Will the church of the future be on line?

We seem to be heading that way, says think-tank president Ron Sellers who points to recent findings that among American adults who use the Internet, 44 percent use it for religious purposes. 

“This is particularly common among younger Americans,” says Sellers, who heads up Grey Matter Research in Phoenix, Ariz. ”There is tremendous diversity in how the Internet is used for spiritual purposes, including interacting with religious leaders on social media, visiting church websites, going online for religious instruction, reading religious blogs, and numerous other methods.”

And that bothers Rector David Grant Smith of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in New York.

“I have to believe that people can sincerely experience God in just about any setting,” Smith recently told the Voice of America’s Religion Project. “But I do worry about the online experience cheapening our human connections.”

“Smith is used to helping people along the sometimes bumpy path of belief. With a membership of around 110, Smith has the luxury of genuinely getting to know his parishioners – their experiences, hopes and battles,” notes the VOA report. ”The Internet, he says, has become a forum for spiritual exploration:

And thanks to numerous search engines, people are able to type in a few words that deal with spirituality or religion, and then they have at their fingertips a globe of information on that one topic. For someone who loves information overload, it’s heaven. For somebody who really has a hard time parsing through large volumes or possibilities, it could be a patch of hell.

Associate professor of religion at Ithaca College Rachel Wagner calls that experience of having the world at your keyboard fingertips “a taste of infinity” – an experience that the told VOA comes as close as humans have ever gotten to omniscience:

There’s so many possibilities that come up we cannot possibly process them all. Almost anything we would want to learn something about, we can learn in a moment’s notice. Almost anyone we would like to be, to project ourselves as or imagine ourselves as, those things are possible online. Almost any kind of power that we might wish that we had, we can temporarily experience that online. And that mimics a lot of the desire that is part of religious history throughout time. The virtual represents for us a dream of what is possible, and that is part of its attraction.

She writes in her book GodWired: Religion, Ritual and Virtual Reality that  it’s only natural that people are taking their spiritual journeys online with them. She cites the many new computer and cellphone applications and the wealth of religious websites geared toward expanding the viewer’s faith. Yet, she worries, it’s precisely that profusion of products and devices outside the bounds of traditional religious institutions that has some faith leaders concerned:

There was a lot of debate a few months ago about a Catholic confession app. It was developed by a pious Catholic and it was initially approved by a bishop and then the Vatican stepped in and said, somewhat cryptically, “Well, we really prefer that you engage in confession with a real, live embodied person.”

Rector Smith also sees the Internet as a mixed blessing. For example, members of his church will often read something online concerning their beliefs and come to believe it, rather than coming to him to discuss questions they may have, he told VOA:

Rather than questioning the source, they seem to take either comfort or a disturbed spirit toward whatever they found online. It can be an interesting way of having a conversation begin about things spiritual;

it can also be aggravating because in the cases where people have read something that might necessarily be true or complete, it can be kind of disheartening to the people who come to me with “Oh, I found out this online.”

Smith finds himself having to advise them, ‘That’s not really all that kosher.’” And he says there’s a much larger aspect of digital religion that concerns him – the things that get lost in an online-only experience. In particular, the Vatican’s conern: our need for actual contact with real, living people.

Grey Matter Research surveyed a demographically representative sample of 1,011 American adults who use the Internet and explored their use of the online world.

Their findings show a variety of ways online Americans are using the Internet to seek the Almighty: