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CP Story

Internet provides spiritual forum for worshippers

Canadian Press Newswire (and printed in newspapers across Canada)

By Lois Abraham
The Canadian Press

    ``Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you, and remember that I am with you always until the end of the age.'' -
    Matthew 28:19-20.

In the Bible, Jesus tells Christians to go out and spread the word about their beliefs. That has become easier than ever now that they can reach out to millions of people right in their homes - via cyberspace.

Clergy and laypeople alike are exploring their spirituality or simply exchanging information on the Internet. They are setting up sites on the World Wide Web and taking part in Bible studies and discussion groups on Ecunet, a private network.

Those who have set up sites say there's a hunger for theological information.

Tod Maffin, 25, of Vancouver launched his Anglicans Online! web site about a year ago.

It started small - just four links to other Internet sites in the Anglican and Episcopal communities that he compiled while he was chair of the B.C. Anglican Youth Movement.

``One day I posted a message in the Christian discussion groupon the Internet saying that I had these resources on the Internet they could check out.

``Within two hours the web site was swamped. I went from what was previously generating three or four visits a week to between 800 and 1,000 visits in a day. It just exploded! And I had no idea that that was a resource that people were after.

``It created a responsibility for me.''

Now the site, which I-Way Magazine billed in March as being tied for the seventh highest rating of any web site in the world, resembles an electronic newsletter. Users can click on Newsroom to read updated Anglican news from around the world or on Maffin's name to learn about his background.

Maffin, an account director at a public relations agency, went to Cuba in January to set up a nationwide e-mail system for the Anglican church there. You can click on Project Cuba to read about his trip.

Eric Haynes also knows about responsibility.

By day the 56-year-old former Salvation Army pastor writes software for satellite communications. After work he answers some 50 pieces of electronic mail and updates his site, Christian Web Centre, Resource for Study, Worship and Christian Ministry. It's like a Christian Yellow Pages with an alphabetical listing of religious sites on the Net.

But his site is not just for Christians. Haynes includes every religious group that has a site and classifies them in such categories as world religion, Bible study and cult.

Maffin and Haynes spend many hours voluntarily maintaining their sites but say they don't mind.

``It's really a feeling of wanting to make my life count for something other than keeping track of vehicles through satellites, which I do during the day,'' says Haynes, now a Baptist.

``I look at it very much like a ministry,'' explains Maffin, who spends 10 hours a week updating his site, culling from the several hundred e-mail messages he gets.

``Some people have skills in prayer, some people have skills in administration. I tend to have skills on the Internet. I figure that this is one way I can give back to the church.''

Searching for Jesus in cyberspace may be widely practised, but don't write off going to church. Most clergy view the Internet as an adjunct to personal interaction.

``I see the Internet as a way for the church to reach out to people who might not otherwise want to relate to a church or choose to relate to a church,'' says Rev. David Shearman, a United Church minister in Blackstock, Ont., north of Oshawa.

``But it will not replace the one-to-one, face-to-face, my listening to your story, your listening to my story kind of thing. ``There is something intensely personal about religious faith that I think requires some sense of physical community gathering in a time and place - like Sunday morning for Christians, or a Sabbath worship for the Jewish faith or in the case of Islam going to a mosque. You can't replace that experience.''

Nonetheless Quentin Schultze, author of Internet for Christians, now a book and an online newsletter, says 5,000 to 10,000 North American Christian groups alone are already on the Internet, and the number is growing by about 30 a week.

Other faith groups - from Satanists to Jehovah's Witnesses to Buddhists to Jews - operate thousands of other sites.

Christians dominate, however, because it's a large faith that tends to be wealthier than others and evangelism is an essential part of its teachings.

Haynes reminds people not to accept as gospel everything they read in cyberspace. Anybody can get on the Internet and put out material. ``Just as you have to be discriminating when you go into a Christian bookstore, so do you have to be wary when you look at religion on the Internet,'' he says.