Internet Congregations in 1999

A Paper Presented at the 1999 meeting of
the Religious Research Association
Boston, Mass.
November 4, 1999
by Ken Bedell

Contents:
Defining Internet Congregations
 Literature on Internet Community
 A Typology of Internet Strategies by Religious Groups
 Support Current Institutions (Information)
 Support Current Institutions (Communication)
 Bridge to Current Institutions (Information)
 Bridge to Current Institutions (Communication)
 Create New Forms of Institutions (Information)
 Create New Forms of Institutions (Communication)
 Conclusion
 

This research project was prompted by the tentative conclusion of a study of religious use of the Internet that I conducted in 1998( http://www.religion-research.org/report1.htm ). That study was a broad examination of the variety of ways that religious people find the Internet useful. In the 1998 study I was unable to identify an online movement to establish alternative forms of Christian congregations on the Internet. This paper reports on a project to take a closer look at attempts to establish online congregations. The current project focused on two questions. The first question is: Had I missed something in the earlier study? Is there evidence of a new form (or forms) of religious community emerging on the Internet that replace congregational life in brick and mortar congregations? The second question is: When people claim that they are developing online ministries or creating Internet churches, what are they doing?

Defining Internet Congregations

For the purposes of this study I defined "Internet Congregation" in a very limited way. To be an Internet congregation a group of people must intentionally see themselves as part of a community where they interact with each other, support each other in what they understood to be their spiritual lives. Obviously people might find spiritual support in discussion groups and chat rooms, but I was looking for self-conscious and intentional religious community. Early in the research I attempted to find people who participated in Internet congregations. To ensure that informants did not think that spending an hour in a CompuServe chat room discussing religion was what I meant by Internet Congregation, I wrote the following definition: "What do we mean by Internet Congregation? An Internet Congregation is a group of people who intentionally join together to practice their religion on the Internet without gathering for face-to-face meetings. This does not include brick and mortar congregations that conduct ministries such as counseling or religious chat rooms on the Internet. Nor does it include Internet projects that are designed to support or augment congregational life. A religious mailing list or chat room by this definition is not an Internet congregation unless the mailing list or chat room claims to provide a replacement for a traditional congregation. An Internet Congregation is designed to completely replace all of the functions of a traditional congregation." (http://www.religion-research.org/question.html )

This definition proved to be so restrictive that I was unable to find people who understood themselves to be participants in this kind of an experience. Two of the early promoters of mainline experiments in online churches, Stephen Rose and Charles Henderson, are not currently attempting to recruit people to be part of congregations. Stephen Rose (http://www.renewal2.com/mss.htm ) still manages a web site called Renewal2. There he posts resources for congregations to use for Bible study. He also posts his essays, and asks for feedback which he edits. However, he is no longer recruiting people to participate in an online Eucharist. (http://www.renewal2.com/c-menu.htm ) The last time he posted a Eucharist service was September 14, 1997.

The First Church of CyberSpace, founded by Charles Henderson can still be found on the Internet. (http://www.godweb.org/index1.html ) Today the web page does not make claims about establishing itself as an Internet congregation. Rather the homepage advertises: "Though there are many congregations, denominations and other religious groups that advertise their presence on the Web, we are the first to organize within cyberspace itself: making connections, constructing links, dropping clues that point to the presence of the Creator within the creative chaos of the Internet. We seek colleagues interested in collaborating with us as we envision those new forms of faith community that are emerging at the dawn of a new millennium. We are available to work with churches, campus ministry groups, and others interested in using computers to communicate the faith."

