Online communities connect Christians in cyberspace


A Feature
By Vicki Brown

A U.S. soldier in Iraq watches sermons on live streaming video. A woman isolated by her chemotherapy draws strength from daily e-mails. And members of a Minnesota church use technology to stay in touch while wintering in Florida.

All three are examples of Web ministry through online church communities.

"It's really a way of ministering beyond the walls of your church - a way of reaching more people than we reach in church on Sunday," says Mark Stephenson, director of cyber ministry and technology at the Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church in Tipp City, Ohio. He started the church's Web site in 1996 and has provided training for others building church Web sites.

Nearly two-thirds of the adults who use the Internet in the United States have done so for faith-related matters, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project. That represents nearly 82 million Americans. That number, based on a sample of 2,013 adults in 2003, was much higher than earlier surveys by the project.

Lee Rainie, director of the Pew project, defines an online community as a group of people who share something - a belief system, a lifestyle, a hobby, a common interest in things like music, movies or sports - and use the Internet as a way to interact with one another.

Churches are finding communities can be built through e-mail lists, prayer or discussion groups, online Bible study, or live online chats about a set subject, such as the Sunday sermon.

The major difference between online community and other Web ministry is who provides the content, Stephenson says.

"In an online community, the people in it provide the content," he says. He sees ministry happening daily in the online community part of his church's Web site - such as the Fellowship group, where visitors can post prayers or discuss anything from politics to the most recent sermon.

"There was a lady who led our devotion team. She was in her 80s when she got cancer,'' he says. "When she got sick, it flipped. The whole devotion team became a support system for her. I saw daily prayers. They were sending them to her each day.

"I was told by her family that even when she was really weak from chemo, she would get up and go to her computer and read what people had sent her,'' he says. The online contact was especially important, he said, since her weakened immune system prevented face-to-face visits.

Content creates community too, members of Centennial United Methodist Church in Roseville, Minn., have found.

"We have a lot of people who go south for the winter, and they are really able to stay connected in the life of the church," says the Rev. Melanie Homan, associate pastor. "Last summer, our youth went on a mission trip to a Native American reservation. Each night a youth called in and did an interview, and those were posted each day on the Web pages."

Deb Olsen, communications specialist at the church, says besides visiting the Web pages for audio of the sermons or church news, visitors like links to other information, such as where to get flu shots.

"We've added a photo album that people really like," she says. And the church is upgrading technology to do live streaming video of sermons and other events. "We would hope to show live or shortly delayed funeral services and weddings.''

Online community visitors say the sites strengthen their faith and provide deeper connections than they might find in person, but they add that the sites would never replace their church service.

"We see ourselves in their postings, which causes us to stop and reflect on our own relationships," says Jerry Warner, a member of the Ginghamsburg Web ministry team and a regular visitor to the church's Fellowship site. Warner, who says he's an introvert and "lurker" on the site and seldom comments, also likes the spontaneous nature of postings.

"It isn't something we store up for Sunday mornings," he says. "When someone wants to post, they post. I think several of us have found ourselves sharing and talking about subjects that we hadn't even planned on when we started typing.

"People here share more of themselves. ... I think it also helps some of us to say things that we might not have the courage to say in person.''

While Rainie says the Pew survey did not identify what works best in an online community, other research shows thriving online communities have a lot of interaction.

"Many online communities fall apart when a small number of people dominate the 'conversation' or are extremist filibusterers. It is better when lots of people participate and share their views and experiences," he says.

"Online communities also work well when people are learning from others in the community. They enjoy asking for and getting advice, learning news, and getting practical information that helps them live their lives."

To learn more about developing a church Web ministry, go to online.

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