From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Close Up: Church seekers knocking at digital front door

From "NewsDesk" <NewsDesk@UMCOM.ORG>
Date Mon, 3 Feb 2003 15:07:32 -0600

Feb. 3, 2003  News media contact: Kathy Gilbert7(615)742-54707Nashville,
Tenn.	10-21-71BP{050}

NOTE: "Close Up" is a regular UMNS feature that takes an in-depth look at
issues and trends. An illustration, photographs, a chart and three sidebars,
UMNS stories #051, #052 and #053, are available.

A UMNS Report 
By Laura J. Latham and Kathy L. Gilbert*

Mary just moved into town and is seeking a new church home. Instead of
driving around, she logs on.

Tocarra needs to know when her church youth group is leaving for its mission
trip to Mexico. She clicks on her church's Web site instead of picking up a

Joel is on a business trip to Korea, but he doesn't want to miss the Sunday
morning service at his home church in Montgomery, Ala. He goes online and
participates in worship.

The Internet is changing how people communicate, and churches that want to
stay connected are finding that they need cyberspace.

Cyber shopping

More than 3 million people a day go to the Internet for religious or
spiritual information, according to "CyberFaith," a report by the Pew
Internet and American Life project. That number reflects more people looking
online for spiritual direction than looking for help with banking, investing
or dating.

A recent report by the Barna Research Group predicts that within this decade,
more than 50 million people may rely on the Internet for all their
faith-based experiences.

The Internet is an open door to the good and the bad, and churches should be
as visible as possible, says Clint Bounds, 27-year-old webmaster for
Faithbridge United Methodist Church ( in Spring, Texas.

Bounds was a new Christian when, at his mother's urging, he visited
Faithbridge. "It was awesome, just what I was looking for," he says. After a
few visits, he asked the Rev. Ken Werlein if he could redesign the Web site.

"The church needs to be out there on the Internet so when you are browsing
along you can see the church," Bounds says. "If you need information you go
to the Web. The Web is the new way to communicate and learn. It is a really
powerful tool."

"I find it very easy to say to someone, 'go to our Web site.' It is easier
than just showing up on Sunday," he says. "Our church is a lot more than just
Sunday worship also, so people can see other things we are doing."

One of the church's small-group pastors decided to attend Faithbridge because
of the Web site, Bounds recalls. "He had a choice between three churches, and
based on our Web site, he thought we were trying to keep up (with today's

"The Internet has become the digital front door for young people to find a
church," says Chuck Russell, Internet resource consultant for United
Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tenn.

Digital front door 

Russell warns that people might judge your church community by your Web site.
If the site looks stagnant, people might assume the church is too, and that
can cost the congregation potential members. 

A subtle danger that is unfortunately typical of many churches is not
investing the time and money to have a high quality Web site," says the Rev.
Scott J. Jones, McCreless assistant professor of evangelism at Perkins School
of Theology in Dallas. "Too many churches are trying to scrimp by with bad
domain names, with poorly constructed sites that really make Christianity
look like it's not 'with it' in the modern culture."

A year ago, Tooele (Utah) United Methodist Church ( was in
crisis. Attendance had dropped to around 30 people on Sunday mornings.

Realizing something had to be done, the Rev. Michael Heart revamped his
church's Internet site. With a fresh face and a better domain name, the
church saw its attendance double. Heart admits the Web site is not the only
reason attendance has increased, but he gives it a lot of credit for drawing
in new people.

"We have 40 people on our e-mail list. We are becoming more and more
electronically based, and it seems to be helping," he says.

Heart updates the site himself and says it only takes about an hour a week.
On the Web site, visitors can find out about the history of the United
Methodist Church, post and read prayer requests, and read Heart's sermons. 

"I think if the Internet is the only way to get through to people, then let's
create a ministry on the Net."

The Net generation

The Net generation is 16 to 25 years old. That also happens to be the age
group missing from a lot of local churches.
"Establishing a presence is not enough," writes Andrew Careaga in his book,
eMinistry. "Use a church Web site as a launching pad to reach the Net

"The Internet is important to my life," says Pavielle Chriss, a senior at
Plano West Senior High School in Dallas and a member of Hamilton Park United
Methodist Church. "I can't imagine life without it."

Chriss says she uses the Internet for exchanging e-mail and finding

Barna research found teen-agers are more interested in reading devotional
passages and submitting prayer requests online than adults. In the same
report, Barna found 8 percent of adults and 12 percent of teens use the
Internet for religious or spiritual experiences.