It is interesting to note that some of the people who seem to come the closest to forming Internet congregations deny that is what they are doing while others make very bold claims. Stephen Rose, for example, encourages people to participate in an ongoing dialog with him, offers spiritual resource, and, for a period, even celebrated weekly Eucharist online. However, in a section of his web site where he discusses CAP (Church for All People) he says, "Are we creating a church? Nope. Not desired. Not intended. We mean only to profess membership in a church created by Jesus and to maintain that all are members." (http://www.renewal2.com/cap5.htm )

At the other extreme Grace Cathedral is a good example of a congregation that is clearly physically based, but makes bold claims about being an Internet church. They invite people from around the world to join their effort and make a financial commitment.. This is particularly interesting because the pitch for financial support is for the activities of the brick and mortar congregation. The introductory page http://www.gracecathedral.org/site/membership/index.shtml )says: "We are in a unique place in history. Five years ago the idea that a small not-for-profit organization could reach out and touch the lives of a world-wide audience with audio, video, text, and pictures was unheard of. Now, it's a reality. We believe the Internet has tremendous potential for human change on a scale previously unattainable by all but the largest corporations and institutions. People need something more than just meaningless chat on pop culture or the latest technological news. That's why the GraceCom is committed to positioning Grace Cathedral as a premiere source for the highest quality spiritual content on the Internet, both now and in the years to come. And you can help us fulfill this vision." In October of 1999 the site listed specific work that could be accomplished with a $500 donation. All of these were related to the brick and mortar congregation.

1) underwrite an entire concert in the Chapel of Grace featuring the Clavion Quartet.

2) cover all design and production costs for one issue of A Message from the Dean, the Friends of Grace newsletter.

3) provide worship leaflets for a Sunday Service

When one looks to find exactly what they offer beyond chat on pop culture or technological news, it appears that they believe the articles they post on their web pages are more profound or useful than the regular offerings on the Internet. However, there is no attempt to actually create a virtual community around the articles.

I was not able to find any Internet Congregations in the strict sense that I defined them,. This raised the question: Have people not yet figured out how to create Internet congregations? Or is there some underlying reason that can be understood from a sociological perspective to explain the failure up to this point for Internet congregations to capture the imagination of those who embrace online activities?

A literature that addresses the broader issues of community on the Internet is rapidly emerging. This literature suggests that we should not expect to find Internet congregations that meet the restricted definition that I proposed.

Literature on Internet Community

Howard Rheingold's 1993 book, The Virtual Community, set the popular tone for expectation about electronic communities. He mostly wrote about his experience with the WELL, an online California computer community with a wide range of electronic meetings. A careful reading of his book reveals that virtual community for him is not entirely virtual. For example, he reports, "I remember that no more than a year after he joined the WELL, David Hawkins drove for nearly an hour, every day for most of a week, to visit an online acquaintance who had undergone minor surgery." (Page 50)

In 1998 Stacy Horn wrote a book about her experience of developing a online community in New York that is patterned after the WELL in California. She completely rejects the possibility of a totally virtual community. "The most important thing I have learned about communities in cyberspace is that it is frequently impossible to have tolerance, something absolutely essential to keep a community going, without some face-to-face connection. For a community to work you have to accept imperfection." (pg. 117)

Like the popular works of Rheingold and Horn recent serious sociological studies assume that the virtual community is connected to the brick and mortar community. Communities in Cyberspace is a 1999 volume edited by Marc A. Smith and Peter Kollock. It includes papers that take a historical sociological perspective and are conscious of classical analysis of community and individual identity formation. They explain in their introduction, "Our focus is on describing and analyzing patterns of online social interaction and organization as they exist." For them this is not community that is exclusively online. Rather online activity is always related to power and relationships in the broader social context that people live in. They draw the two extremes as 1) "Networks are said to renew community by strengthening the bonds that connect us to the wider social world while simultaneously increasing our power in that world." and 2) "Networks will disproportionately increase the strength of existing concentrations of power" (Page 4)

Critics of the Rheingold version of Internet community often attack the lack of connection between virtual community and "real" community. For example, Jan Fernback writing in the collection of papers edited by Steven G. Jones, Virtual Culture, says, "What's missing in virtual communities, then is the sense of individuality that can operate within the collectivity." The obvious solution to this problem is to root individuality in a collective where it can function. This kind of sociologically based analysis has begun to proliferate. Virtual Politics (1997) edited by David Holmes, Resisting the Virtual Life (1995) edited by James Brook and Iain A. Boal, Electronic Discourse: Linguistic Individuals in Virtual Space, (1997) by Boyd H. Davis and Jeutonne P. Brewer are all examples.

