The Extent and Nature of Religion on the Internet

A Report on a Ten Month Visit to the World of the Internet

Prepared for United Methodist Communication and the Louisville Institute

By Ken Bedell

May 1998


This is a report on almost ten months of looking at the Internet, asking people to engage in conversation about their experiences and observations, and trying to figure out the extent and nature of religion on the Internet. Although I am trained as a social scientist, I have chosen to present this report in a subjective and personal form. After conversations with both James Lewis at the Louisville Institute, the funder, and Judy Weidman at United Methodist Communication, the sponsor, this seemed like the most honest and helpful way to present the results.

Even though there is the appearance of using traditional social science methodologies such as questionnaires, focus groups, and interviews; data was not gathered from representative samples, so statistical tools of analysis cannot be used to make generalizations about larger populations. The methodology of this study included using tools developed by futures researchers and qualitative researchers.

This is a report on an ethnographic study. It is really anthropology rather than sociology. I saw myself as a visitor to the electronic world of the Internet where I wanted to try to understand not only what people are currently experimenting with, but what the potential is and where the promise lies. So this is a report on a visit. As I wandered around in the environment of the Internet, I counted things, I took extensive notes, I coded and analyzed, I made tentative conclusion and asked for feedback.

The report is not organized around the process of data collection. Rather, I organized it around four general statements. In each case I give reasons from my observations or data for thinking that the generalization is worthy of consideration. Then I give specific ideas about implications of the area for people who are planing or designing Internet applications for religious organizations.

Those who want less interpretation can visit the Internet site at where they will find data presented in a traditional fashion as well as additional reflections.

Description of the Project

The project was based on a number of assumptions and a hunch about both the Internet and the nature of religious activity. These included the following five assumptions:

1) The Internet is increasingly being integrated by individuals and organizations into daily life and organizational processes.

2) The flexibility and accessibility of the Internet allow initiatives to come from a variety of sources and the Internet allows people to respond to those initiatives outside traditional channels.

3) Because the Internet is accessible and many aspects are public, it is possible to look at public activities to observe ways that individuals and organizations are using the Internet for activities related to religion.

4) Internet activity involves millions of people so a web site where individuals could complete a questionnaire to tell us about how they use the Internet for religious related activity could be used to identify the types of activity people are engaged in on the Internet related to religion.

5) Since using the Internet to ask people about their use of the Internet and expectations from the Internet may bias results, talking to people on the telephone may allow them to provide a more objective report on their own experiences or expectations.

The hunch was that people are actively using the Internet to create new ways of supporting or enhancing their spiritual life or their participation in spiritual communities. I thought that while institutional religion searches for ways to fit the Internet into current patterns of religious institutional culture, new forms of religious activity will emerge outside these institutions. My hunch was that these emerging activities would provide pointers to trends in religious expression and spiritual community formation.

The research strategy

1) I set up a web site at where the project is described and two questionnaires were posted to collect data from anyone who found the site and filled out the forms. We also set up a guest book for people to register with the project. The questionnaires and most of the descriptive information about the project were translated into Spanish so the site is bilingual. More than 600 people fulled out questionnaires and more than 350 people registered with the project.

2) A search of the Internet was conducted using several search engines to find web sites that related to religion. I developed a database of more than 350 sites that were not sponsored by local congregations or denominations. I send an e-mail message to individuals responsible for the sites asking them to respond to our provider questionnaire and to help us recruit people to respond to the questionnaire.

3) The web address for the questionnaire was posted on several denominational web sites including the United Methodist and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) sites. The United Methodist News Service distributed a news release about the research. National Public Radio aired a description of the project including the web site address, the web site address was included in articles in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette newspaper and the United Methodist Reporter. On the Internet, the address for the web questionnaire was posted on several mailing lists.

4) United Methodist Communications provided data on activity at their site, The Upper Room and Stephen Rose also provided activity information. The 350 sites on our database were searched for information about activity on those sites.

5) Software to download related sites was used to develop an off line set of data from theological schools, students and faculty at the University of Chicago and St. Louis University. These databases are the text of web pages and were used for text analysis.

6) A mailing list was set up to serve as a focus group to discuss issues raised by the research and to obtain feedback from Internet users. People who visited the web site for the project were recruited to participate in the discussion.

7) An online international discussion organized by Peter Horshfield in Australia was monitored. This discussion called xt-mediaculture focused on theoretical issues related to the subject of this research and provided a window into the thinking of several academics.

