Freedom of Religion: The Concept of "Cyber-Faith"
Most people, whether they are internet-users or not, are aware of at least a fraction of religious representation on the Web. Informational sites provide reports and knowledge about the different types, practices, and histories of the majority of religions. A study by Elena Larson, author of Wired Churches, Wired Temples: Taking Congregations and Missions in to Cyberspace, has
"indicated that 25% of Internet users - about 28 million people - have gotten religious or spiritual information online, an increase from the 21% reported in 2000, and an indication of an increasing use of religious Internet resources.1"
But in recent years, over the last decade or so, actual religious practice has found a place on the World Wide Web. This concept is best described as an “Internet Congregation, [which] is designed to completely replace all of the functions of a traditional congregation. An Internet Congregation is a group of people who intentionally join together to practice their religion on the Internet without gathering for face-to-face meetings” (Bedell). The shift from concrete worship to the idea of “cyber-faith” has been described as a “nascent phenomenon” (MIT). One researcher, Scott Thumma, found that
"over the past four years the percentage of churches with Web sites had grown from about 11% to around 45%. At that rate of growth, about 90% of all congregations will have Web sites in five years.1"
In a study done in 2000, it was found that half of the churches poled had only had a website for less than two years (Thumma). Recent statistics do show, though, that the percentages of churches investing in a website are increasing by about ten percent each year.
Among the churches that invest in some sort of website, many are apprehensive about creating a site that serves as little more than a bulletin board, offering a quick verse or news of an upcoming event. Several churches and their members worry that a virtual identity may distort the image of the Church. Their hesitation is understandable. After all, the Internet is a relatively impersonal means of communication, which is a key ingredient to the unity of a church--or to any trustworthy community for that matter. People often identify themselves with their church and consider themselves to be a vital part of its community; they confide in fellow church members, learn from fellow church members, and sometimes bond to become “family.” Many people also chose their church because they feel a strong connection to the oration. People want to relate to the words being spoken; they want to feel moved, or motivated, or inspired. Intimacy is important. Would the message in a sermon be effective coming from a podcast or a blog? Would a virtual community retain its ability to spiritually and emotionally bond? It’s hard to say, and the answer is debatable. One woman , Stacy Horn, has experience in “developing a[n] online community” and says: “The most important thing I have learned about communities in cyberspace is that it is frequently impossible to have tolerance, something absolutely essential to keep a community going, without some face-to-face connection. For a community to work you have to accept imperfection” (Bedell).
All things considered, there really aren’t that many people or churches willing to make the Internet their sole means of worship; the idea is just too young and unfamiliar. In my research I did not come across any reports discussing the abuse or misuse of Internet Congregations or virtual worship in relationship to the First Amendment; but, this could be, perhaps, because the concept is so revolutionary. More importantly, people are beginning to exercise their religious freedoms in new and exciting ways. The Internet has made it possible to go to church without leaving the house. The Internet has made it possible to practice religion with the click of a mouse. Only time and exploration will verify the potential of virtual worship, but for now it has definitely sparked people’s interest.
By Kourtney M.
Here are some examples of Internet Congregations:Charles Henderson
Virtual Church of the Blind Chihuahua