This theoretical musing returns us to the question that was originally posed by this particular project: How are people using the Internet for religious community building?

A Typology of Internet Strategies by Religious Groups

In my search for Internet congregations I discovered two often overlapping, but distinct approaches to forming community. They appear to grow out of assumptions about community formation. The first assumes that information is the essential ingredient for community building. The second assumes that communication is essential for community development. Cutting across both of these assumptions are three strategies: support for current institutions, bridge to current institution, create new forms of institution. The table below shows these intersections and identifies the examples that I use to illustrate each approach.
 
Information
Communication
Support Current Institutions
Grace Cathedral
Sausalito Presbyterian
    Church
Ecunet
Bridge to Current Institutions
Charles Henderson  Pastors in Chat Rooms
Create New Forms of Institutions 
WorldVillage.com
The Virtual Church of the
    Blind Chihuahua
ChristianMinistry
Partenia
CyberFaith.International

Below I provide examples of activity that illustrates each of the cells.

Support Current Institutions (Information)

There are literally thousands of congregations, para-church organizations and denominations that provide information about their organization, activities and beliefs on the Internet. Grace Cathedral described above is one example. Another example if a congregation that claims to be an Internet congregation, but only provides information without attempting to create a virtual community experience is the Sausalito Presbyterian Church in Sausalito, California. On their homepage they assert "We are constantly in the process of recreating a congregational experience that will optimize the spiritual expressiveness of all involved." At first this sounds like they are interested in creating a virtual community. However, their priorities appear in the next sentence where visits to the web site are the last way that people might make a connection with them. "We provide spiritually based, uplifting experiences for every person who enters our buildings, reads our literature and newsletters, attends a class, or visits us here." Even when they invite people to participate in the Internet aspects of their community they show a bias toward bricks and mortar congregations. "Join us or find a spiritual home in your area" (http://www.sausalitopresbyterian.com ). The site itself has information about programs, but there is no invitation to online community. There are no discussions. Feedback is possible by signing a guestbook or sending email to one of the staff members. However, this is not explicitly suggested. By looking at the site it is impossible to tell exactly what expectation the designers have for ways that people might use or benefit from the site except by deciding to participate in the churches activities such as, for example, a women's support system.

The site is very rich in information. "Books" is the top menu item on their homepage. This books section is a list of suggestions prepared by the church staff. In the bottom half of the list is a link that is called "links." It is as if printed books are of more interest than other web sites.

Both Grace Cathedral and Sausalito Presbyterian Church are using the Internet to support the development of community at their brick and mortar congregations.

Support Current Institutions (Communication)

Ecunet (http://ww1.ecunet.org ) calls itself "The world's oldest global, ecumenical online conferencing community." From its inception in pre-Internet days, Ecunet has understood itself to be a communication tool which supports religious organizations. Historically, Ecunet was successful in capturing the imagination of denominational leaders in the mainline denominations. A news release on the web page claims "More than 9000 users from 22 religious networks, including Presbyterian, Baptist, Lutheran, Episcopal, United Church of Canada, and organizations like the World Council of Churches have used the unique Ecunet conferencing software for public and private dialogues on topics such as sermon ideas, social justice issues, denominational theology and relief work around the world. At any given time, more than 5,000 'meetings' 'conversation topics' are active on the network." (http://ww1.ecunet.org/ecunet/release.htm )