8) Interviews were conducted with 50 people over the telephone. Most of these interviews were with people who provided telephone numbers when they registered with the project. A MS-Access database was designed to organize the calls and record notes from the interviews.

This project benefitted from the assistance of many people. Two business students at Saint Louis University, Monica Lopez and Inigo Quejigo were student interns for the project. Staff at United Methodist Communication met several times to discuss the planning and progress of the project. Paul Light, Berry Creech and John O'Hara reviewed the questionnaires and made helpful suggestions. The Centre for the Study of Communication and Culture provided office space, a telephone, the use of office equipment. William Biernatzki, S.J. and Marcia Deering at the Centre were extremely helpful in organizing the logistics at Saint Louis University.

Hundreds of people gave of their time to respond to questionnaires, participate in the e-mail mailing list and respond to the request for a telephone interview. I was particularly impressed with the cooperation of people contacted by telephone. After a brief description of the project people were extremely generous with their time. They eagerly talked to me about their experience on the Internet, their hopes for this medium and often reflected thoughtfully with me about what this all means. As I report below there was a great deal of diversity in responses, but universal interest in and enthusiasm for the potential of the Internet related to religion.

Summary of Generalizations

1) People are eagerly adopting Internet solutions to communication related to their existing religious interest or commitments. Increasingly e-mail is replacing or enhancing communication by telephone, mail and fax. The computer is seen in an instrumental sense of making it possible to communicate more easily, more clearly, and less expensively.

2) People think of religion as one of the topics that can be researched on the Internet. Just like people expect to find religious topics as part of an encyclopedia, they expect to find them on the Internet. But, more importantly, people are looking for information that they can use to determine their own actions.

3) Current users of the Internet who are also interested in religion have an expectation that the Internet will play an important role in religious life in the future. While there is no clear consensus about exactly what applications religious organizations or religious people will use, many of the people I talk to have very specific ideas about ways that the Internet can and should be used by religion. Even people who are critical of particular current applications of the technology usually have ideas about how the technology "should" or will be used in the future.

4) Some individuals report that their prayer life has been improved because of access to information on the Internet, some report obtaining help over the Internet for preaching or teaching, and others say they use the Internet to enhance their spiritual life. However, I was not able to find evidence of widespread use of the Internet to form new religious communities or to support new spiritual practices. One possible exception to this is the emerging practice of college students and others sending e-mail messages containing inspirational stories and messages to a long list of friends.

Internet is being used by religious people

1) People are eagerly adopting Internet solutions to communication related to their existing religious interest or commitments. Increasingly e-mail is replacing or enhancing communication by telephone, mail and fax. The computer is seen in an instrumental sense of making it possible to communicate more easily, more clearly, and less expensively.

In telephone interview after telephone interview people told me about their individual use of the Internet to facilitate communication. A pastor told me that he received an invitation to preach at a neighboring congregation by e-mail. The negotiations were made by e-mail and all arrangements for the service were conducted by e-mail. Another person looked in his e-mail directory and reported that he has about ninety addresses of people that he occasionally corresponds with, but there are ten or twelve that he regularly communicates with. A person who works with religious educators told me that at first she was reluctant to start using e-mail, but now finds it to be invaluable as a way to connect with people across the country. I heard stories about e-mail that was received by a retired seminary professor after major surgery.

Responses to the questions about personal e-mail and public e-mail related to prayer requests were almost identical. It did not seem to matter to people whether they learned about a prayer request from a public source like a web page or from a personal e-mail message. It appears that the Internet is being adopted as a place where the distinction between public and private sources of information is somewhat blurred. If not blurred, then both are being taken with equal seriousness. One person I interviewed told about sending e-mail to the author of a book that she read. In reading the book she learned the public presentation of the author, but in exchanging e-mail she entered into a more direct relationship with the author. As she pointed out this use of the Internet was beyond what she would usually do. She would not likely telephone the author of a book that she read. If she did write a letter, she would not expect a personal response. In this case the Internet enhanced her communication about a religious topic.

A survey of ECUNET (a denominational sponsored private e-mail system) users that was conducted by the ECUNET board provides additional evidence that people in the religious community find e-mail to be extremely useful. One ECUNET user sent me an e-mail message when she learned about the research explaining that she had not used the Internet because ECUNET meets all her needs.

At the moment the use of computer communication may be limited to a small percent of all the participants in religious organizations. However, their enthusiasm suggests the use of this technology will continue to increase. I heard only two cautions: 1) the volume of communication can become so great that strategies need to be developed to determine which messages to respond to or even read, and 2) electronic communication is not a complete replacement for face-to-face meeting or other forms of communication.

