By William Loeffler
Sunday, September 9, 2007
Can we get an e-men?
Skeptics said that folks would never give out their credit card numbers to buy a pair of shoes on the Internet. Others sneered at the prospect of obtaining a college diploma from an online university.
With those realities as ho-hum as e-mail, could online churches be far behind? Will Catholics eventually confess their sins to a priest via videocam? Will Baptists log on for Sunday services?
Church authorities and some local parishioners say no. But with church attendance among young people declining, some Internet entrepreneurs and evangelists are stepping into the breach.
Many churches now host Web sites where parishioners can find Mass schedules, birth announcements, death notices, inspirational messages, even the "saint of the week." Web sites outside mainstream religions include www.rentapriest.com, which lists 300 married priests across the country who will perform wedding ceremonies for couples who can't be married in the Catholic church.
Then there's www.GodTube.com.
The nondenominational video-sharing site has received nearly 3 million visitors since its official Aug. 8 launch. GodTube.com claims more people visit the site on an average Sunday than attend the largest mega-church in America, televangelist Joel Osteen's 35,000-member Lakewood Church in Houston.
"The church is having difficulty reaching the 20- to 30- (year-old) generation," says founder Chris Wyatt, a former television producer who attends Dallas Theological Seminary. "They've kind of lost touch. They don't respond to direct mail as their parents did. They don't respond to e-mail solicitation. We created GodTube.com to cast a much larger net -- to speak the language, if you will, of the younger generation."
GodTube.com members can participate in video discussions of Christian theology or watch videos of Christian hip-hop. Video testimonials include that of a mother who was reunited with her estranged daughter. Point and click, and you can watch a video sermon from Crossroads Christian Fellowship in New Jersey or view a bible study in Mandarin Chinese.
"It's our hope that we will be holding regular bible study and services in a virtual environment," Wyatt says. "We'll even be having a video confessional."
Ken Barner, associate pastor at Crossroads Ministries/Library Baptist Church, an independent church in Finleyville, Washington County, has uploaded several videos to GodTube.com, including one of a missionary trip to Mexico. His church's Web site, www.crossroadsministries.com, also features links to GodTube.com.
"I believe that the church has to use the current means to communicate to the next generation," Barner says. "The church must choose its children over its traditions. Methods change, but our message doesn't."
The Rev. James Wehner, director of the St. Paul Seminary, understands the appeal of the Internet for those who might want to search outside the boundaries of traditional church teachings.
"They're interested in their belief in God, but they might have difficulty with institutional religion," Wehner says. "People are looking for an alternative way to practice their faith."
The Archdiocese of Pittsburgh has its own Web site that it uses to inform parishioners and spread the word of God. Former Pittsburgh Bishop Donald Wuerl used his Sunday morning television show for much the same purpose, Wehner says.
But the Internet is no substitute for the fellowship of church worship, Wehner says. A church is its people, after all.
"The Muslim, the Jew, the Christian -- all believe that God has revealed himself to the community," Wehner says. "To believe in God or worship apart from the community is a deficient approach to faith. Me sitting behind a computer trying to appeal to my desire to know God can be -- at least -- dangerous."
The Rev. Robert Lubic, 41, launched his own Web site, www.thepunkpriest.com, more than two years ago. Now pastor of St. John the Baptist Church in Perryopolis, Lubic says he has counseled people via e-mail who click on the "Ask" link of his site. The questions range from matters of sex to church policy regarding tattoos. One 15-year-old correspondent was going to be baptized as a Christian but wanted to know more about the Catholic church. Lubic also has spoken with people via instant message.
"Sometimes there, you get people dealing with very delicate things," Lubic says. "They were happy with the anonymity of being behind the computer screen."
Visitors to his site will hear Christian rock bands, such as The Vandals, which covers the traditional church hymn "Here I Am, Lord."
"People do ask from time to time if they can get a confession over the Internet," Lubic says. "I say, 'No, can't do that,' because ... the church emphasizes the importance of human interaction. Even if you're behind a so-called screen, it's a physical interaction."
Megan Boerio, 21, of Latrobe, will begin her senior year at the University of Pittsburgh in Oakland. She grew up attending Holy Family Parish and now attends Mass at St. Paul Cathedral.
"I'm not surprised," she says about the creation of GodTube.com. "You can find anything online right now. Half of what you can find online right now you can't trust, either."
She says she can't see genuflecting in front of a computer.
"I think that some people feel that it could be a replacement," Boerio says. "People already go online instead of actually going physically to school."
GodTube's Wyatt, himself a Baptist, says he wants to use GodTube.com to steer people back to the physical church.
"It really is no substitute for the community of church," Wyatt says. "What we're trying to do is reach the young generation using the tools they understand."