The support of current institutions is articulated by Timothy Bonney in an article that is linked to the Ecunet site." Ecunet fills a niche which American Online, Prodigy, and CompuServe really cannot provide. Since the network is dedicated primarily to religious communication, the atmosphere is much different than I find toward religious faith on many commercial Internet servers. I find that many discussions which occur in Internet Newsgroups related to Christianity or religion are permeated by anti-religious flamers who enjoy bashing people of faith. Ecunet is faith-friendly because its founders, participants, and organizers are generally part of one of the member denominations or organizations. It also provides denomination-specific services which Christian groups on other nets may not be able to provide." (http://www.si-net.com/~tbonney/ecunet.html )

Bridge to Current Institutions (Information)

Charles Henderson is the founder of The First Church of Cyberspace. Today he works for About.COM. an Internet search engine that features "real people' as guides to the web. (http://christianity.about.com/culture/religion/christianity/msub19.htm ) Rather than recruiting people to join a virtual congregation, he is working in a very secular setting pointing people to religious institutions. On the Cross Currents page Henderson posts a video clip in which he explains his belief that the Internet is a place where religious people should be present to point people to religious organizations. ( http://www.crosscurrents.org/Godnum.ram )

For Henderson the Internet is not only a bridge for the religious outsiders. He also believes that the Internet can be used by the religious community to provide information about controversial issues. He believes that there are two reasons that the Internet is a good place to deal with these issues. First, there is a physical and emotional distance when people communicate over the Internet. Secondly, a certain amount of anonymity is possible with the Internet. http://www.crosscurrents.org/Goddiv.ram

Bridge to Current Institutions (Communication)

It is impossible to document the extent to which people with a religious agenda are spending time in chat rooms or participating in discussion groups where the topic is not specifically religious. Before AOL encountered legal difficulties with its "volunteer" system of providing free services in exchange for people watching over discussions, there were several ministers involved in monitoring AOL and pointing people to religious institutions. This is only one example of participating in Internet culture with a view toward pointing people toward the resources of organized religion. Charles Henderson's monitoring of mailing lists for About.com is another example.

Create New Forms of Institutions (Information)

An alternative to church based web sites are those that are information based and focus on a particular interest or a set of values. A good example of this kind of web site is WorldVillage (http://www.worldvillage.com/wv/office/html/faq.htm) At this site the "mayor," Joel Comm, organizes information targeted toward people interested in "family" values. He explains: "WorldVillage is a family of web sites focused on providing a family-friendly Internet experience. Each one of our sites carves out a specific niche we believe serves a portion of the home computing market. Main features include software reviews, downloads, 'clean' chat rooms, discussion boards, online games, contests, newsletters, special offers, a banner exchange, free worldvillage.com email, and a family-friendly search engine." This site is interesting because it clearly has a Christian interest, (For example, there is a "Christian Talk" section in the discussion board area), but the site makes no claims about being based on Christianity nor does it claim to be creating a new kind of community. Most of the information that is provided by this site might be of interest to a Hindu or Jew as well as a Christian.

While WorldVillage focuses on particular values, John Futterman has designed a web site that is very personal. This might be called 'Sheilaism' on the Internet. (See: Habits of the Heart : Individualism and Commitment in American Life by Robert Neelly Bellah (Editor), Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan (Contributor), Steven M. Tipton (Contributor), Univ. California Press, 1996). The Virtual Church of the Blind Chihuahua (http://www.dogchurch.org ) is interesting for a number of reasons. It is a combination of spoof and a serious religions reflection. Futterman is, to quote his site, "also known as VCBC's Pooper Scooper (Webmaster) created VCBC, and has so far provided almost all of VCBC's material. John is a physicist/group leader and former nuclear weapons designer at one of the US Department of Energy's National Laboratories where he now works to prevent the spread of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. John writes, hikes, bikes, takes pictures, and plays with guitars, pianos, and computers. He has also been a Stephen Minister/Leader associated with two Lutheran churches (he was born Jewish, raised Episcopalian go figure). He has a BA from Swarthmore College and a PhD from the University of Texas at Austin. John is married with two canines, neither of them Chihuahuas."

