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  Churches Use Net to Reach the Faithful

Elizabeth Vaughn, 7, and her mother, Deb, returned home from the hospital to find e-mail prayers and sympathy. (Reginald A. Pearman Jr. —

On the Web
  • St. Raymond's Parish
  • Takoma Park Baptist Church
  • Sugarloaf Unitarian Universalist
  • Washington Community Fellowship
  • Congregation Beth El, Bethesda
  • All Saint's Church, Manassas
  • Study on Religion on the Internet
  • Archdiocese of Washington
  • By John P. Martin Staff Writer
    April 10, 1999

    When 7-year-old Elizabeth Vaughn fell and sliced open her lips in a playground accident, her mother, Deb, rushed to the emergency room. Her father, Ken, turned to his computer and typed a message: Pray for Elizabeth.

    In seconds, the words went out on the Washington Community Fellowship Church e-mail prayer chain. When Elizabeth and Deb Vaughn returned to their Gaithersburg home, they found nearly a dozen notes of sympathy, prayer and encouragement.

    "It helped a lot," Deb Vaughn said of the effect the e-mails had on Elizabeth, whose cut required 18 stitches and is now healed. "She knew that people had been praying for her."

    Around the region and the world, the faithful are increasingly using the Internet. Churches and synagogues are launching Web sites to lure new members and strengthen their bonds with existing ones. Ministers, rabbis and priests are posting their sermons online and using e-mail for counseling.

    In a recent study of religion and the Internet, nearly 80 percent of the respondents said the medium played a role in their spiritual lives, with some turning to it three times a week. The survey, conducted by sociologist Ken Bedell for the United Methodist Church, also indicated that 53 percent of the nearly 600 people surveyed said they solicit prayers through e-mail.

    "It's a high-tech, high-touch way of saying: You matter," said Vaughn, who serves as "Web minister" for her 250-member Northeast Washington Church.

    Some congregations also promote online discussions, hoping to reinforce and build on the Sunday morning message that some otherwise might forget by Sunday afternoon.

    Across denominations, supporters of the Internet stress that nothing can or should replace personal interaction and communal worship. Still, many believe technology holds immeasurable potential. It offers an audience of millions the chance to explore, rediscover or express their faith, together with others or privately and at their own pace.

    "A lot of people are very uncomfortable opening the door to a church and walking in alone," said Susan Gibbs, spokeswoman for the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, which has asked each of its 139 parishes to have e-mail and a Web site by the middle of next year. "The Web lets them open that door."

    Sermon in the E-Mail

    The weather forecast for Saturday night, Jan. 2, was a minister's headache: sleet, snow and possibly ice. The Rev. Joseph Smith expected empty seats the next morning at Takoma Park Baptist Church. So the suggestion from a congregation member didn't sound so far-fetched: Why not e-mail the sermon? More

    An Online Identity

    St. Raymond's Catholic parish in Springfield is so new it doesn't have a church building. Its five weekend Masses, celebrated in a fire hall, each draw about 250 people. But St. Raymond's has a Web site. More

    Church Research

    When Mark Burton and his family relocated to Philadelphia about four years ago and wanted to find a local Unitarian Universalist church, he wrote the denomination's national headquarters for a list, then began the search on foot. When the Burtons moved again to Damascus last year, they surfed the Web. More

    Counseling by Computer

    Rabbi Jonathan Maltzman, of Congregation Beth El in Bethesda, gets two or three e-mails a day, including many from people he has never met. Most of the e-mails, some of which have come from South America and England, are inquiries, such as the one from the man in a small Canadian town who wanted advice on converting his son to Judaism. More

    The Future

    Clergy who use the Internet say there are some drawbacks. Building an online religious community requires time and financial resources within a congregation. And church leaders are wary of indirectly excluding members who might not have Internet access. Still, the growth of religion on the Internet is expected to continue. More

    John Martin can be reached at

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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