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Cutting Edge

Monday, December 14, 1998

God Is Everywhere on the Net
Religious groups large and small have created an online marketplace of faith where churches solicit donations and rebels reach a worldwide audience.
By P.J. HUFFSTUTTER, Times Staff Writer

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Every Friday, as the sun begins to creep past its apex, Gemal Seede squeezes past the crowded rows at the Islamic Center of Southern California in Los Angeles.
     A blank tape clutched in one hand, Seede prepares to record the weekly sermon, which he'll upload into the virtual mosque at IslamiCity, a site he helps to maintain on the World Wide Web.
     Many hours later and a continent away, Ahmad Phelps slips out of bed and flips on his computer. A British Muslim living in Birmingham, England, he often prays with friends in silence.
     But sometimes, when he is alone, he logs on to IslamiCity and listens to a prerecorded file of the Adhan, or the call to prayer spoken in Arabic.
     As the audio begins to stream from his PC, Phelps turns toward Mecca and begins to pray.
     "There's a whole invisible community of people beyond my screen," said Seede, who works as director of technology for Warner Brothers Online. "We just want to pass along our philosophy, and help people feel more connected spiritually."
     In an age where technological progress often overshadows faith, the Internet is emerging as a global pulpit for millions of believers.
     Buddhists seek enlightenment in online sanghas at BuddhaNet, asking for insight to the meaning of life. Jews turn to thewall.org to type out messages, which students of Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem print out and place in the Western Wall.
     And in Southern California--home to several tech-savvy evangelical groups--the search for online salvation has opened an important new revenue stream, as fans log on to the Crystal Cathedral's Web site and make digital donations to the Garden Grove ministry.
     Like the corporate world, the religious world has embraced the global network as a means of marketing its views and expanding its base. Each sect has its own approach and its own goals, but one thread unites them all: to remain relevant among an increasingly fickle audience.
     While the Internet is the most modern way to save souls, it also is accelerating a global trend that challenges traditional religious authority.
     For the masses, the Net's potpourri of different beliefs helps people to take a do-it-yourself approach when finding faith. Interpretation becomes personal, and cyberspace a smorgasbord of rules and beliefs.
     Some religious leaders say they must adapt to this reality or risk losing touch with their future flock. They note that a new generation of believers' attitudes is being molded by new media. A small but growing number of youngsters are turning to the Net for their religious input, according to a recent survey by Ventura-based Barna Research Group.
     One out of six teens say they rely on the Internet to augment their spiritual needs now; by the millennium, they expect to stop attending brick-and-mortar churches altogether. By 2010, Barna researchers predict, between 10% and 20% of U.S. Internet users will rely solely on the Web for worship or to otherwise access their faith.
     "We are seeing the beginnings of a wave of religious reformation, one as big as the one seen after the invention of the Gutenberg press," said Quentin Schultze, a professor of communication at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., and author of "Internet for Christians."
     "By democratizing religion, our beliefs are being changed at a fundamental level."
     When the World Wide Web lured business entrepreneurs to the global medium in the early '90s, theological figures weren't far behind. Mostly passive enterprises, religious sites served as modern newsletters for the congregation, listing local gatherings and charitable events.
     Soon, however, organizers embraced the interactive potential of the Net. Mailing lists devoted to witchcraft and pagan religions helped nurture revivals in oft-ignored beliefs, and newsgroups like alt.bible.prophecy and alt.religion.scientology emerged as some of the Net's most heavily trafficked areas.
     Today, thousands of groups hawk salvation and spiritual guidance online with the same eagerness of Wall Street traders hyping the latest Internet offering. Each faction vies to achieve brand rec-
     ognition and to cultivate a loyal congregation.

