Tools of the virtual church, Part II

Tony Campolo had a specific flock in mind as he prepared his first sermon for the 3-D, "virtual" sanctuary at the online Church of Fools.

Using the lingo of his discipline, the sociologist referred to the typical wired worshippers as "religion-less Christians." They yearn for "spirituality," but believe they can do the faith thing on their own, without an institutional church.

Campolo also assumed they spend lots of time wielding a mouse.

So be it.

"In evangelism, you have to meet people where they are before you try to take them where they need to go," he said. "The reality today is that lots of people spend a good part of their lives plugged into computer screens. If that's where they are, that's where we have to go meet them."

This is the theory behind outreach work being done in "virtual churches" such as, which is partly sponsored by the Methodist Church of Great Britain. Some sites offer basic chat rooms, while others use interactive graphics, audio and video.

But there are questions. How do people show repentance and commitment in a medium in which users can switch spiritual paths with a click of a mouse? Is online worship possible?

These questions, and more, were asked in Oxford as the Church of England created its first online congregation at It is open to anyone, regardless of "faith position," politics, sexual orientation, geographical location or membership elsewhere.

"I remember being taken to one side, early on in the research for i-church, and being told that not only would it not work, but that no one would want to join an online church, and that any kind of Christian community that was not a sacramental community was a deficient community," said the Rev. Richard Thomas, in the dedication sermon.

"It depends on how you define sacraments. My own definition suggests that sacraments are those things that make God, or his grace, 'visible.' To that end, we have at the last count around 700 applications for membership. ... These people are willing to commit to Christian discipleship, and to support others on the journey. If that is not sacramental, I don't know what is."

Cyberspace includes millions of seekers and believers. The "Faith Online" project conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life project found that 64 percent of online Americans -- representing 82 million people -- have used the Internet for faith-related reasons. They read religion news, download religious music, explore strange books, forward inspirational messages, share prayer requests and find alternative sanctuaries.

Most practice a specific faith, but many do not. While 54 percent of the online faithful are "religious and spiritual," 33 percent describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious." Some use the anonymity of cyberspace as a safe place to research new ways of living and worshipping.

Once in this global marketplace, these seekers are almost sure to find like-minded people who are "asking the same questions, searching for the same kind of experiences or even suffering a similar sense of pain or loss," said Stewart Hoover of the University of Colorado, the study's lead author. It's natural for these people to form groups online, based on their needs and interests. The Internet is all about options.

"But for most of these people, I really don't see this replacing what they already have in terms of their faith," he said. "It's more like a value-added situation. The religion they find on the Web needs to add on to what they are already experiencing somewhere else, with a real group of believers in a real community."

And there is one more question that lurks in the background, especially for those who fund these experimental sites. How can they measure the success of a "virtual" church?

"We know that encounters are taking place that are changing lives," said Stephen Goddard, co-creator of the Church of Fools. "Is that success? We know there have been some amazing intellectual conversations about the faith that have been going on down in the church crypt for weeks. Is that a success?

"We know that some people say that they are coming back into Christian fold because of this. They are more open to the faith, because of what we've done. Is that a success?"