It seems reasonable to assume that computer aided communication through e-mail is not just a fad or a phenomenon supported by a small number of enthusiast or hobbyist. A recent article in The Futurist Magazine (November-December 1997, p. 27) reports that a panel of the George Washington University forecast group predicts that by 2008 eighty percent of all people in industrialized nations will have access to the Internet.

Implications of Generalization 1

It may seem obvious that religious people are using e-mail extensively. However, I listed this observation first because it has immediate, if short term, implications for denominational and other planners. While this report is being written, ECUNET is in the midst of trying to determine its own future. ECUNET has pioneered efforts to make a computer communication system useful for church workers and others. It provided two important functions. First, ECUNET offered a reasonably priced system for people to have access to e-mail that included a user-friendly interface. Secondly, it provided an online community where church people could discover ways to use e-mail for individual communication and group discussion. In recent months ECUNET has continued to be an avenue for individuals to enter into the world of computer communication because of its friendly software. However, it has also experienced a decline in membership as individuals find alternative ways to communicate electronically.

Publicly the ECUNET board says that their plan for the future is to focus on offering the second service of providing a safe place for people from religious organizations to have conversations using computer communications. This service will only be provided to those who pay a small annual subscription. The first function of providing access to e-mail will continue, but people can use a variety of sources for e-mail services and still participate in ECUNET.

Today obtaining access to e-mail is not a problem. JUNO is a service where anyone with a computer, modem and a telephone line can receive a free e-mail account. In many places a free telephone number is available to use to send and receive e-mail. Some places require a long distance to access the otherwise free service. Increasingly, public access to Internet is available free of charge at public libraries. Anyone who can go to one of these computers can obtain a free e-mail address. With a personal (and completely free to the user) HOTMAIL account anyone can send and receive e-mail. These are just two of the many ways that individuals can obtain access to their own e-mail account. All this is to say that church leaders do not need to worry about the issue of how to make e-mail available. The only thing they might do is to inform people, especially economically disadvantaged people, about the possibilities that are available to them.

However, there are two areas where denominational leadership is needed. The first is in intentionally training and supporting the use of e-mail on the part of church leaders and pastors. It appears to make a big difference if denominational leadership and resources are used to encourage the development of electronic communication skills. A comparison of the United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church illustrates this. The Presbyterian church for more than a decade has encouraged national, regional and local staff to learn how to use electronic communication. They provided economic support to greatly reduce the cost of using e-mail for all Presbyterians. The result is extensive use of PRESBYNET across the church and the integration of e-mail as central to communication across the denomination. In contrast the United Methodist Church "officially" participated in ECUNET, but did not develop a church wide program to encourage denominational leaders to use e-mail nor provide economic incentives to United Methodists. The result is that United Methodist denominational staff have been slower to pick up the use of e-mail and United Methodist pastors and layleadership is not as well connected as Presbyterians are.

The second place where denominational leadership is needed is to insure that easy-to-use chat room and mailing list software is available to the denomination and to local congregations. Supporting this activity at the denomination is quite easy. However, local congregations need a great deal of help at this point to understand how to use this technology to support their work. Thousands of congregations are setting up homepages to support or describe their ministries. It is very easy for them to obtain space on the Internet to post these sites. However, obtaining access to easy to use mailing list software is much more difficult at this point. What is needed is a system for local congregations that would provide many of the functions at a local church level that ECUNET provided at a denominational level. The system needs to be designed with an awareness of the advances in technology that have occurred since ECUNET was conceived. But local churches have similar needs to those that originally drove the creation of ECUNET. There are groups of people who can benefit from increases communication and contact. For example, a church school class or a youth group can exchange messages and keep in touch between regular weekly meetings. There are people who live at a distance but want to keep connected like young people in college or the military. There are some cases where connections across boundaries are enriching such as community interfaith discussions just like ECUNET fosters ecumenical discussions.

Beyond the local congregational uses that are similar to ECUNET's purposes, recent technology makes it possible to design local congregational systems that foster the development of community and intimacy within the congregation. Recently, some congregations have found that a pictorial directory is helpful in keeping people connected. With the Internet this concept could be greatly expended so that information is available about members, for members, to the extent that permission is given by each member.

People Expect Religious Information to be on the Web

2) People think of religion as one of the topics that can be researched on the Internet. Internet research has two senses. First, there is the search for the answer to a question of fact. Second, is the exploring of an unknown area of knowledge. Just like people expect to find religious topics as part of an encyclopedia, they expect to find them on the Internet.

When people were asked in the questionnaire to rank the importance of possible uses of the Internet by a local congregation, the items related to distribution of information floated to the top. Eighty-three of the respondents said that they value having the local congregation provide information about services and programs. This was the most popular item on the list. Less than 20 percent thought this information is not a priority.

Table 1 - Possible Use of the Internet by Congregations

(First column is percent of respondents who indicated the item is important. Other columns are also in percent of respondents.)

Possible Congregational use of the Internet
Display information about services and programs 89.4 40.1 64.2 19.8
Distribute announcements to members 79.9 20.9 48.1 33.2
Request prayer and other support for those in need 70.8 10.0 25.8 47.0
Keep in contact with members who are unable to leave their residences 62.8 4.3 20.6 58.5
Distribute information about the history or traditions of the congregation 61.3 5.7 25.2 57.9
Sign-up for events or register for meetings 59.9 1.7 10.9 61.3
Keep in contact with people who have moved away 57.6 2.0 10.3 69.1
Display information about staff or members 55.9 0.9 13.8 68.2
Distribute information about people who are hospitalized or have special needs 55.0 4.0 22.3 60.5
Publish the church directory with members e-mail addresses 52.7 4.6 18.3 64.2
Distribute sacred writings, scriptures or other religious literature 52.7 7.4 18.6 66.8
Tell faith stories or testimonies of members 50.1 3.2 14.0 68.5
Conduct educational classes 41.5 2.3 13.5 73.9
Evaluations of worship or programs 37.2 1.1 4.0 84.8
Conduct business meetings 23.8 0.9 3.7 90.8
Conduct worship or spiritual meetings 21.5 4.3 7.2 86.8

More than 99 percent of the respondents who have access to the World Wide Web said that they look for information about religion on the Internet. Almost one fourth report that they look for information on a daily basis.

Table 2 - Percent of Respondents who Look for Religious Information
Do you look for information about religion on the World Wide Web?
0.7 Never
10.2 Hardly ever
28.0 More than 12 times a year
22.7 More than 4 times a month
13.9 More than 3 times a week
24.5 Most every day

Most of this desire for religious information appears to be from the same tradition that people belong to. Forty-seven percent of the same group of people say that they hardly ever or never look for information about religious traditions that are not their own. This suggests that a very large minority is specifically interested in being able to find information from their own tradition.

Table 3 - Percent of Respondents who Look for Information about Other Traditions
Do you ever look for information on the World Wide Web about religious traditions that are not your own?
7.5 Never
39.3 Hardly ever
34.1 More than 12 times a year
11.1 More than 4 times a month
4.9 More than 3 times a week
3.1 Most every day

The questionnaire asked people to rank the importance of national of denominational Internet services. Here providing information was extremely important. Respondents wanted to be able to get news about religious organizations from the Internet. They also wanted to be able to get information about social action and relief opportunities. Somewhat lower on the list was information to help them fulfill responsibilities in local congregations.

Table 4 - National Religious Organizational Use of the Internet

(First column is percent of respondents who indicated the item is important. Other columns are also in percent of respondents.)

Possible use of the Internet
Top Priority In Top 3 Priorities Not in Priority List
News about the activities of religious organizations or religious leaders 81.4 15.5 35.1 49.6
Information about social action or relief opportunities offered by religious organizations 78.7 6.4 32.4 42.7
Resources for personal study 75.9 7.4 23.4 54.2
The official pronouncements or press releases from religious organizations 70.7 7.2 18.4 56.6
Information about the organizational structure of religious organizations with addresses, phone numbers and e-mail addresses 70.4 8.8 25.3 53.7
Calendars with information about future meetings 69.2 3.3 15.8 64.7
Resources for leadership in a religious organization 66.6 5.0 18.4 60.4
Resources for teaching in a religious or church Sabbath school 65.2 5.0 16.7 64.7
Resources for daily personal devotionals 65.1 7.4 24.1 61.3
Religious teachings from the perspective of a particular tradition 57.5 9.3 21.2 64.5
The address and times of meetings or worship services of local congregations 57.1 9.8 17.0 68.8
Daily text inspirational message or stories 55.6 15.1 24.1 67.3
Calendars with public appearances of religious leaders 45.3 0.3 3.8 88.0
Statistics about membership, attendance or finances 38.0 1.9 6.7 84.5
Daily audio inspirational messages or stories 25.8 1.7 4.5 92.1
Daily video inspirational messages or stories 20.3 1.7 3.6 93.6

This hunger for information was almost universal. At all levels of church organization people expect that they can find answers to questions on the Internet and they expect religious organizations to provide it. Only 11 percent of the survey respondents thought that they would not use an large religious library on the internet.

