Internet provides spiritual forum
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.'' -
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
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
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
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,''