Teens can do just about everything online: shop, get help with homework, keep up with old friends and make new ones, listen to music, check out the latest videos and much, much more. They can even feed their souls as more teens turn to the Internet to explore faith and spirituality. Currently 4 percent of teens say they use the Internet for religious or spiritual experiences, according to a study published April 20, 1998 by Barna's Research Group of Ventura, Calif.But teens aren't just talking and reading about faith and religion online. They're worshiping online. One out of six church-going teens surveyed by Barna predict within five years they'll use the Internet as a substitute for their current church-based religious experience. "Our research indicates that by 2010 we will probably have 10 percent to 20 percent of the population relying primarily or exclusively upon the Internet for its religious input," says Barna Research Group President George Barna in a press release. "Those people will never set foot on a church campus because their religious and spiritual needs will be met through other means--including the Internet." Will Online Religion Cause Us to Crave Human Contact? "I think Barna's got a hold of a profound half truth," says church historian, author and futurist Leonard Sweet, president and dean of the Theological School at Drew University. "The problem is there is another half.I want to suggest the whole cyberworship phenomenon actually will create the exact opposite and more people will want a hands on, high touch, real life worship experience. I think Barna's right. More and more--especially natives to cyberculture--will increasingly find spiritual needs addressed and met to some degree online, but at the same time, that will create a hunger in them for authentic, real community." "I think you always need to come to church and be with people of like faith, but there's nothing wrong with watching a video from a church service online," says Brian Garrison, youth pastor at World Harvest Church in Canal Winchester, Ohio. "But it should never replace Sunday worship, or Wednesday night or youth service for that matter. Kids need social interaction."
Quentin Schultze, Professor of Communication at Calvin College and author of "Internet for Christians" says teens are searching for answers to major life questions with the freedom and anonymity the Internet provides.
"Cyberworship is not changing the face of religion," Schultze says. "Perhaps 'cyberseeking' is. The Net has made it incredibly easy for people to 'check out' different religions and even to correspond with members of various religious groups. The anonymity of online seeking, along with the scope of available information, have facilitated widespread spiritual quests through cyberspace. Oddly enough, what appears to be a mass medium, seems to be much more like a very personal medium when it comes to spiritual seeking."
New age sites like www.spiritweb.com cater to those seeking alternative spiritual paths. Approximately 10 to 15 percent of visitors to SpiritWeb are teens, estimates Rene Mueller, SpiritWeb's webmaster. "SpiritWeb tries to form a place where people can reflect upon personal experience--mystical approach to spirituality such as meditation, etc.--and realize that the actual spirituality is formed within the individual," Mueller says. "It doesn't require an established religion to relate one's personal experiences of divinity. This is the aim of the site--not preaching, not convincing, but to provide a place just to acknowledge this." Cyberchurches or virtual churches, often ministries of Christian churches, allow visitors to experience a virtual church service by interacting with the web site. Some churches provide online counselling or prayer support, others "webcast" their services. Christian sites like www.writeanswer.com provides a "Sonshine Worship Service" made up of several segments, each with a prayer, Scripture and lyrics to a hymn or chorus and follows up with text to a sermon. "Please sing along just as if you are at church," the web site encourages. Does Online Interaction Lack "Messy Reality"? Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, Calif., sees the Internet as a useful tool for communication and studying, but not worship. "The Internet can be a useful tool to learn and connect to others," Wolpe says. "The danger is that you won't put yourself, your heart or your life--that you won't fully commit them to God and the tradition, which is bottom line what the tradition asks of us. In some ways it's too glitzy and too easy. Human interaction in all its messy reality is what a religious community is about. Pushing a button is not enough." Jewish communities use the Internet for online studying, but there isn't much evidence of "cyberworship" yet.
"To my knowledge, worship on the web is not a factor in Jewish life right now--but I could be surprised," says Greg Weinstein, chair of the Internet Committee for the Knoxville Jewish Federation. "Typically, worship in Judaism requires 10 or more appropriate people to congregate together (in traditional branches). However, study and learning is considered important. In this context, the web could be a major factor. This is why you see [even] the most restrictive, conservative sects use the web for communication."
Like Judaism, Islam places high importance on congregating, making personal online worship not ideal. Shahid Athar, clinical associate professor at Indiana University School of Medicine writes in his essay, "Roles of a Mosque in a Muslim Community": ".a Muslim can pray at home and his home is his mosque where he can live a comfortable Islamic life with himself and his family. However, we must remember that Islam is a religion to be practiced collectively. Never in the Quran does Allah address Muslims as 'believer,' but always as 'believers'. Thus we are supposed to pray collectively in a congregation and participate in other acts of worship like fasting and hajj together." "While Muslims do pray individually, there is also a very important communal sense in Islam that might be lacking or might be expanded by the Internet," says Raymond Weiss, Vice President for Academic Affairs at Northwestern College. Is Buddhism Branching Out Online?
Other religions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, are active online, but their philosophies don't lend to online "worship" like Christianity. Ken O`Neill, involved in Buddhism since 1965, with an MA from the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley, Calif. says, "There's a lot of Buddhist activity online, e-lists and chat rooms permitting a kind of cybersangha to emerge. But Buddhists have nobody to worship since they aren't an anthropomorphic mythology as the Zarathustra tradition and its mythological derivatives in Jewish xian and Islamic traditions."
P. Ravi Sarma, trustee, the Hindu Temple of Atlanta, Ga., and chairman of the Humanitarian Activities Committee of the Hindu Temple says: "Hinduism does not require one to go to a temple and generally there are no required weekend services to attend. Many Hindus have a sanctum or a prayer room at home."
Whether or not teens go to the Internet for worship, most agree the Internet is a great tool for communication. "I have heard from some that have had ministries with people from all over the country and there is a group of students that get online at 10 p.m. each night to discuss a topic and they invite their non-Christian friends to participate," says Dale Gustafson, high school pastor at Calvary Church in Los Gatos, Calif. "They have had a lot of success with this because their friends can be anonymous if they like. I think this kind of fellowship will continue to grow, but I'm not sure how it will affect those who are currently going to church. I can see a generation of young people who come to know the Lord through Internet ministries and simply rely on it for growth and fellowship." "I think there are so many values and virtues to it," adds Sweet. "Teens look at it as a place to connect--connecting with each other and peers and with God. The kinds of connections available are global connections. So the possibilities of connecting with people from around the world is wonderful." The future of religion on the web will depend on how religious organizations utilize the web, Sweet says.
"If it doesn't establish presence and power in web space, it won't have a future," Sweet says.