Although this is an information based web site, the homepage for the site lists members. Futterman explains what membership means, "We, the undersigned, think VCBC is about as intelligent as a God-shaped hole in the head. Our appearance here is just a way for us to find each other. " By mid-October of 1999 fewer than 120 people had left their names. The page appears to have been first posted in 1996. Almost all of the activity on the discussion pages that might provide an environment for community development are written by Futterman himself. This site is interesting because it is clearly outside the established religious organizations. It is not connected in anyway with an existing congregation, its founder is at the same time irreverent, provocative, whimsical and serious. He has constructed a discussion environment where it would be possible for a community to develop, yet there has not been a response.

Another example of an information based site that creates a new form of institution is ChritianMinistry(http://www.christianministry.org ). Richard J. Ferris describes his web site as a ministry: "Initially, with God's help and guidance, the ministry will provide a weekly spiritual message, which will be archived for one year in order to provide assistance to those seeking an answer to a particular topic or to review a previous message. It will provide the ability for you to E-mail prayer requests. We will also accept your requests for spiritual advice and counseling via E-mail."

The advice and counseling are presented as information in an advice columnist format. Ferris receives email that he edits into questions. which are posted on the Internet along with his advice for general edification. At this site Ferris assumes all authority. He receives questions and provides answers. There is no membership, no possibility of engaging other people or even the issues that Ferris raises. The primary difference between this site and the Futterman site is that Futterman is clearly just presenting his own ideas while Ferris claims to be presenting Christian truth.

Create New Forms of Institutions (Communication)

While some web sites make bold claims about providing innovative initiatives, the Partenia homepage http://www.partenia.org/eng/index1.htm ) contains almost no self interpretation. This may be to avoid antagonizing the Roman Catholic Church. The web site is sponsored by Jacques Gaillot who in 1995 refused the Vatican's request that he resign as a bishop. He was removed from his responsibilities in the See of Evreux in France to, as he says, "a place covered with sand." (http://www.partenia.org/eng/ilya.htm#hom ) According to an article originally published on CompuServe, "The site is named for the diocese the Pope gave Gaillot in southern Algeria as a punishment. The diocese no longer exists, but instead is an ancient, ruined city covered by the Sahara desert since the Middle Ages." As the bishop of "nowhere" he oversees a web site that hosts electronic forums that are completely open to anyone on the Internet. In its current form, the Partenia site makes no claims about establishing an online congregation. Rather it fosters open discussion by Roman Catholics about marriage, homosexuality, child abuse and other issues. The centerpiece of the web pages is an online dialogue that the site claims 700 contributors since 1996.

Unlike the home page of Partenia, the discussion is sometimes self reflective. For example, one participant writes, "I have been with Partenia somewhere around a year now and it is a vital part of my life. It is the primer web site of free Catholics who hold to the teachings of Jesus (Yeshua, Jeshua) rather than hierarchical churchianity."(http://www.partenia.org/cgi-bin/forum/bbs_forum.cgi?forum=partenia_eng&read=000328-000323.msg&session=3803eac522d9d554 ). Another writer implies that Partenia supports participation in the church without actually replacing congregational participation. "Being a part of Partenia is becoming a part of my identity as a member of the church. It is helping me break out of my parochialism. ...The presence in Partenia of Orthodox, Anglican, and Roman Catholics and Protestants is a great sign of how much bigger our church is than its leaders dare imagine." http://www.partenia.org/cgi-bin/forum/bbs_forum.cgi?forum=partenia_eng&read=000323-000307.msg&session=3803eac522d9d554 )

Partenia is difficult to classify because it does not call itself a new organization or institution, yet it is sponsored by a Bishop who is at odds with the church. In some ways it is a new form of institution. In other ways it serves as a bridge for those who feel on the edge of the Catholic Church. It might also be seen as a site that supports the Catholic Church because the discussion sometimes deals with clarifying and justifying the church.

