Is a virtual community as important, or as vibrant, as a physical one?
Most people, especially those without any experience of the Internet, would probably say no, it's not. But several recent studies, including a new one by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, are turning that notion on its head. While the Internet may not be quite the same thing as actually being there, it can enhance and grow bonds between people who may be part of a larger physical religious community.
"Wired churches, wired temples: Taking congregations and missions into cyberspace" surveyed more than 1,300 Christian and Jewish congregations across the US, andfound that an astounding 83 percent of those who responded say the use of websites and e-mail has improved the spritual life of their communities and brought people closer together. In fact, 25 percent believe that it helps their congregations a very great deal.
Who are the people most likely to use the Internet as an aid to their spiritual lives? African-Americans, and African-American women in particular, according to the survey. Blacks with online access are 65 percent more likely than whites to use the Internet to seek out religious information. This factor may also reflect regional differences, the survey found. About 26 percent of all respondents who lived in the Southern US and who have Internet access sought spiritual materials online, compared with only 14 percent of those with Internet access in the Northeast.
Ministers and rabbis are also using the Internet to their advantage. Many of those who responded to Pew's survey said the Internet had become one of their main sources of information for both sermons and their own spiritual devotions.
E-mail is definitely the application used most often by religious communities - 91 percent cited its use as a key factor in helping members stay in touch with each other on a more regular basis.
But the Web is also playing a key role: Eighty-three percent say they use the Web to encourage people to attend their church; 77 percentpost mission statements, sermons, or other text about their faith; 60 percent have links to scripture studies or devotional materials; and 56 percent use their sites to post important internal communications.
As fascinating as the Pew study is, information that it either ignored or was forced to leave out also says a great deal about how different denominations use the Net. The Pew study notes that it was not a "scientific" study of the estimated 336,000 places of worship in the US. The survey itself was conducted online, at a password-protected site, which may indicate a self-selecting process where groups who use the Net actively were more likely to take and respond positively to the questionnaire.
And the report notes that researchers had a harder time contacting congregations at some major church organizations, like the Roman Catholic, Southern Baptist, and the Mormon churches, and Muslim congregations because they do not have portal sites that allow for "one-stop, nationwide gathering of congregational URLs." This decentralized approach may mean it's more difficult for members of these communities to use the Web as a spiritual aid.
Still, the report serves as a fascinating look at how the Internet is becoming ingrained in even the most important elements of life in America.
If you're interested in finding out about the ways that US congregations use the Web, you can read the entire report online at http://www.pewinternet.org/reports/toc.asp?Report=28.
Tom Regan is the associate editor of csmonitor.com, the electronic edition of The Christian Science Monitor. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society