     Quick Bytes of Religion
     As with other online communities, virtual congregations are a fluid lot. Members gather, share ideas and quickly disperse in search of the next intriguing thought. The conversations may be short-lived, yet are rich with emotion and intensity. The result is an emerging belief system based on point and click and cut and paste.
     "Traditionally, it's not the mainliners who are innovative. It's the marginal groups who are willing to take the risk to try to use the newest technologies," said Brenda E. Brasher, an assistant professor of religion and philosophy at Mount Union College.
     Among Christian groups, the televangical community has been among the first to embrace electronic commerce. For many of those groups, particularly those based in Orange County, the Net acts as a natural extension of a church's fund-raising efforts by radio or cable television.
     Trinity Broadcasting Network in Costa Mesa represents the quintessential approach to modern evangelical ministries. Its Orange County facility combines state-of-the-art production studios, high-end sound facilities and a virtual reality theater that depicts the death of Jesus Christ. It also has an extensive Web site that provides live video footage and an easy-to-use donation form.
     The Rev. Robert Schuller also telecasts his hugely successful "Hour of Power"--services from the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove--across the Web.
     Cathedral staff began offering live audio feeds of Schuller's Sunday sermons as a way of tapping into new audiences. Today, the site draws about 10,000 listeners tuning in via the Web each Sunday, said church staff.
     Hundreds more turn to its online counseling service, where Net users can confess their troubles to volunteer counselors in chat rooms.
     "Obviously, real life interaction is great. But we have a global ministry," said Tim Milner, director of Internet activities for the Crystal Cathedral and Schuller's television ministry. "Online communities are real, even if you can't see them."
     The church's Internet development team--which consists of four full-time staff and a part-time employee--plans to grow next year, thanks to an annual budget of nearly $530,000, Milner said. One of the areas targeted for expansion is the cathedral's electronic commerce ventures, which were launched last month. While listening to Schuller speak, visitors can fill out a donation form and browse through the group's online store.
     So far, sales are slow: In its first week, with no advertising, the television ministry raised only $680 in donations and product revenues.
     "Paul went to the marketplace. Today, the marketplace is the Internet, and it's Dr. Schuller's goal to go where the people are," Milner said.
     Such commercial solicitations have raised the ire of many Internet users. In newsgroups and mailing lists, supporters and critics battle over the propriety of getting people to give cash electronically.
     "The mainstream followers fear that the televangelist scandals of the past could haunt this new space," said Calvin College's Schultze. "Sure, the evangelical movement is going to be very aggressive in this area. But right now, it's more about creating credibility in front of a global audience."

     Fringe Groups Have Equal Access
     By offering new channels for religious dialogue, the Net provides a cheap and easy way to publish and practice spiritual beliefs. As a result, the traditional power structure is starting to crumble.
     By leveling the platform among those proselytizing, the Pope and the leader of a pagan clan can be perceived as equals. Most Christian churches are using the Internet, but are far less aggressive with the technology than those outside the mainstream. Fringe groups and lone individuals who lack the resources to broadcast their message by traditional means are taking the lead and reaching a larger audience than was previously possible.
     One of the most notorious online figures is Jacques Gaillot, a French bishop known for his pro-gay opinions and outspoken criticism of the Catholic Church. In 1995, the church removed Gaillot from his post at Evreux in northern France and named him bishop of Partenia. The diocese in north Africa was a thriving one--about 1,500 years ago. Since then, the area has become a barren, uninhabitable ripple in the desert sands of the Sahara.
     Fighting back, Gaillot established a new Partenia diocese on the World Wide Web. Soon, a new congregation was logging on to Gaillot's Web site and listening to his liberal sermons via Real Audio.
     "It is the most effective way to communicate," Gaillot said in an e-mail exchange. "For me, it became the only way to speak out, to fight against the exclusion, to listen to the problems of our society and to listen to the people."
     More important, the network unifies followers by belief--not geography.
     Take the First Church of Cyberspace, a virtual nondenominational church that exists only on the Internet. Members don't meet in person. Instead, they gather online for prayer sessions, debate morality and listen to weekly sermons streamed across the Web.
     The site's name is a bit glib, say followers, but its mission is very serious: to bring different Christian denominations together under one roof.
     "We can be more effective in communicating the faith this way, rather than by trying to go it alone," said the Rev. Charles Henderson, a Presbyterian minister who founded the site. "People aren't loyal to one brand anymore and the Internet is accentuating that behavior."
     Hoping to stem the flow of followers leaving churches for digital altars, some religious groups are trying to moderate what their congregation sees.
     Last March, the Church of Scientology International introduced an online initiative dubbed on-line.scientology.org.
     In a speech that was later posted on the Web by church critics, Scientology official Mark Ingber told members that every Scientologist could have a Web site.
     Church members were given a CD-ROM that had a template which included space for a person to include information about the following: "About Myself," "My Success in Scientology," "My Favorite L. Ron Hubbard Quote," "Groups I Support" and "Favorite Links" to other Scientology sites. The form includes a link to the church's home page, as well as a section where visitors can send their phone number and address to the site's owner.
     The template also embedded a long string of keywords that would be picked up by the automated search agents used by the popular search engines, which comb through hundreds of thousands of sites looking for key words or phrases. Those software tools could identify the members' pages as highly relevant even when a user calls up such general subjects as "illiteracy" and "education."
     The church's initiative also included a Web filter, for both kids and parents, designed to block access to information critical of the church.
     Critics insist that Scientology launched the project to flood the Net with pro-church rhetoric and block information that challenges the group's views. But the church insists it is only helping believers express their views and shield their children from online antagonism.
     "We are determined to be heard," said Aron Mason, director of public affairs for the Church of Scientology International. "It's [our] duty to the world to make [ourselves] understood and clear up misconceptions wherever they appear."

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