Virtual veneration: Churches use Web to reach old members, lure new ones

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When the Rev. Tom Litteer looked out over his congregation from the pulpit one Sunday morning a few years ago, he saw rows and rows of empty seats. Not exactly an uplifting sight.

The First Presbyterian Church of Sparta, N.J., typically attracts 500 worshippers to its four services over a weekend, and to see it vacant made no sense, unless you also looked out the window and noted the piles of snow that brought much of the East Coast to a standstill that day.

Instead of panicking, Litteer turned to David Pontzer, the congregation’s Web master, who increased the bandwidth used for their regular live Webcasts on Sunday. Before you could say “Amen,” Litteer was preaching to more than twice the number of parishioners who typically click on the church’s Web site link and watch the service from their home computers.

“It was really just me preaching to an empty sanctuary,” said Litteer, who observed that while he’d rather see the pews full, it was kind of fun to address an audience made up entirely of virtual worshippers.

Being connected to God has taken on a whole new meaning in the Internet age. Houses of worship are using technology’s newest toys – Webcasts, podcasts, blogs and streaming video – to reach people in ways no one ever dreamed.

From simple Web sites that list the weekend services to audio clearinghouses like www.religious-podcasts.net, there are hundreds of places online where people can go to download, watch, listen, participate or just read about their faith. The coverage is deep and wide including, among others, sites for Christians of every stripe, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism.

Some uses of the technology are inventive, like Sparta’s practice of Webcasting funerals and weddings. Others are more modest, like posting an audio file of a sermon to a Web site each week.

Scott Thumma of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research said more than half of the congregations in the United States have Web sites, a development he attributes to the growth of technology in everyday life.

“As more folks get familiar with the stuff and as younger people age and start having kids and go to church, they do this stuff in every aspect of their life from dating to health and vacation time,” said Thumma, who specializes in research on megachurches and religion and the Internet. “It seems out of character if their spiritual life isn’t going to have a Web component, too.”

Out of character and perhaps out of luck, for the religious organizations.

“There’s nothing you can’t get online,” said Rabbi Eli Garfinkel of Temple Beth El in Somerset, N.J. “If we’re not out there, if churches and synagogues aren’t out there – with so many people spending hours online – we’re missing out.”

Most of his synagogue’s communication with its 180 families is conducted through e-mail or the congregation’s Web site, said Garfinkel. Those without computers can have the information mailed to their homes.

“It saves a ton of paper, is environmentally conscious and also saves postage, so it’s financially responsible, as well,” he said. “In a community where people use computers as much as ours does, it is an efficient way to get information out quickly.”

Garfinkel also produces a weekly podcast that can be found on www.Rabbipod.org., the congregation’s Web site and iTunes. He has no way of knowing how many listeners download it, but he believes it’s well read.

“I have a feeling those who read it are all over the world because I’ve gotten e-mails from many different countries,” he said, including one from a Jewish community on the Cayman Islands whose members appreciated the connection to Judaism because there were few chances for it there.

That experience suggests to him that technological worship aids have a real place in society.

“It tells me there’s a hunger out there for spirituality, and people are going to look for it in the places where it’s easiest to find,” he said. “Right now, people look for it online.

Megachurches, clusters of churches acting as one with a membership in excess of 2,000, have made the Internet an integral part of their worship, said Thumma. LifeChurch.tv, for example, “is part of the Evangelical Covenant Church – a group of more than 600 churches in the United States and Canada,” according to its Web site.

Viewers on the “Internet Campus” of LifeChurch.tv, based in Edmond, Okla., can watch and participate in a service that is also delivered by live video stream via satellite from a central studio to eight separate sites in four states. The music at each site is local; the teaching component is from the satellite, said Bobby Gruenewald, innovation leader and pastor of LifeChurch.tv.

“We view technology as a tool,” said Gruenewald. “We’re not necessarily centered or focused on any technology, but we use it quite a bit to reach people.”

LifeChurch’s membership includes 18,000 people across all locations.

Gruenewald said groups of people online interact in a kind of electronic lobby, listening and watching the “live event” while sharing that experience with one another. Still others will watch the service from home with 15 or 20 people and hook the TV to the computer.

“There are hundreds of people who participate with that,” said Gruenewald.

Rather than reaching new members, Internet technology seems to serve more as a way for the already faithful to augment their experience.

“There tends to be a lot of hope initially that new people will be reached and it will be a great boom for evangelism,” said Lynn Schofield Clark, an assistant professor at the University of Denver’s School of Communication and director of the Estlow International Center for Journalism and New Media.

“But what happens is as the technology unfolds and is integrated into the lives of people who are already faithful, it’s an opportunity for the faithful who are shut in to stay part of the community. It wouldn’t be something that reaches new people.”

Indeed, the First Presbyterian Church of Sparta, despite offering its Webcasting services for several years, has only one “new” Internet member, a woman in Michigan.

More typical are the 20 or so people who watch one of the church’s two Webcasts regularly on Sundays and who are infirm, ill or out of the region, either temporarily, like college students, or permanently, like Denise Lopez’s family in Maryland.

“We were members of Sparta for eight years and then we moved to Maryland,” said Lopez. “We haven’t found a home church yet, so some Sundays we just grab a cup of coffee and gather round the computer and listen to Tom (Litteer).”

But though it’s comforting to hear a familiar voice and see a friendly face, Lopez is the first to admit it’s not the same.

“It’s different in that you don’t feel you’re a part of the congregation, especially the worship,” she said. “When you’re in the church you can feel the spirit move. When you are home, you feel a little disconnected.”

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