpots as well as legitimate religious authorities to gain a voice and a following,'' says Schultze, the Christian-newsletter editor. ''There are thousands of personal home pages by religious folks who are essentially creating their own interpretations of Scripture. It's essentially roll-your-own religion.''

Few, if any, groups are conducting actual services on-line. Many Internet religious scholars doubt that the practice will take hold. The Internet is best used as a supplement to current church activity, they say.

Mr. Woods of the Web Chapel also plays down the idea: ''I really do not believe people will ever go to church on the Internet.''

''I can't agree that it replaces church,'' adds Mr. Attridge of the University of St. Michael's College. ''Church is the community celebrating together.''

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