Table 5 - Percent of Respondents Who Would Use a Large Internet Library
If Religious literature that is of similar quality and quantity to what you would find in a public library or a large book store were available for you to search and browse on the World Wide Web, do you think that you would look at that literature?
0.7 Never
10.4 Hardly ever
43.5 More than 12 times a year
21.7 More than 4 times a month
12.1 More than 3 times a week
11.6 Most every day

There was much less unaminity regarding paying for publications on the Internet. Almost 20 percent did not have an opinion about paying for publications on the Internet.

Table 6 - Percent of Respondents who Are Willing to Pay for Online Publications
If publishers of religious material put their latest publications on the World Wide Web, would you be willing to pay to read or download the publications?
27.9 No, I think religious publications should be free on the World Wide Web
39.7 Yes, if it is less expensive than similar printed materials
9.9 Yes, if it costs no more than similar printed materials
3.4 Yes, I would be willing to pay extra to obtain religious publications quickly and easily from the World Wide Web
19.2 I don't know what I think about this

I was surprised how often the word research came up in interviews. When I asked people exactly what they meant by research they often seemed surprised that I would ask. They were talking about finding the answers to questions and learning about specific topics. This appears to be a different vision of the Internet than Bill Gates has in mind in his book The Road Ahead. There he talks about the similarity between the Internet and television. After explaining that television is just enhanced radio he writes, "But no broadcast medium we have right now is comparable to the communications media we'll have once the Internet evolves to the point at which it has the broadband capacity necessary to carry high-quality video." (Page 72) He thinks the power of interaction on the Internet is the ability to choose what entertainment to purchase that is then delivered over the Internet. This seems very different from research.

Implications of Generalization 2

As Jon Katz concluded in his Wired Magazine report on a survey of Americans related to technology, "While there are thousands of Web sites devoted to spirituality and religion, I've seen little in the online world to make me believe that Digital Citizens readily embrace institutions like organized religion and incorporate prayer into their daily lives....I suspect the pole was picking up a trend that other surveys have also found about younger Americans: they have a deep spiritual - as opposed to religious - bent. With that possible distinction in mind, I remain convinced that this group is allergic to preaching and piety, whether it comes from the White House or the Vatican." (Wired, Dec. 1997 p. 274) The Wired survey is consistent with the theory that organizational loyalty and connections are not the driving force behind people's interest in getting information about religion from the Internet. Rather they want information that will assist them in determining not only how they will respond to institutions but how they will take individual actions.

This means that they want information that will primarily help them determine their own actions. Therefore, it is not surprising that news and information about social action opportunities are the most popular items on the a list of possible denominational uses of the Internet. If this analysis is correct then it calls for a radical rethinking of the function of denominational staffpersons. The traditional role of a denominational staffperson is to work for the lower levels of the denomination in one of two ways: 1) Working on projects that are beyond the scope or ability of lower levels of the denomination to accomplish and 2) Providing guidance to lower levels of the denomination on how to do things. Most mission work falls into the first category. The denomination organizes the recruitment and training of missionaries and determines what they work on. The development of curriculum materials is an example of the second. Here "experts" write and publish curriculum material for use in local congregations. Although seldom expressed in this way, the idea is that people in local churches don't know how or what to teach so they must be told by denominational staffpeople.

The Internet makes it possible for people to have sufficient information so that they determine what mission projects are important and how they will support them. Research and learning are viewed from the perspective of discovering rather than receiving material from experts. Obviously there are already some denominational programs that are not what I called traditional, but my point is that as Internet users increase in number, they will be looking for more and more information on the Internet that helps them decide on actions to take and they will be doing their own research.

This will require increased attention to providing current and in depth data.This has implications for most areas where denominations provide information. For example, Internet users will not look for news that is public relations. They will want news that includes references to background material and offers links to a variety of sources with alternative perspectives.

Religious Users Have High Expectations

3) Current users of the Internet who are also interested in religion have an expectation that the Internet will play an important role in religious life in the future. While there is no clear consensus about exactly what applications religious organizations or religious people will use, many of the people we talk to have very specific ideas about ways that the Internet can and should be used by religion. Even people who are critical of particular current applications of the technology usually have ideas about how the technology "should" or will be used in the future.

