Dotcom churches: ministry or marketing?

A Texas church expands Web evangelism, offering psalms with news and horoscopes.

Like many congregations across the country, the Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas, is setting up a fancy site on the Internet to reach out to a new generation of parishioners.

But unlike other churches' sites, the Fellowship website, launching today, won't stop with soothing sermons and inspiring Bible messages from Job.

People who visit the site can customize it to fit their needs, calling up scriptural verses, movie reviews, stock quotes - even horoscopes. The church has even changed its name to Fellowshipchurch.com and hired an official "technology pastor."

"This is one more way to branch out and reach people, says Preston Mitchell, marketing manager for the church."

In its quest to become the Yahoo! of worship, Fellowship is in the vanguard of a budding electronic evangelism movement. Across the country, churches are using the latest technology to try to attract new parishioners and stay relevant in an age when "portal" is as much a part of the lexicon as the prodigal son.

Its proponents tout Web-based religion as a way to reach larger, more diverse audiences and create a high-tech image.

Nonetheless some theologians worry that mixing marketing with ministry can dilute and divert religion's message. At the very least, they say, ministers should proceed with caution in this brave new arena.

"I have no doubt that the church is able to use technology as a beneficial means," says Hemchand Gossai, a religion professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa. "Careful and judicious action are requisites here, however. We have much on television today that is promoted as 'Christian worship,' but in reality is little more than theater and marketing."

What most do agree is that the Internet is fast changing the way religion is disseminated, much the same way as the printing press did centuries ago.

"Churches must do this to participate where humanity is headed," says Richard Thieme, a business consultant who studies human relationships and cyberspace. "The Internet is no different than the printing press was."

The 12,000-member Fellowshipchurch.com - the first to become an official dotcom - is taking its Internet presence to an entirely new level.

It employs a technology pastor to oversee computer programming and a digital-ministry director, who writes Web content. The duo worked together to get the domain name from an Illinois church. The church's previous website received more than 1 million hits a month.

"We wanted a website that could start your day," says Mr. Mitchell. "We are sure we will get more hits as this takes off."

Indeed, many pastors say electronic evangelizing can reach people in ways that radio or television never did.

Pastor Perry Gaspard of the Abundant Life Fellowship in Lake Charles, La., has hosted a syndicated TV show for 14 years. Recently, he wondered how to take his show to his website - www.lifetv.org. Then Mr. Gaspard discovered a technology company, Piranha, an encoding service that compresses streaming video of his services for Internet posting.

"If someone in Atlanta sees the program, he can call someone in Chicago and that person can now view the program," says Gaspard. "Religion is 24/7 now, because of the Web, not just at 9:30 in the morning."

Churches are building and financing Web portals in different ways.

Some plan to build server infrastructure using congregational donations and then charge families and individuals a monthly fee for Internet access. Others are searching for Christian corporations to sponsor or advertise on websites.

In addition to increasing the size of their audience, ministers hope the new technology will give them a better image with an edge of progressiveness.

And for many, money is also a driving factor. Several ministers say they hope websites will attract younger and more successful members - ensuring their churches a stable and economically rich future.

But Fellowshipchurch.com says it is its ministry that gives it direction, not money.

"When you are getting calls and e-mails from Brazil, China, and South Africa, you know it's working," says Mitchell. "It's not as if we are trying to replace coming together in a sanctuary, but the Internet makes the world such a smaller place for reaching out and sharing the good news of Jesus Christ."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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