It has taken awhile, but mainstream churches are finally getting online. Individual churches are setting up sites on the World Wide Web. Now, a program tested in Pittsburgh is going nationwide with an alluring offer for any Christian congregation:
Put your church on the Internet for free.
The sponsors hope churches will, at a minimum, list their hours of worship and other pertinent information on the program's Web site (www.housesofworship.net). "This is really 'love your neighbor' electronically," says the Rev. John Stahl-Wert, director of training for the Pittsburgh Leadership Foundation, which originated the Houses of Worship program.
The idea seems to be catching on. Publicly launched in Pittsburgh in June 1996, the program had 10 percent of the area's 4,000 churches on board within six months. The Web site is now adding about 50 churches a day.
The process is straightforward. The "Houses of Worship" Web site already lists Christian churches in the US. Someone wishing to add information about a particular church can apply to be that church's "list editor." That editor can send something as simple as a block of text, giving hours of services and outreach programs, or spice it up with maps, pictures, or sound.
"I think it's worthwhile," says Carl Richter, pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ in Pittsburgh. New to the Internet himself, he uploaded information about his church to the site in April. On the first Sunday in May, the church had a visitor who had seen the information online and decided to come. She's now a member. She was followed by an Internet-savvy family, who also joined.
Getting a church to list information on the site is a first step in what the program hopes will be increased involvement in the community.
The Pittsburgh Leadership Foundation - and the 24 other metropolitan leadership foundations modeled after it - are interdenominational groups that try to connect churches with one another to meet community needs.
"We know that the local church - large or small, strong or weak - is in every neighborhood," says Mr. Stahl-Wert. "And if we can strengthen the institution of the local church, we're building on an asset that helps every neighborhood."
The Web site has a special "needs and offers" section for each church. There, congregations can list what they need or what they have to offer, whether it be food and furniture or spiritual counseling. A major thrust of the program is to link the poor and needy to the online resources that can help them.
The most far-reaching experiment is taking place in Phoenix. There, the Southwest Leadership Foundation is picking 25 local Christian churches, which are each to pick 10 needy families in their area and get them connected online. Each church will get its own Web site, which will include links to social agencies that would be useful to the needy.
Church volunteers will show them how to use the computer to look for a job, find childcare, or meet other needs. "We are using the computer to create a meaningful community of people," says Stanley Beard, general chairman of the group's task force setting up the program, "Connecting Our Disconnected."
"Houses of Worship" focuses only on Christian congregations, because that is its current mandate, says Stahl-Wert. He would like to see the program expand to include other religions. It is funded through next June, thanks to a $5 million grant from the American Bible Society. "Our goal is to provide seed money," says Mike Maus, the society's communications director. "This is a seed that's going to fall on very fertile ground."
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