It would be nice for denominational planners if the current users of the Internet had a clear consensus about the future use of the Internet. However, I found that people have very different views of what is essential. One illustration of this is the attitude people have toward the distribution of devotional material on the Internet. In several interviews people described how important receiving devotionals over the Internet is to them. There were other people who said that this is not something that would interest them. The questionnaire asked about devotionals. Although only && percent said this is something that is important for a denomination to sponsor, && percent listed it as the highest priority for denominations.

Most of the people I interviews had very specific ideas ways the Internet should be used. These were often, but not always, related to people's current situation. For example, local pastors had ideas about ways that the Internet could benefit local congregations. The staff person in a regional office had ideas about ways that her work could be made easier because of the Internet. A pastor who works with homeless people suggested the development of an Internet resource to help people working in this specialized ministry.

Most often the ideas suggested were related to specific agenda. One person in the focus group presented an argument that historically high expectatons for new communication technology are replaced by a reality of people figuring out how to use the technology with out replacing other forms of communication.


mplications of Generalization 3

The Internet is not something that can be ignored or dismissed by religious leaders. However, it would be equally impossible to respond to every suggest and to fund all possible uses of the Internet. Many of the people I interviewed spoke very appreciativly of the services that they find on the Internet related to religion. News services and mission information were mentioned repeatedly. However, most people expect and want the number and quality of services to continue to increase.

One possible strategy is for denominational offices to view the Internet as a way to facilitate coordination and support of ministry. An example of this as a proposal that the General Council of Ministries of the United Methodist Church is considering. The research office of the agency is looking into developing an online support system for research in the United Methodist Church. With this model the research office would do very little research itself. It would not attempt to increase research staff toconduct research. Rather the office would identify places where people are doing research or interested in doing research. Using the Internet these projects would be supported and the results distributed across the church.

In the example of the minister who wants resources for ministries to homeless people, this model suggests that the denomination not hire a web master to design web pages and coordinate collecting and editing information. Rather, the denomination would provide technical support, training, and access to web page space and mailing list technology, legitimacy and a community of support so that a person involved in the ministry could collect and edit material.

In this way a single national staff person might be able to support and ecourage one hundred or more editors in specific areas of expertise. The actual determination of what Internet content is developed would largely depend on the existence of individuals who value making sure the data is widely distributed.

Inspiration From Friends

4) Some individuals report that their prayer life has been improved because of access to information on the Internet, some report obtaining help over the Internet for preaching or teaching, and others say they use the Internet to enhance their spiritual life. However, I was not able to find evidence of widespread use of the Internet to form new religious communities or to support new spiritual practices. One possible exception to this is the emerging practice of college students and others sending e-mail messages containing inspirational stories and messages to a long list of friends.

It is difficult to provide evidence for something that I claim I could not find. It certainly is possible that there is a large underground of Christians using the Internet to meet their spiritual needs and developing new forms of community. One reason that I believe this is not the case is that searching the home pages of students at the University of Chicago and Saint Louis University did not reveal pointers to spiritual resources or religious Internet sites. Both of these universities, like most colleges and universities, provide free space on their computers for any student or faculty member to post a personal web page. Most of these web pages are very personal with pictures of friends and families and information about the interests of the person. Sometimes the page is used to promote a specific agenda. For example, at the University of Chicago a student leader of a Christian group used his web page to promote the Christian group. However, the vast majority of the pages are just about the person.

The amount of material in the web pages at these two institutions is tremendous. There is over 500 megabytes of data. I used word search software to try to find references to religious sites or descriptions of spiritual or religious issues. I could find no pattern of either religious reflection or references to religious Internet sites. I did find references to environmental issues and political issues, but these were not explicitly connected to spiritual foundations.

In one of the telephone interviews it was suggested that college students do not think of the Internet as a place where they share about their spirituality. That may be the case, but if so then it seems that the Internet is also not a place where they are developing new forms of spiritual community. The students web pages were filled with information about their families, their hobbies, their relationships and their opinions on popular culture.

There are a number of attempts by clergy to develop Internet ministries. While these sometimes have very loyal followings, I have not been able to identify any with large followings. This may be partly because the Internet is an environment where small groups can experiment without the necessity of growing large. However, its seems important to note that at various times in history there have been new forms of religious practice that emerge and are very quickly embraced by large numbers of people. A good example of this is the adoption of camp meetings by frontier Americans. In this case frontier life made it difficult to participate in weekly religious group activities. When religious leaders offered camp meetings as an alternative, large numbers of people responded.

There are areas where large numbers of people are responding to an Internet initiative. One area is support for computer software. Microsoft has a large Internet system of providing support for its products with thousands of customers using this resource daily. It is difficult to find a hardware or software vendor that does not use the Internet extensively for support services. This activity seems to just make sense to Internet users.