Asked what she would like to see on a church's Web site, Chriss says that No.
1 would be pictures of the youth and other church members engaged in
ministry. Other helpful items would be a calendar of events, contacts at the
church, and statements from people who attend the church saying something
about its fellowship.

"The Internet is really helpful, especially for young adults who may be
moving around and looking for a place to worship," she says.

"Any church that is serious about reaching young people ought to have e-mail
communication with their youth. If I were a youth pastor, I would be online
with my young people regularly," Jones says.

Using computers and the Internet is second nature to today's youth, agrees
Ciona Rouse, communications and project coordinator for the Shared Mission
Focus on Young People, a global initiative of the denomination.

"Take, for example, my 12-year-old cousin," she says. "As far as he is
concerned, the Internet has always been around. It is much easier for me to
get him to look at my Web site than it is to get him to call me on the

The Shared Mission Focus on Young People launched its Web site,, last summer and has had great response from youth, she

"It is so important for churches to appeal to young people because they are
(the) ones out there searching on the Net," she says. "So many use it for
their faith growth, to find devotionals and to get information about the
Bible. An appealing Web site shows a church is youth-friendly."

The Internet is the voice of young people, she adds.

Live, it's Sunday morning!

People young and old, for one reason or another, are not always able to get
into a car and drive to a Sunday morning worship service. Instead, they can
log onto a computer, point the browser to, and
hear a live worship service from Montgomery, Ala. The service, called the
"Frazer Family Hour," is held every Sunday from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. CST.

"We get responses from people all over the world who view us on the
Internet," says the Rev. John Ed Mathison of Frazer Memorial United Methodist
Church in Montgomery.

"Just about six weeks ago, we got an e-mail from one of our members who was
on a business trip to Seoul, Korea," he says. "He dialed us up and worshiped
with us. We also have a lot of our military families staying in touch with us
through the Internet."

Frazer's Web site is not designed as a substitute for the local church, but
it offers a way to reach people who for one reason or another can't or don't
attend in person, Mathison says. The Sunday bulletin with the message outline
is posted the Tuesday before every Sunday. 

Plans for the future include creating more ways to communicate with people,
especially youth, through chat rooms and other interactive venues. Just like
television, the Internet gives people a chance to see what a United Methodist
church looks like, Mathison says.

"You can reach a lot of people through the Internet that you would never
reach any other way."

Virtual communities

An essential component of Christianity is initiation into community, Jones

"There is a certain kind of community on the Web, but it is inadequate on its
own," he says. "It has to be supplemented with face-to-face contact. Just as
I would never recommend somebody should only worship by television, no one
should worship only online. In fact, all of these other methods are either
ways of inviting people into face-to-face physical worship or they are
supplements to enhance that experience."

Russell agrees that real face-to-face community is important, but he says the
Internet can enhance community, since many people are driving 30 minutes or
more to go to church and only see each other once or twice a week.

When John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was thrown out of conventional
churches, he started preaching in the open air near coal mines and along the
countryside, Russell says. But Wesley also required people to attend church
in order to be part of his small groups.

Chat rooms, e-mail, and bulletin boards are today's open-air small groups.

"The Internet is a way to reach out, but you have to say to people, 'You
can't stay in this world, you have to be in touch with reality,'" Russell

"Their involvement in online communities is strengthening their offline
spiritual lives," Careaga says.

No boundaries

Christians are finding new places to meet beyond the walls of the traditional
church. The Internet provides an opportunity to share prayer concerns,
discuss scripture and debate theology with people at any time, day or night. 

And the Internet has no boundaries. Someone in Norway can discuss beliefs
with someone in New York with little trouble. The Internet is pushing the
idea of community in many ways.

Whether a local church chooses a minimal online presence by advertising the
basic who, what, when and where, or whether it offers a feature-filled site,
the reality is that a Web presence is becoming as important as the Sunday
bulletin and a printed newsletter. 

The Internet is cheap and fast, and it has the potential to have an enormous
influence on the daily lives of people, Russell says.

"By the end of the decade, we will have in excess of 10 percent of our
population who rely upon the Internet for their entire spiritual experience,"
says George Barna, in an online research report, "More Americans are Seeking
Net-Based Faith Experiences." The report can be found at

As Careaga points out, the Net is a young medium, and its implications for
our spiritual lives are yet to be seen.

"What is certain, however, is that the Christian faith will not be left
untouched by the Internet," Careaga says.

Russell says local pastors need to take a look at using the Internet as part
of their ministry.

"The Internet provides local pastors with the cheapest, most effective, most
powerful way to influence the daily lives of their congregations."

# # #

*Gilbert is a news writer and Latham is Web site editor for United Methodist
News Service.

United Methodist News Service
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