Internet opens door to unorganized religion

Posted: Friday, June 08, 2001

WASHINGTON -- From her home in Del City, Okla., Johnna Ray clicks to an Internet site and opens a church door to the world.

''It's been a blessing to me,'' Ray said. ''It's made me study the Bible a lot more, and get more personal in my prayer life with God.''

Through the site come Christians, Jews, atheists, seekers, doubters -- people of differing beliefs and distant nations.

They are at the site, which is unaffiliated with any organized religion, to join in a crosscultural conversation about God.

Ray primarily visits the site because it is nondenominational. Unaffiliated sites operate as independents -- Beliefnet is one -- or as click-ons in search engines such as Yahoo!'s Clubs or MSN's Communities.

Denominations commonly have their own chatrooms, and congregants always have talked after services. But Web visitors say they feel more free to explore ideas when they venture outside their doctrinal niche.

''They don't have to be afraid, 'My girlfriends wouldn't understand that I have an interest in this,''' Ray said.

''I get to talk to other people and share what I believe, and I get to hear what they believe, but I'm more interested in sharing what I believe,'' said Ray. She describes her chats as faith-strengthening.

''I think you see the next great evolution, from people being consumers of spirituality to people being creators of spirituality,'' said Rabbi Brad Hershfield, a specialist in leadership and community involvement at the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, or CLAL, in New York City.

If the Internet costs organized religion part of its authority, organized religion will have to live with that, Hershfield said.

''What rabbis should do is not to give conclusive answers but provide important information to enrich the conversation,'' he said, noting that many people want the dialogue that the chat forums provide.

''The thing I learned from Beliefnet is to widen my view of what's out there,'' said Derek Flood, an American working in computer animation who lives in Munich, Germany. Flood's chats with members of other religions help him to see those faiths' worth, he said.

''I like the idea that the world is a big, crazy, wild, nongridded place,'' he said. ''That makes God worth following.''

Others use the Net to promote their own brand of high-tech evangelism -- and realize the unaffiliated sites attract visitors open to exploring ideas.

Beliefnet has a no-proselytizing rule. And yet, said Martha Ainsworth, Beliefnet community producer, ''Proselytizing in general is a fairly large problem that consumes about half my day.

''It goes both ways,'' she said. ''Christians will go to the atheism board and attempt to convert atheists to Christianity, and atheists will go back to Christianity and complain about the Christians.''

Ainsworth's feeling is that people whose faiths emphasize evangelism should be true to their religion, but do it in ways that don't offend others -- for instance, by waiting for visitors at their own sites, she said.

Others chafe at such limits. ''Those who don't believe what we believe would like to see us confine our preachers to the sanctuaries,'' said Moishe Rosen, founder of Jews for Jesus.

As a public forum, the chatroom is a legitimate place to evangelize, Rosen said. ''The gospel has always been preached in the marketplace and street corners,'' he said. ''The chatroom has become the street corner and marketplace of the modern world.''

Although Rosen said he sticks to his group's site, Ainsworth said Jewish sites constantly get traffic from proselytizers. The targets of the conversion efforts find it annoying.

If a Beliefnet message board contains such a post, it is ''politely but firmly'' removed, she said.

But the chatroom is not a church, it's a way to get people to go to church, said the Rev. G. Michael Bugarin, director and chief executive officer of the new, high-tech Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington.

''It should never be a substitute for the live, community experience of worshipping together,'' he said. ''God has always intended for us to live in community.''


On the Net:

Microsoft Communities religion sites:

MSN Chat religion sites:

Yahoo Clubs religion sites:

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