Rabbis Lecture, Churches Chat
I-Way to Heaven

“This is an extension of the Church's mission, and that is evangelization, the spreading of the good news”
— Matt Doyle, Raleigh Catholic Diocese site administrator

Robert Strotman
Harmony Grove UMC
Robert Strotman: The church must be represented on the Internet

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Matt Doyle
Diocese of Raleigh
Matt Doyle: The Internet is as flexible as your imagination

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Muhammad Musri
Muhammad Musri: The Internet will enhance Muslim religious life

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Yosef Kazen
Chabad-Lubavitchers in Cyberspace
Yosef Kazen: This is an opportunity to learn more about godliness

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Religious art (M. Triandafellos/ABCNEWS.com)

By Gayle Tzemach
Mention Mass to most Catholics, and modems and “streaming audio” don’t exactly leap to mind.
But the diocese of Raleigh, N.C., like many other religious organizations, is using the World Wide Web to change the way people worship. Now, parishioners can log on to hear mass live through RealAudio, one of a handful of programs that let people listen online—live or later.
     “Broadcasting mass on radio and television is a longstanding tradition within the Catholic Church,” says Matt Doyle, the Raleigh site’s chief architect. “It would only be a natural step to take it to the next available medium, and that is the Internet. It gives us another tool with which to reach out to people.”
     While weekly church attendance in the U.S. has slipped to its lowest level in more than 40 years, hundreds of thousands of religious Web sites are enjoying more traffic than ever. It’s not only Catholics. Muslims, Jews, Evangelical Christians and Buddhists, among others, are now moving beyond offering basic information and have entered the realm of truly interactive electronic prayer.

Everything but Communion
The year-old Raleigh program, designed to reach the sick, elderly and others who would be otherwise unable to attend mass in person, also offers sermons, reflections from clergy—everything but the sacraments.
     “This is an extension of the Church’s mission,” Doyle says, “and that is evangelization, the spreading of the good news.”
     Other organizations have set up entire virtual communities. In Lilburn, Ga., the Harmony Grove United Methodist Church’s Internet Prayer List offers a place for those in need to send their thoughts and reflections via e-mail. These prayers are then posted on the site for others to read. The site also enlists the faithful to join in a church-sponsored Christian chat.
     “The prayer pages serve as an outlet for people who may not be active in a church, but yet feel like they need the Christian community to pray for them,” Harmony Grove site administrator Bob Strotman says. The site “becomes more than just an advertisement for your church, but allows you to have a little ministry at the same time.”
     IslamiCity goes further, with a chat room connecting Muslims worldwide, along with streaming audio versions of Radio Islam and an online prayer area. IslamiCity visitors can also have their questions on Islam answered in the “Ask the Imam” section.
     Muhammad Musri, one of the clerics who receives these e-mailed queries, says his site has grown so popular—100 messages a week—that he’s asked to hire three or four more people to ease the load.
     “I think it’s one fantastic way to connect people, to answer questions, to get people more informed,” Musri says. “We try to show through (the site) the different dimensions within Islam.”

Enhance, Not Replace
Educating readers on the many aspects of religious life is also Yosef Kazen’s goal. Kazen, the activities director for the Chabad-Lubavitchers in Cyberspace, offers a prayer area, streaming audio of various lectures, and online religious classes.
     “I find this to be the best thing for religion,” Kazen says. “Our basic objective is to take 3,000 years of Jewish history, and make it available to people.”
     Those who run the sites responsible for bringing religion to the Web, that is the key to the success of online worship. And they stress that their own offerings of virtual religion should reinforce, not replace, the real thing.
     “This is not how you fully experience the worship experience,” says Doyle, the RealAudio mass provider. “This does not take the place of church. It is not there to suggest that people can turn this on, listen to it, and somehow meet their Sunday obligation.”
     And while some may see the Net as an unlikely home for serious religious reflection, those who provide the service are hearing little criticism. In fact, they say they already have ideas in mind for increased interactivity in the years ahead.
     “As people are going to become more involved at their own level in understanding what Judaism has to offer them, people living in remote areas will come together,” says Kazen. “It’s not going to replace, it’s going to enhance.”

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