Putting faith in technology, literally

Thanks to modern technology, spreading the Word has never been easier for religious leaders with a story to tell. In fact, you don't have to actually go to church to go to church. Our Cover Story is reported by Daniel Sieberg:


Call it divine digital intervention.

The Portsmouth Abbey in Rhode Island allows you to answer God's calling with a Gregorian chant ringtone.

It's a sure sign that 21st century technology has become part of the very fabric of American life when religion - whether it be Christian, Jewish, Muslim or even Buddhist - is online, and on the go.

Take the Bible app produced by Lifechuch.tv. It's been downloaded more than 18 million times.

Or the Live Madinah app, which streams a webcam of the Prophet's mosque from Saudi Arabia.

There is even an official Facebook page for next Sunday's beatification of Pope John Paul II.

Barry Schwartz's company, Rusty Brick, develops primarily Jewish apps, including a Hebrew prayer book.

"It's not replacing religion," Schwartz said. "It gives them the ability to basically make their daily task of being a Jewish person, and observing their faith in a basically, you know, with technology that helps them do that."

Except on the Sabbath, and holidays like today: "So, if you open it up tonight, and you look at it, it will gray out what's called 'Evening Services,' and you won't be able to click on it. Because evening services happens to be on a holiday where you're not allowed to use technology. So, it'll gray it out. You won't be able to use it."

The fact is, religion has always made use of technology, even before a man named Gutenberg created moveable type and published his revolutionary version of the Bible.

But today, it seems, we have become one nation under God ... and Google.

Lifechurch.tv matches their Internet ads to Google search words, in an effort to reach folks seeking "sin" online.

"The question was, should the church even be engaged at all in these formats?" said Pastor Bobby Gruenenwald, an innovation leader at the church. "It seems like they're leading to really destructive behavior. You have people that are having extramarital affairs, and all sorts of things that come through relationships that they've formed online.

"And our answer to it is we see technology as inherently amoral - they could be used for good or for evil. So from our perspective it's not just OK for the church to engaged in it, but it's actually really important to leverage these tools - in some way redeem technology for the purpose of reaching people for Christ."

Gruenenwald spoke to us via Skype.

"I really do believe Jesus would be connecting with people on Facebook, or on Twitter, or through these means," he said, "because Jesus was really about connecting with people that were hurting. And those tools represent access - the ability to communicate in today's age with people of all sorts who are hurting that need help."

In 2009, Outreach magazine listed Lifechurch.tv outside Oklahoma City as the second-largest independent church in America.

Every Sunday, 30,000 people worship in its branches in five states - and that's not counting the church's much larger virtual presence.

"One of the strengths you have of ministry that's online is the global nature of it," Gruenewald said. "You end up with the ability to connect with people all over the world. In our case, it's over 180 different countries and territories every week."

And those folks get an online forum to ask questions, or join others in prayer.

Elsewhere on the Internet, it's possible to confess your sins (Mysecret.tv), and of course there's even an app for it. One church has even conducted baptisms via Skype.

But is it possible to put too much faith in technology?

"In the early days of any new technology, we think, 'Oh! All the rules have changed.' Well, all the rules haven't changed," said John Mark Reynolds, a professor at Biola University in Southern California, which recently hosted a Christian web conference.

"And if we want to get good, heartfelt service, the pastor on TV, the pastor online, isn't going to stand next to my wife when our child dies," Reynolds said. "But the pastor of my little parish, of 70 people, stood with my family when my son died. And that's not something you want online, that you can do online, or that's appropriate online."

Drew Goodmanson, a pastor and web developer, was at the conference.

"One of the things we talk about is like, even the air conditioning unit - it destroyed community in some ways because people stopped living on the front porches of their homes, and they started closing the doors and moving in," said Goodmanson. "I'm just curious what is going to be some of the unintended consequences of moving more and more of our life online, rather than in the relationships that, you know, the face-to-face relationships that I'd like to see."

On the other hand, some say online anonymity can be a plus.

"Because we're physically separated, and because many times you can't see each other and it's just a screen name, it's much easier for there not to be an emotional façade - a facade that covers the parts of us that are inside," said Lifechurch.tv's Gruenewald. "So what we found is that it's much easier in some cases - very, very quick - to get right down to the heart [of] issues that people are dealing with."

Like it or not, says Drew Goodmanson, online religion is here to stay.

"If I'm going to buy a car or I'm going to do something, I often research it online, and that's what we're finding," he said. "In some of the research we've done, people that have been at their churches for under a year, about 27 percent said that they found the church online first."

But will religion online ever completely replace the neighborhood house of worship?

Just ask the flock at the Kaleo Church in San Diego, where Goodmanson is pastor:

"Church surely existed prior to computers," said Darrell Tarbajal. "And so I'd say, if all the technology went away, we'd be as flourishing a church as ever. But since we have these tools available to us, which I feel enhance these relationships, why not?"


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