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Flocking to the Web

Religious Groups Great and Small Reach Out to the Believer and the Seeker Through the Internet

By Bill Broadway
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 28, 1996 ; Page B07

In the explosion of home pages on the Internet, religion has played a major part.

A year ago, "very, very few" churches had gone on-line, said Quentin Schultze, a communications professor in Michigan who monitors Christian activity on the Internet. Now, at least 6,000 congregations have addresses on the World Wide Web, where they promote the churches' activities and often encourage members to participate in electronic dialogue. The total could be twice that many; not all churches with Web sites have asked to be added to searchable databases or on-line directories, he said.

Mike Cohen, Web master for the New York-based Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, said he adds two to three synagogues daily to the home-page directory on the union's home page, which was launched Aug. 15. The six-month-old home page of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism has a growing list of more than 100 congregational home-page sites; the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (Reform) has electronic links to 168 congregations and a Web site that has grown from 30 pages to 350 in little more than a year.

Other denominations have developed home pages, some following constituent congregations into cyberspace. The Church of Jesus Christ, Scientist, introduced its home page in March and the Episcopal Church in June. The Southern Baptist Convention, which already offers news and a prayer network on the subscription-based CompuServe, will launch its home page Nov. 1. The U.S. Catholic Conference will introduce a series of pages in 1997, joining about 500 Catholic parishes already on-line.

In simplest form, a home page gives the address, phone number and worship times of a church, synagogue, temple or mosque and a short menu, or list of topics, the user can click on for other information -- such as prayer requests, volunteer opportunities or kosher restaurants. More sophisticated pages feature color logos and photographs, longer menus of activities and links to Internet sites offering related information, from explanations of a faith's origins and beliefs to offerings of electronic-mail-order products.

Home pages have two main purposes: to provide information for people moving into a community and to publicize upcoming activities and events for parishioners, said Schultze, who teaches at Calvin College in Grand Rapids and edits a biweekly newsletter called Christians on the Internet. "Many people wrongly assume that they are evangelistic," he said.

Mark Kellner, the author of the book "God on the Internet" and a freelance computer columnist for the Washington Times, said he knew the trend was "hitting home" when he saw a Web address ( displayed on an outdoor sign at Southview Baptist Church in Herndon.

"I'm not Baptist and I wasn't church shopping, but you can be sure I went home that afternoon and looked at that home page," said Kellner, a Jew who became a Christian and is now a member of the Salvation Army.

That kind of response is giving home pages more than passing significance, Kellner said. Having a Web site proves to the new generation of computer-literate faith seekers that a religious institution is serious about reaching out to them. Today, a church's Web address "is as much an identifier as FTD or the Yellow Pages, a kind of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval of the cyber age," he said. "It tells people that this church is accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

The cost of developing a home page usually is very low, Kellner said. Start-up software is available in computer stores for less than $100, and services such as America Online and CompuServe offer a limited amount of free space as part of membership.

In most cases, no monetary outlay is necessary. Many denominations pay a large Internet server for electronic space for their pages and offer free space to member congregations -- not to mention free advice and even forms for creating a basic home page. The Catholic Church has no centralized home page, but two companies, Catholic Online and the Catholic Catalog Co., announced two weeks ago that they will underwrite home page costs and Internet access for all 19,500 U.S. Catholic parishes.

What is essential is a local Web master, often a volunteer, who has the time to create the format and update the information regularly. Advanced computer skills are helpful but not necessary, Kellner said.

"It takes some practice but is very easy to do," Kellner said.

For ideas on what can be done, Schultze and Kellner suggested searching the Internet for examples. Denominational home pages are a good starting point -- that of your own congregation's denomination and those of other faiths as well.