Another example is online bookstores. Although, a large Internet book vendor lost $33.6 million, people purchased a daily average (including weekends and holidays) of more than $400,000 worth of book from in 1997. Again it seems to make sense to Internet users that they can purchase any book they want at a discount and have it shipped to them in a day or two. I could find no product or service on the Internet related to religion where people are responding in such large numbers or where the activity just seems to make sense to Internet users.

In the previous section I noted the enthusiasm and variety of interests that can be found in religious users of the Internet. Here I want to emphasize that I could not find a focused public use of the Internet for religious purposes. In the frontier of the Internet, I could not find the equivalent of the camp meeting. There is one possible candidate, however, for an emerging use of the Internet that is widespread and seems to make sense to Internet users just as software support and buying books do. It is not public and, therefore, much more difficult to observe and to document. This is the grassroots sharing of stories, inspiration and spiritual reflection among people who know each other and between people who meet on the Internet.

This sharing of inspiration was reported to me by people that I interviewed in a variety of ways. Several people talked about being able to discuss religion with people with very different perspectives. One person told about intentionally developing relationships with people on different continents to learn how they view religious issues. A college chaplain reported on an initiative of a small group of women at a Catholic college who organized a discussion with a group of young men on a Baptist campus to discuss religion. People told me about engaging their own children in discussion about religion.

One of the questions asked on the questionnaire was: Do you pray for other people because they send you personal e-mail prayer requests? Only 4 percent responded that they have not and do not think that they ever would. Seventy percent of the respondents said that this is something they have done and 26 percent said they have never done it but think they might do it someday. Responses were almost exactly the same to the question: Do you pray for other people or about situations because of public information that you receive over the Internet? When people were asked: Do you ask other people to pray for you by sending them an e-mail message? they a little less likely to say that they expect to do this in the future. Ten percent of the respondents say they that is something they would never do. The remaining 90 percent have either done it or think they might.

Do you ask other people to pray for you by sending them an e-mail message?
9.6 No, I have never done that, and I don't think I ever will
37.8 No, I have not done it, but I might do it someday
24.3 Yes, very rarely
21.3 Yes, More than 12 times a year
4.8 Yes, More than 4 times a month
1.1 Yes, More than 3 times a week
1.1 Yes, Most every day

Pray Personal Request
Do you pray for other people because they send you personal e-mail prayer requests?
4.3 No, I have never done that, and I don't think I ever will
25.6 No, I have not done it, but I might do it someday
22.2 Yes, very rarely
27.2 Yes, More than 12 times a year
7.8 Yes, More than 4 times a month
5.7 Yes, More than 3 times a week
7.2 Yes, Most every day

Pray from public sources
Do you pray for other people or about situations because of public information that you receive over the Internet?
4.0 No, I have never done that, and I don't think I ever will
26.3 No, I have not done it, but I might do it someday
23.9 Yes, very rarely
25.4 Yes, More than 12 times a year
8.0 Yes, More than 4 times a month
6.2 Yes, More than 3 times a week
6.3 Yes, Most every day

Spiritual contribution
Does the Internet play a role in your personal spiritual life?
4.7 No, I have never done that, and I don't think I ever will
16.4 No, I have not done it, but I might do it someday
20.0 Yes, very rarely
22.4 Yes, More than 12 times a year
9.8 Yes, More than 4 times a month
8.0 Yes, More than 3 times a week
18.6 Yes, Most every day

Sharing about religion is sometimes more formalized. A pastor in Ohio sets up mailing lists specifically for people to discuss spiritual issues. ECUNET has many formalized groups with sharing about spiritual experiences or ideas. The observation above that Internet sites with religious content do not have large audiences that compare with Microsoft or books may be because the sharing of spirituality on the Internet is much more intimate. It is between individuals and within smaller groups. People are likely to actually know each other or to become known to each other. The pastor who posts her sermons on the Internet may not have thousands of people rushing to read them each week, but there are a small number of people who find them helpful and these people can and do communicate with each other.

A closely related activity was reported to me in two different interviews. In one case I talked to an editor of an online religious publication that is designed to appeal to Internet users. She told me that she sometimes visits public chat groups and looks for people who are raising fundamental questions or appear to have a spiritual needs. She then engages in online conversation and invites them to use the resources of her magazine. A minister of a local congregation told me about his night time ministry of monitoring online discussion groups and chat rooms to identify people with spiritual and religious questions. In both of these cases the Internet is a place to engage people in spiritual discussion.