A site that is much more intentional about its desire to create a new form of institution is CyberFaith International ( http://www.cyberfaith.org ) This site originally grew out of a multi-cultural United Methodist congregation in Dayton, OH. The pastors of the congregation, Dr. Mary Olson and Rev. Rosunde Cummings-Nichols, were committed to creating an integrated congregation in both their brick and mortar ministry and in an online community. Today the web site of CyberFaith has some of the strongest language found on any web page calling for Internet based religious community. For example, they claim, "The world is at a crossroads. Either we will join together as Christians to shape global cyber communities -- or we will cement in cyberspace the most demonic forces of race, class, and gender isolation and hatred the world has ever known. We must remember that we can sin by omission as well as by commission. Christians can not stand by and watch monocultural power control the future of cyberspace. We must build strong multicultural communities now. If we fail to act, in as short a time as ten years, the world will look back on us and wonder why we were silent just as we look back on the horrors of slave-trade and The Holocaust and wonder why Christianity was so silent."( http://www.ecic.org/icic1/olson.html )

Material on the CyberFaith pages also speaks in the present tense. In another article written by the two pastors they claim, "However, for the cyber communities, Pentecost II is already well on its way to transforming the hearts and souls of individuals and systems. Sitting at their computers, citizens of cyberspace are connecting with soul-rendering intimacy and honesty to find spirit-filled community among people whom society segments and tears apart. To the outsider, it looks like individuals coldly sitting at computers. To the cybercitizen, it feels like a quantum leap of energy bringing personalities together in a new arena of (w)holiness.(http://www.cyberfaith.org/CyberFaith014.htm)

While the CyberFaith site does not explicitly say that it is a site for an online congregation, the language is about creating new community that is designed to replace the existing forms of Christian churches. To accomplish this they propose a process which is described on their web page in the following way:

1. Study/reflect/discern today's meaning of the Bible together online. The first step: Jesus' Galilee and our Galilees.

2. Pray for one another and for all cyberfaith.org groups.

3. Thank God for all life.

4. Share our experiences as an online group because we are striving toward understanding who we are and where God is calling us in the midst of rising inequities among peoples.

5.Discern the degree to which our relationships and contexts are totally monocultural and where God is calling us to new experiences across the barriers of race and class. (http://www.cyberfaith.org/CyberFaith011.htm )

While a well designed web site describes the perspective of CyberFaith International, the primary focus of CyberFaith is the organization of small group discussions using listserve software. These groups are all monitored by Olson. For many groups, she personally recruits the participants to insure that there is a racial or other mix of perspectives present. Unlike Partenia where the discussion is public and a new comer can quickly pick up the history of discussion, CyberFaith International works with small well defined groups. Many of these groups have a specific topic and are designed to exist for only a few months. The discussion of the group is not shared publicly.

Olson has moved to Arkansas and Cummings-Nichols is no longer involved with CyberFaith. It remains to be seen whether this particular experiment will continue to evolve into a new form of religious institution. Just like the initiatives of Henderson and Rose, this kind of initiatives requires a great deal of time and energy from the organizer. Up to this point there is no evidence that a large population is waiting to support those individuals who organize Internet structures for them along the lines of Olson, Cummings-Nichols, Rose or Henderson.

Conclusion

This project was not able to discover an Internet initiative that has broad popular support for an alternative religious organization to replace brick and mortar congregations. This conclusion, however, should not bring comfort to those who are committed to brick and mortar congregations and fear competition from the Internet. There is no reason to believe that groups like college students who are rejecting the brick and mortar congregations will rush back to these institutions after not finding alternatives that make sense to them on the Internet.

This project did discover and document efforts by people to use the Internet in all of the six possible combinations created by the intersection of information and communication with support of brick and mortar congregations, a bridge to brick and mortar congregations and creating new forms of institutions.