Schultze calls the home page of the North Way Christian Community, in Wexford, Pa., "one of the best examples on-line of what is possible." The page (, started about a year ago, goes beyond a simple word menu to icons that take the user to various places on the site. One can take a "virtual tour" of the church by going first to a floor plan, then to color photographs taken from different angles; can post opinions and thoughts on a message board; and can find out about specific programs, such as a basketball league. The Rev. Jeffrey Small, an associate pastor who helped design North Way's home page, said the church had the advantage of having a member who creates home pages professionally and volunteered his services.

The member used special graphics software to organize photos and create artwork and logos. The idea was to create a site that people would pull up and say, "Wow, that's really neat," Small said.

One of the most colorful and varied denominational sites is the home page of the Cleveland-based United Church of Christ. In addition to providing links to its churches on-line, the page connects interested users to its "ecumenical partners," with whom the church hopes to establish full communion within the next year. Among them: the United Methodist Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the AME Zion Church, the Reform Church of America, the Disciples of Christ, as well as churches in Germany, England, Canada and South Africa.

Andy Lang, a spokesman for the United Church of Christ, stressed the ecumenical value of the Internet in providing information across faith lines to enhance understanding. In addition, the medium allows many Christian churches to regain the visual power of symbols and iconography, which over the years has given way primarily to words. In a typical week, the United Church of Christ site has about 1,000 "visitors" and more than 20,000 "hits," with each hit representing a file downloaded, or copied into another computer.

Perhaps the most elaborate religious site of all belongs to the Church of Scientology. More than 100 members from various countries spent six months creating the page, a start-up effort valued at more than $2 million, including hardware.

As a model of the craft of creating a Web site, Scientology's site "is one of the best in existence today," Kellner said.

Introduced in March, the site has 30,000 pages of information and utilizes such high-tech features as RealAudio software, which enables users to hear the music of Scientology member Chick Corea or lectures by founder L. Ron Hubbard, and a multimedia "Dianetics 3-D Tour of the Mind" that receives 4,000 visitors a day.

"Search engines" such as Alta Vista and Yahoo offer more comprehensive browsing, scanning millions of Internet pages for keywords typed in by the searcher -- say, "Presbyterian" and "Bethesda," or "Buddhism" and "temple."

Such searches can produce thousands of hits, so the greater the specificity the more precise the results.

The idea is for a church or synagogue to see what can be done, then apply that knowledge to what it wants and is able to do, Kellner said.

"This isn't about bits and bytes, about hardware," Kellner said, "but the strategic use of information."


A new service on America Online provides a directory of Washington area churches, synagogues and mosques. Listings are not as extensive as Web home pages, but most offer a brief description, photograph and calendar of services and events.

As of this week, about 1,500 houses of worship were included, with more than 5,000 anticipated within the month, editor Elyse Rothschild said. Names are taken from a commercial database, and facts are checked with the pastor or other spiritual leader, she said.

AOL subscribers reach the service by typing "Washington Religion" into the keyword box. A menu also provides links to other features, including a list of day-care centers, an advice column by a psychologist, chat rooms for discussing religious and ethical issues, and descriptions of volunteer opportunities.

"It's the only one like it anywhere," Rothschild said of the locally oriented on-line religion service. For now, use is limited to subscribers, but a "mirror" site on the Internet is being considered, she said.


To view home pages on the Web, begin with denominational sites. You will find houses of worship as well as sites devoted to traditions, symbols and beliefs. For groups or religions not listed, call up a "search engine" such as Alta Vista ( or Yahoo ( Enter keywords -- such as "African Methodist Episcopal Church" -- and you will be given a selection of sites.

Selected Sites (begin with http://) Southern Baptist: (Nov. 1)

Roman Catholic (unofficial):

Church of Christ, Scientist:

Episcopal Church:

Greek Orthodox:


Evangelical Lutheran Church in America:

Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod:

United Methodist Church:

Union of American Hebrew Congregations (Reform):

Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America:

United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism:

Presbyterian Church (USA):

Seventh-Day Adventist:

United Church of Christ:

Articles appear as they were originally printed in The Washington Post and may not include subsequent corrections.

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