By Andy Butcher
Porn may rule the Web, but religion is leading a quiet online revolution. People are turning to the Internet in large numbers to enrich their spiritual lives — and finding churches waking up to the impact they can have through cyberspace.
More than 2 million people go online each day looking for spiritual and religious information, according to a study by the Pew Research Center. The group’s Pew Internet Project found that 21 percent of Internet users — about 20 million people — have gone to the Internet looking for faith-related sites. That is more than the number of people who utilize online banking.
In what is believed to have been the first study of its kind, researchers quizzed more than 1,300 churches and synagogues across the country. They found that 83 percent of congregations said using the Internet has been helpful, and 83 percent felt that e-mail use by ministers and members helped their spiritual life.
Almost half the congregations polled had been operating Web sites for more than two years — 78 percent of them for at least 12 months. Most of the sites (66 percent) were created on an ad hoc basis by volunteers rather than as a planned action by church leaders. But after being launched, 81 percent had some sort of clearance procedure for new content.
The report concluded that the Internet had become “a vital force in many faith communities.” The most common use for the site was to encourage visitors to attend services (83 percent). Also popular were posting sermons and other faith-related documents (77 percent), links to denominational and other sites (76 percent) and links to study and devotional materials (60 percent). Only 5 percent used their sites for online fund raising, and just 4 percent broadcast their services on the Web.
One church that did was the 130-member United Church of God in Beloit, Wis. Pastor Steve Nutzman told “USA Today” they did so not to show off, but to serve members who were sometimes prevented from attending by illness or bad weather. “We had a snowstorm last weekend, and our attendance was down 40 percent, but I knew that day we would have quite a few listening in,” he said.
Half the new members at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco first heard about the church through its Web site, “The San Francisco Chronicle” said. Program producer Sean McConnell said that the church’s interactive site gave the congregation an opportunity to respond to the ministers in a new way. “I think the old model was you sit in the pew and hear the sermon, then after the sermon you might get a minute or two to interact with the person. This makes it much more [of] a two-way conversation,” he told the newspaper.
Innovative uses of the Internet detailed in the report released yesterday included Catholic churches in Mobile, Ala., that provide links from their sites to a hurricane tracking service and a Methodist church in California that offers free gunlocks.
Generally, however, congregations’ Internet presence is not very sophisticated. “They are pretty elementary sites for the most part,” said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project. “They’re not fancy and full of graphics, but in their simple way, they seem to matter to these faith institutions.”