CHICAGO — The nation's church pews may be emptying, but the Internet is bursting with believers.
Legions of cyber-congregants are changing the very nature of worship in America.
Take the many thousands of people who gather daily in online forums like Microsoft Network's religion site. They tackle topics like "Can God Heal?" or human sexuality or praying about Kosovo.
It's a disparate, often cacophonous jumble. And there's the occasional mean-spirited attack. But more often what emerges are civilized, substantial discussions within faiths and between them - without priests, ministers, rites, or rituals.
Some observers say the arrival of online religion is as dramatic as when printing presses brought the written word to medieval Europe, elbowing aside stained-glass windows and other images as the primary focus of worship.
Today it's hierarchy and ritual that are being pushed aside.
"In an age like ours, when religion gets a bad rap, people don't like all the rite, ritual, and liturgy," says Niles Goldstein, the voice behind "ask the rabbi" on Microsoft's site. So, by being light on ritual and heavy on discussion, he says, the Internet serves up "religion in the raw."
The organic structure - and anonymity - of online religion is what's attractive to many people, including those who've fallen away from organized worship. They can explore a church or denomination without having to walk into a brick-and-mortar building - or deal with the people inside.
Take the Baltimore-based Project Genesis, which offers "classes" via e-mail on everything from weekly Torah readings to Jewish ethics.
It is the world's largest Jewish education organization, zapping out 26,000 messages each week to subscribers, which include lapsed-but-curious Jews and non-Jews.
"A lot of people are intimidated by the fact that they may have lots of secular education, but they know or remember little about Judaism," says project director Rabbi Yaakov Menken.
Subscribers often respond to e-mails with very basic questions, such as Hebrew grammar, he says. "People don't want to walk up to their local rabbi and say, 'Hi, I'm ignorant.' But on the Internet? No problem."
Another phenomenon that enables arm's-length religious participation is the growing number of Web cams in churches. Online worshipers can attend services while sitting in their pajamas, if they so desire.
On the Web site for Atlanta's Peachtree Presbyterian Church, for instance, viewers can see live (if jerky) images of services - complete with the pastor's sermon, stained glass, and audience "amens." At a recent service, 1,600 people were viewing via the Internet.
While not all churches have Web cams, Houses of Worship, a Philadelphia-based group, has helped some 99,000 churches put up Web sites.
But for all the benefits of the Internet, there are concerns, too. Because it doesn't require people to commit to a church, some worry it allows cyber-worshipers to be selfish - and avoid the sacrifice that's central to most religions.
"It isn't just about how religion can serve us," says Rabbi Goldstein, "it's about how we can serve it - and the community."
Web-based religion also raises the issue of geography: Does a worshipers have to be present in a church to pray? Do they, for instance, have to actually eat the cracker and sip the wine to receive communion - or is there some virtual substitute? Some say no. "Virtual communion is just not possible," says Fran Maier, chancellor of the Catholic Archdiocese of Denver, which sponsored a conference on the Internet and religion.
Yet for some things, such as prayer, the physical distances don't seem to be a barrier. In fact, in a recent survey of people who use the Internet for religious purposes shows a burgeoning traffic in prayer over the Internet.
Fifty-two percent of respondents said they have asked other people to pray for them in e-mail messages. Seventy percent said they have prayed for people because of getting an e-mail.
In fact, e-mail may be a perfect medium for prayer requests: "It doesn't feel intrusive, like a phone call, but it feels immediate, unlike a letter," says Ken Bedell, vice president of the nonprofit Forum Foundation in Seattle, which conducted the survey.
While some churches struggle with the challenges the Internet presents, many people are adapting - and moving beyond the hierarchy of organized religion. "It's turning religious hierarchy on its side," says Francis Forde Plude, a communications professor at Cleveland's Notre Dame College of Ohio. "Churches and ministers can no longer insist on authority. They have to earn it."
New way to preach
Ministering on the Internet requires a whole new approach, one that relies on empathy and authenticity. The ability to listen and discern spiritual issues is more important than presenting doctrine clearly.
By being a forum for listening as much as preaching, some say the Internet's greatest contribution to religion will be that it boosts religious literacy: As people listen to each other, they'll learn more about other faiths - and have to be more clear about their own.
And for those who might want to venture into the online religious realm, the Web master of Microsoft's site, Lynne Bundesen, has this advice: "They should go in with the greatest humility and not expect to sell their religion the first time they open their mouths in a chat room." In this world, she says, "people are drawn to humility, not self-promotion."