Implications of Generalization 4

If I have correctly identified at least one aspect of spiritual activity on the Internet then a new perspective on pastoring is called for. The minister of people who are using the Internet to share inspiration and to discuss spiritual matters needs to be primarily a listener and not a proclaimer. Skills of hearing spiritual issues and connecting them to faith stories are more important then being able to present doctrine clearly. Telling stories is more important than preaching. Empathy is more important than analysis. Dialog is more important than dogma.

There are several characteristics of the Internet that have important implications for religious communities and faith development. These include the potential for interaction between people separated by great distance or culture, the sense of intimacy, the sense of immediacy, and the potential of anonymity. These characteristics need to be understood by pastors so that they can engage people in the electronic environment with integrity. I believe that the grassroots spiritual development that I have described can be enhanced by a supportive professional clergy who celebrate, encourage, and participate in dialog and exchanges over the Internet.

Other Issues

Three issues not explicitly discussed above were brought up regularly in interviews and comments on the questionnaires:

1) The authority of information and problem of protecting unsophisticated readers from dangerous ideas.

2) The problem civil behavior on the Internet.

3) Misrepresentation of organizations or ideas.

All of these issues seem to be rooted in a need for people to develop Internet literacy. If literacy is taken to include the skills of both reading and writng as it does with print literacy, then the question is how to help people learn how to distinguish between information or people who will not harm them and those that are dangerous for some reason.

These issues go beyond questions related to religion on the Internet. Misinformation and a lack of civil behavior can be problems in any area. However, they are of particular concern to religious people. In one interview I was told that a site supporting satanism had a section where comments from "Christian" people were posted. The messages that appeared to be from "Christian" sources were so violent and objectionable, that they discredited Christianity.

Possibly denominations should take as much interest in rating Internet sites as they do in rating movies and television programs.

Nature of the samples

Internet users and providers of information and services on the Internet are a diverse and complex group of people and organizations. This project was not designed to discover or document the characteristics of Internet users. However, interpreting the data collected required giving careful attention to the nature of the population providing information. A variety of sources of data were used.

In the case of the data collected from university web pages, the source of data was individuals in a college community that chose to post their personal web page. This was the one place in the project where data was specifically collected from young people and people who are not participants in organized religious activity.

A great deal of data was generated from contacts that were first made through the project's own web page. People were invited to register with the project. With their registration they volunteered information about themselves.

386 people registered with the project. They provided the following information about themselves.

Age Number Percent of Respondents
Less than 18 1 0
Between 18-30 34 9
Between 31-50 215 57
Between 51-70 118 31
Over 70 10 3

Gender Number Percent of Respondents
Female 124 32
Male 259 68

Country Number Percent of Respondents
USA 356 92
Canada 11 3
South & Central America 2 1
Australia 2 1
Europe 4 1
Other Places 10 3

Providers of religious information on the Internet were asked to indicate the audience that they are trying to reach with their Internet activities. 64 people filled out some or all of the on-line questionnaire. Not everyone provided information about audience. The table give the actual number of responses in each category.

Primary Audience Secondary Audience
Membership and leadership of the organization 27 16
Non-members of the organization 22 33
Other 10 3

People who answered 'other' included companies that provide web services so their primary audience is the client and seminary sites were the categories did not seem to fit. Also several people were providing sites that are commercial. Others had very narrowly defined audiences.

Caution must be exercised in interpreting the results of the online questionnaires beyond the context of this research project. This project does not include a comparison of the results of the questionnaire with a random sample of a larger defined population. However, there are other studies that illustrate the potential problems that can result from making assumptions about generalities from online surveys. InfoWorld on March 23, 1998 reported on the comparison between results of an online volunteer survey and a random telephone survey of readers. The random survey of readers indicated that 33 percent chose Microsoft Office as the product of the year with no other product receiving more than 5 percent of the votes. In an online survey that asked exactly the same questions, 37 percent chose Red Hat Linux with no other product receiving more than 10 percent of the votes including Microsoft Office. Obviously the volunteer online survey results did not reflect the results from a random telephone survey of the magazine's readers.


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Halal, William, Michael D. Kull, and Ann Leffmann. Emerging Technologies: What's Ahead for 2001-2030. The Futurist. November-December 1997. pp. 20-28.

Katz, Jon. The Digital Citizen. Wired. December 1997. p. 66-82, 274-275.

Mitchell, Karen. Print and online readers cast their votes. InfoWorld. March 23, 1998. p. 15.

Rogers-Melnick, Ann. Churches finding a home on Web. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Sunday, March 11, 1998. p. C-1.