WASHINGTON -- The Internet is often stereotyped as dehumanizing, solitary and secular, but don't tell that to the many churches that use mostly homemade Web sites to reach out to new members and keep their own congregations talking.
In the first study of its kind, the Pew Internet and American Life Project surveyed the online habits of over a thousand congregations to see to what extent they're using the Internet to further their religious work.
Project director Lee Rainie said he was surprised by the results, given the conventional wisdom that says the Internet caters to young, libertarian technophiles.
''We found the exact opposite,'' Rainie said. ''These traditional faith-based organizations were embracing modern technologies for their own purposes. For these people, there was a quite joyous level of communication.''
Just as consumers use the Web to shop for goods, Rainie found people were using the Internet to shop for churches, too.
Many of the sites feature virtual tours of the grounds, Webcast their services and post sermons and church bulletins.
''For strangers coming into a church,'' Rainie said, ''it can sometimes be a daunting experience.'' He said the Web sites let new people into the communities, giving them a taste of what it's like to be there.
The Web site of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America caters especially to new members, letting visitors type in their ZIP code to find Lutheran churches in their neighborhood.
The St. Stephen Catholic Church in Valrico, Fla., has a Web site that features an e-mail directory of congregation members, a virtual tour and electronic religious greeting cards.
''I always just refer people to the site,'' said Bernadette Kalle, office manager at the parish near St. Petersburg, Fla.
Some congregations have stretched into realms that even large companies are hesitant to try, like live Webcasting.
The Kol Tikvah synagogue in Woodland Hills, Calif., broadcasts its services live on the Web and has a video archive of holiday sermons.
Rainie's group surveyed 1,309 wired congregations, with 83 percent of respondents saying their church's use of the Internet helped congregational life.
Ministers and rabbis were also contacted to see how they use the Web.
''A striking number of the clergy at these churches have turned to the Internet to get material for sermons, worship services, church-education programs and their own personal devotions,'' said Elena Larson, who wrote the report. ''They use the Internet just as many others do -- they treat it as a vast library in which to hunt for material that matters most to them.''
Most of the sites are made by congregations members, Rainie said.
''It's pretty simple stuff,'' he said. ''It's not real fancy, but it helps them stay connected with each other and extend their good works into the world.''
The congregations responded to an e-mail request from the survey authors and filled out a questionnaire online.
On the Net: Pew Internet and American Life Project: http://www.pewinternet.org
Kol Tikvah synagogue: http://koltikvah.org
St. Stephen Catholic Church: http://www.ststephencatholic.org
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America: http://www.elca.org/hompage.html
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