Commandments for believers who blog

Popes rarely produce viral sound bites, but legions of Catholic bloggers continue to pass around a quote from Pope Benedict XVI in which he openly blessed the passion that drives them to their keyboards. "Without fear we must set sail on the digital sea facing into the deep with the same passion that has governed the ship of the Church for 2000 years," he said, in a 2010 Vatican address easily found at YouTube. The goal is to live in the "digital world with a believer's heart, helping to give a soul to the Internet's incessant flow of communication."

If that quotation is too long, bloggers can embrace this shout out from Pope John Paul II, who could become the patron saint of digital scribes. Just before his death in 2005, he proclaimed: "Do not be afraid of new technologies!"

That quote should fit atop a computer monitor.

"The greatest obstacle is always fear, when the church tries to get involved in something new," said Brandon Vogt, author of "The Church and New Media: Blogging Converts, Online Activists and Bishops Who Tweet."

"There's the fear of the unknown, the fear of making mistakes, the fear of creating controversy and, most of all, the fear of causing divisions in the church. ... Are there going to be bad apples? Of course. Will there be people who think they've been appointed as the pope? Of course. But Catholic leaders -- including our bishops -- can't ignore what is happening online."

As in the secular media, the social-media tsunami has rocked the old-guard religious publications.

For Catholics, diocesan newspapers long served as the official establishment voices, often clashing with independent publications on left and right, as well as those produced by religious orders such as the Jesuits. Now, Catholic bloggers have emerged as a quick-striking source of alternative commentary and information -- often from a sharply pro-Vatican point of view.

"The Catholic blogosphere is probably one of the most orthodox parts of the American church, in large part because there were so many people who feel like the church being attacked and they want to defend it," said T.J. Burdick, a Catholic educator who edited the new "One Body, Many Blogs" e-Book.

In this collection, a circle of Catholic writers provided their "10 commandments" lists for blogging about religion. In addition to the need for prayer before clicking "post," these blunt recommendations included:

* First, said Marc Barnes of the Bad Catholic blog: "Don't suck. There is a tendency within the Christian world to think the work we do will be good work, if only we do it for God." Anything less than excellence "is no service to God, no matter how well we think we are witnessing, giving testimony, or whatever Christian euphemism we want to use to disguise the fact that we can't be bothered to make something awesome."

* Never assume "everyone who reads your work has the same viewpoint on issues of faith," wrote Lisa Hendey of "Find a Jewish, Protestant or even Atheist friend or acquaintance and invite them to join you for a cup of coffee and a peek at your blog. While they view it, watch carefully how they interact with your content and what lasting impressions they have in reading your work."

* Along that line, but in pews, Deacon Greg Kandra advised: "Keep an open mind to the many ways there are of Being Catholic. Not everyone loves the Latin Mass. Not everyone adores strumming guitars and liturgical dance." When in doubt, he added, "Ask yourself periodically: WWJB?"

* Kevin Knight of warned: "Truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a pixel, will pass from the Wayback Machine cache until all is accomplished." With a strong "amen," Katrina Fernandez of The Crescat said her first commandment is to "remember that we will be ultimately judged by every word we utter and write. The Internet is forever, folks."

* Former atheist Jeff Miller, blogging at The Curt Jester, advised: "Do onto other bloggers as you would want them to do onto you. If you want to be linked by others, then be generous in linking to others and to give proper attributions to where you first noticed a story. If you want others not to jump to conclusions about what you write, make sure you are not doing the same."

Why pastors detest email

For millions of users, the World Wide Web has turned into a Devil's den packed with urban legends, pop-up porn, Nigerian get-rich schemes and tidal waves of spam pushing medical products that make sailors blush.

That isn't how the Internet Evangelism Day team sees things. It notes that "over 1 billion people use the Web," the "Internet is changing the world" and "God is using the Web to transform lives."

"The Internet has become a 21st century Roman road, marketplace, theater, backyard fence and office drinks machine," proclaims the site's webmasters. "Web evangelism gives believers opportunities to reach people with the Gospel right where they are, just as Jesus and Paul did."

Tech guru George Gilder knows where the Web evangelists are coming from and offers a hearty "Amen." He remains convinced that cyberspace is territory that religious leaders have to explore and, hopefully, master.

"The Internet is very good for building communities and, obviously, churches are communities. It allows a particularly charismatic, or brilliant, church leader to reach potential followers not only in his community or in his immediate locality, but all across the country and the world," said Gilder, the author the trailblazing books "Microcosm" and "Telecosm."

"This is the power of the Net," he said. "It can free people from this sort of entrapment in a narrow locality and allow them to find support for their particular faith, wherever it may arise."

But there's a fly in the digital ointment. There's a reason that Gilder's online "Telecosm Forum" is for subscribers only -- he needs to focus his time on serious questions raised by committed readers who are truly interested in the issues he wants to research. Gilder invests his time and energy in this one online flock.

That's the bottom line: A decade or two down the digital information highway, people who are serious about the Web are learning to invest their time more wisely.

