Online commerce

Looking for the Net Big Thing

CHICAGO -- When it comes to the digital world, David Merwin is a native.

He knows the laws and lingo. Along with his colleagues, Merwin believes the World Wide Web can bring people together and spread new ideas. But when it comes to analyzing the impact of the new "information technology" (natives say "IT") on many churches, he has some doubts.

"Lots of people are jumping into online ministry because they see that everybody else is doing it," he said, during the 2005 convention of the Gospel Communications Network, a digital coalition of 300-plus ministries.

"That isn't a very good reason. People need to stop and ask if they have the time and the talent and the energy and the resources to get into all of this. I've seen churches pour thousands of dollars into IT projects and then, when they crash and burn, it turns out that nobody was sure what they wanted to do in the first place."

If this lament sounds familiar, it should. Not that long ago, flocks of businesses and investors lost their analog shirts while riding the cyber waves that rolled across the nation. Prophets of the new order berated doubters who failed to "get it."

Everyone yearned for the next "Big Thing," said Mike Atkinson, president of The whole economy was going to change. Stores would be swallowed by online start-ups. Newspapers would vanish as "push" technology zapped personalized news -- for free -- directly to computer screens. Everyone wanted to build "portals" rich with "stickiness" and registered millions of "hits."

Many religious groups tried to copy the trends, building online sites that resembled grain silos full of information that, when users dug deeper, turned out to be tweaked content from traditional publications. The goal was to draw people into your silo and keep them there, while making sure that the contents of your silo didn't leak out into anybody else's silo. Sharing spiritual customers with others would be bad for business.

It was exciting. But ministers had to learn to be careful out there.

"The key is that all of this is about me -- me, me, me. It's about finding what works for me and then giving me what I want," said Atkinson, who is best known for his work with the Youth Specialties ministry. "That's the reality of the thing. That's what the Web is about. ... This feeds right into a consumer culture. It forces us to make instantaneous choices, whether they are the right choices or not."

Millions of people are surfing in cyberspace, looking for connections that will help them find answers, he said. But they are doing this in a marketplace that emphasizes the total freedom of the individual. Online commitments are as binding as the click of a mouse. People are looking for community, but on their own terms.

Atkinson doesn't think religious leaders should panic. He hopes that they study new forms of digital communication -- from Google to Craigslist, from MySpace to Wikipedia -- that are built on people sharing information instead of hoarding it. It's time for more ministries to cooperate, rather than compete, with each other.

"We also have to know that all of this can shape how people think," he said. "It's a buyer's market and people want what they want. ... You can end up with people online shopping around and then saying, 'Hey, that megachurch has this or that neat program and I want it. Let's move over there.' And off they go."

Eventually, this consumer mentality can soak down into the messages that ministries deliver, said Merwin.

The hot word is "postmodernism," but for many ministries the temptation is older and more fundamental than that. The bottom line is that it's hard not to give people want they want, to tell customers what they want to hear.

"It's that attitude that says, 'You have your thing and I have my thing and that's OK because it doesn't really matter what you believe anyway,' " he said. "You stay with that and you have to end up with radical individualism and isolationism. You have people leaving one hip church to go to another hip church that does some hip things better than the first one. Where does it end?"