Cyberspace Religion: Part I

Quentin Schultze felt relieved and sad as he transmitted what he thought would be his last Internet For Christians newsletter. The communications guru at Calvin College unplugged his cyber- publication after only 18 biweekly issues. It was just too successful. Day after day, 250 or more messages invaded his computers in Grand Rapids, Mich. Night after night, he ate dinner with his family and then vanished to battle e-mail until the clock neared midnight.

"With the click of a mouse, people could write me, ask questions, send in ideas and on and on, world without end," he said. "The main thing I learned is that success on the Net is a good news, bad news situation. ... Sooner or later, this medium forces you to either limit all those interactive responses or direct them somewhere else. Otherwise, you drown."

So Schultze told his sponsors at the Gospel Communications Network that he was waving a white flag.

"It was a real catharsis to sit at my computer and hit `delete,' `delete,' `delete' on hundreds of messages," he said. "But at the same time, it felt like I had lost a friend or thousands of friends around the world."

Soon, Gospel Communications Network executives said they would provide staff help to run the newsletter. Within hours of a May 31 announcement, 90 messages arrived containing items submitted for the first new issue. This time around, Schultze removed his e-mail address and aimed the digital river at a neutral site -- ifc-

Right now, statistics charting the growth of the Internet, and the graphics-intensive World Wide Web, are changing so rapidly that no one knows what is going on. In the religious marketplace, early projects such as Ecunet, organized by oldline Protestant churches, and the Southern Baptist Convention's work with CompuServe have led to a dizzying number of digital resources -- sponsored by everyone from individual scholars to seminaries, from local churches to giant corporations. In April alone, 4.7 million individuals used the Gospel Communications Network's Web sites and 730,000 visited Christianity Online on America Online.

When Schultze started Internet For Christians, he assumed his core audience would be 100 or so loyal readers -- mostly academics, denominational leaders and parachurch "decision makers." He didn't think, for example, that many pastors and church leaders were leaping online. Apparently, he was wrong.

However, no one really knows how to count the people who are using the Web, let alone to do business with them. At its peak, the Internet For Christians "home page" was welcoming 10,000 visitors a day and the computerized list of those sent electronic copies contained 5,000 names. But most of Schultze's e-mail came from readers who appeared to have read the cyber-world's equivalent of a carbon copy. Subscribers can -- again, merely by clicking a mouse -- spray digital copies of texts to online friends, who may turn around and do the same thing. All of this costs far less than letters, faxes or long-distance telephone calls.

"We need a new term for this," he said. "`Word of mouth' doesn't fit. Maybe `Web of mouth' or `word of Net'?"

Another key is that the Web has created a somewhat level playing floor on which small ministries and publications can compete -- or cooperate -- with large groups. Online, one or more creative people with time and creativity can have approximately the same impact as a well-established organization. A dissident group's online publication may have the same impact as a denomination's official newspaper.

The new medium also makes financial sense, in a world of rising costs for ink, paper and postage. Schultze said his research indicates that the ratio of costs in traditional publishing, in comparison to "digital publishing," may be as high as 1000 to 1.

"Clearly, the Net is becoming a place for religious discourse that is being ignored in public media and isn't being allowed in the sanitized world of official church publications."