That includes religious leaders, who are as buried in digital junk as everyone else. Many ministers who once were anxious to think outside the local-church box have been stunned at the time commitment this kind of "online ministry" requires.

The good news is that ambitious religious leaders can do 24/7, online, multi-media, interactive ministry at the local, national and even global levels. And the bad news? Users will expect them to build and maintain these 24/7, online, multi-media, interactive ministries at the local, national and even global levels.

This is a mixed blessing for ministers who are already struggling to keep up with the fast-paced realities of life in the flesh-and-blood, analog world. Websites, blogs and email can become curses, as well as blessings.

The Net is, for better and for worse, a tool for interactive communications, stressed Gilder, who is an active churchman. Anything that amplifies speech has the potential to help evangelism and other crucial ministries in most churches, which are communities of believers that need to interact with the world around them in order to survive or thrive.

However, religious leaders need to ask serious questions about the size and shape of the online ministries they attempt, he said. Should forums about sensitive or controversial issues be open to all comers? If a congregation offers an interactive website for people who are asking religious and personal questions, is there anyone with the time and skills to maintain it? Will posting a minister's online address produce contacts with people who truly need help? Who will screen all those emails?

There's one more tricky issue that must be addressed. Many believers are highly skilled when it comes to talking to and arguing with other members of their own flocks, using a kind of "preaching to the choir" lingo that is mere gibberish to outsiders. The religious corners of the Web are packed with websites of this kind, which do much to promote insider debates, but little to reach people outside church doors.

"It's crucial to break out of this kind of parochial language," said Gilder. "If you are going to try to talk to people in the secular world, you have to have people who actually have the ability to do that kind of work online. ...

"It's quite exciting to actually go out into the wider world. But you have to have something to say and you have to know what you are doing."

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?"


PHOENIX -- Anyone with the nerve to create is going to get attention, especially if they keep calling it "the No. 1 Christian Porn Site."

"We're No. 1 because there really isn't a No. 2, which is a good business plan if you think about it," said Craig Gross, co-founder of the ministry in Corona, Calif.

Two years ago, Gross and partner Mike Foster opened their first booth at the Adult Video News trade show in Las Vegas, handing out anti-porn brochures to hardcore consumers and sharing their faith with porn stars and producers. The youth pastors took their wives as chaperones and to take turns inside their church's full-body rabbit costume. The approach was goofy, but intrigued the Los Angeles Times, ABC, Playboy and others.

This year teamed up with veteran pornographer James DiGiorgio -- producer of videos such as "The Sopornos #3" -- to make a surreal public service announcement called "Pete the Porno Puppet" warning parents not to expose kids to explicit images. As it turns out, "Jimmy D" is also a parent who worries about porn.

Now comes the hard part. Yes, the online ministry offers anonymous education, counseling and prayer support. It has free X3Watch software to help porn users form accountability groups. It has hip media products for skeptics.

But a website is not enough, said Gross, speaking at the annual North American Christian Convention. Sooner or later, church people will have to talk about pornography.

Sadly, it's easer to discuss God with porn stars than pornography with many pastors.

Why? A poll by Leadership magazine found that four in 10 pastors with Internet access had visited a porn site and more than a third had done so in the previous year. Many skeptical pastors said those numbers were too low.

"If 37 percent of our pastors are looking at this," said Gross, "then this is not a subject they're going to feel comfortable with in the pulpit. ... Think about it. What is going through a pastor's mind if he wants to look at online porn before he preaches on Sunday morning? What's that all about?"

Many believers prefer to ignore such questions. Faced with a minister who gets caught with porn, the typical church board will send the offender packing -- quickly. Yet this kind of zero tolerance policy will drive other addicts deeper into fear and denial, said Gross.

"What the church keeps saying is, 'Get out! We have no sin here,' " he said.

The goal is to take this secret sin seriously, while still offering hope to broken people in pews and pulpits, said the Rev. Gary Rowe, minister of pastoral care at the East 91st Street Christian Church in Indianapolis. Nevertheless, churches that create ministries for those struggling with pornography and other sexual sins will face unique challenges.

For example, it's hard to promote small-group sessions for porn abusers without listing the times and locations in the weekly church bulletin or on a web site, he noted, during another session at the convention in Phoenix. This sensitive issue must be openly discussed in the pulpit and in church education efforts, yet without violating the privacy of those involved.

It's also important to learn that the most effective ministry may not begin with the men.

"We had eight guys come forward when we started this work," said Rowe. "But we immediately had calls from 100 women, looking for help with a husband or a child who was involved with pornography. That really impressed us."

Gross agreed that wives almost always cry out for help before husbands. It is also important for church leaders to ask questions about pornography in premarital counseling and in parenting classes. Youth pastors have to realize that the teen years are crucial, since that is when most boys first come into contact with sexually explicit media.

The trick is to pull this subject out into the open with little or no warning.

"You can't come right out and say, 'We're having a men's breakfast and we're going to talk about pornography," said Gross. "Guess what? If you do that, nobody's going to be there. You are going to have lots of pancakes left over. ...

"We're at the stage where you're going to have to ambush people."