Those online puzzles for churches

Creekside Church visitor cards contain all the data slots and questions one would expect at a seeker-friendly establishment in a wired Colorado suburb.

Newcomers can inquire about salvation, baptism, the Bible, youth activities or private concerns. A visitor may share his or her age, marital status and kid statistics. The candid can review the quality of the service. Next to a telephone number, a visitor can provide a home email address, a work email address and then another email address at work.

"It seems like almost everybody has two or three these days," said Teena Stewart, who helps buildlay ministries at the young congregation in Aurora, Colo. "It would be a full-time job just keeping up with them. ... If someone is going to do that, they have to have a passion for it."

An evangelical zeal for email addresses? The digital sea keeps getting bigger and, these days, scores of local religious leaders are trying to discover how to tame it.

It's easy to dream up idealistic proposals for using the Net. Everyone wants to help people with common concerns form bonds and meet each other's needs. Everyone wants to build a stronger church community and networks of smaller, personal groups inside that larger body. But matters get complex when real people try to nail the details.

A few months ago Stewart was convinced more congregations should start digital versions of their weekly or monthly newsletters. After all, "e-zines" are more timely and can offer savvy readers multi-media links to sermons, music, educational materials and other online resources. Stewart wrote about this in Leadership, a major ministry journal.

"Thus, CreekVision E-zine was born," she wrote. "The e-zine is working well. It's cheaper to produce than the usual printed versions most churches can afford. It's colorful. And we're in contact with our congregation."

But by the time that article came out, CreekVision was off-line. What happened?

For starters, it was hard to decide exactly what an e-newsletter was and exactly what it was not,said Stewart. One popular way to produce a digital newsletter is to store a file of well-produced pages of text, graphics, photos and media clips on a church website and then email subscribers a click-on link that connects their computers to those pages. Others send out packages of digital text and graphics that readers have to download using special software.

What about the cyber-challenged sheep in the flock? What about members whose low-rent or free email services cannot automatically link to the World Wide Web? What about the elderly who have tiptoed online with simple email devices that can't surf the Web? In the end, every innovation that includes some tends to exclude others.

"When we started thinking this through," said Stewart, "we realized that the big question was, 'Who are we really trying to reach?' "

An online publication that targets the unchurched needs to be written differently than one for active members or even those who have enrolled in "Creekside 101" to prepare for membership. A veteran might be miffed by entry-level emails. A newcomer might be offended by chatty material for insiders. Digital technology creates smaller and smaller niches.

Then there is the issue of privacy, especially with Web sites or email lists that allow readers to sign up online. It may be funny when a newsletter goofs and prints a funny typo, such as the classic, "Don't let worry kill you. Let the church help." But a print newsletter rarely travels far outside the pews. The Internet goes everywhere.

This isn't funny. The same technology that lets members of a church family share private concerns may, with a few mouse clicks, put sensitive info about events, names, addresses and telephone numbers into the hands of strangers lurking online.

Stewart doesn't think congregations should give up. It's amazing to be able to send out prayer requests to Sunday school classes or to blast out an urgent calendar change to 1,200 worshippers. This stuff can work.

"But it's tricky, even something simple like a newsletter, " she said. "The church is only getting started trying to think through all the technical, legal and even religious issues linked to the Net. It's all so complicated."