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Where Religion and New Media Meet

ROME, JAN. 23, 2006 (Zenit) - The advent of the Internet and other new media technologies is rapidly expanding the ways for churches and religious organizations to promote their message. On Jan. 3 the Fides news agency of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples published the first part of a dossier, "The People of God on the Internet."

The report says that in Italy it is almost impossible to count the number of Catholic sites due to the rapid growth in this sector. The number of links gives an idea of how the Catholic sites are flourishing. Links to one of the most popular sites, www.totustuus.it, can be found on almost 50,000 Web sites.

Another site, www.siticattolici.it, has more than 10,000 Catholic sites from Italy registered. Almost a quarter of the total belong to parishes; another 2,000 belong to private groups and organizations. Religious and missionary institutes account for 1,222, and sites associated with official Church structures and pastoral activities total 589. In descending order are: personal Web pages of Catholic nature -- 589; universities and cultural centers -- 403; and associated media sites -- 353.

The turnover of sites is notable, with 1,400 sites no longer available compared to two years ago. But the growth rate in the overall number of sites is strong, with an increase of 25% in the last two years. Growth has been particularly strong in the field of Christian music, an increase of 33.6%; Catholic radio and television, 32.8%; and religious art, 31.5%.

The United States, of course, is also home to a flourishing Internet culture on religious matters. Jonathan Last, online editor of the Weekly Standard, gave an overview of the situation in the December issue of First Things magazine.

Blogging

In his article, "God on the Internet," Last cited a 2004 Pew survey that found 64% of users -- 82 million people -- say they use the Web for religious purposes. Of these, 32% reported they use the Internet to keep up with religious news; 17% use it to look for places to worship; and 11% go online to download spiritual music.

And the more recent phenomenon of blogs is not exempt from religious use. A blog -- short for Web log -- is a Web site in which journal entries are posted on a regular basis and displayed in reverse chronological order. The total number of blogs in the United States is thought to be around 8 million. Last October saw the first religious bloggers convention, GodblogCon, organized by John Mark Reynolds, a philosophy professor at Biola University, a Christian school in California.

Reynolds told Last that there are "literally millions" of religious bloggers. Among these there are a couple of thousand who write for a market that is wider than the immediate family or community. The readership numbers vary widely. A smaller Godblog may only receive about 115 page-views a day, while others can get thousands. Even priests are getting into the act; Last estimates that around 50 priests now have their own blogs.

Last also notes that almost every church in America has its own Web site. Protestant churches generally having more advanced sites compared to Catholic sites, although this disadvantage is partly offset by the enormous popularity and depth of the Vatican site.

The proliferation of activity on the Web is not without its drawbacks, adds Last. Anyone can start up a site or blog -- so users need to be wary about the quality of information. Then, the nature of the medium lends itself toward trivialization or polemics on occasion. Commercialization is another trend to be wary of, as sites spring up to part users from their money selling all sorts of goods.

Downloading the good word

The growing popularity of iPods is opening up new ways to transmit religion. IPods are a type of portable digital audio players. They handle podcasts, a kind of publishing that uses downloadable audio files. Now, podcasts are becoming Godcasts, reported the British newspaper Telegraph last Aug. 5.

A growing number of people are using their portable music players to download homilies. The article recounted how an Anglican vicar, Leonard Payne, was stunned when, within a short time, more than 2,400 users had downloaded one of his posted sermons. And this was for a vicar in a remote rural parish.

On Aug. 29 the New York Times reported on the growing use of downloading religious audio material in the United States. In just one month last year, July, the number of people or groups offering spiritual and religious podcasts listed on one site grew to 474 from 177.

Among all religions, Christian groups have been the most active in the area of podcasts, the Times said. One popular Catholic site, run by a Dutch priest, Father Roderick Vonhögen, already had more than 10,000 listeners for each program. Vatican Radio also makes available material to download in a number of languages.

Another popular means of communication are SMS -- text messages sent via mobile phones. There too religion is finding a space, the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper in Australia reported Oct. 6.

The Bible is now available for sending via SMS. So instead of reading in Genesis how: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth," it will now be a case of: "In da Bginnin God cre8d da heavens & da earth."

The initiative came from the Bible Society in Australia which translated all 31,173 verses of the Bible into text. They can then be accessed over the Internet for free and people can send individual verses to family or friends as SMS.

"The old days when the Bible was only available within a somber black cover with a cross on it are long gone," said Bible Society spokesman Michael Chant. It took just one person about four weeks to convert the entire New and Old Testaments to text. "The idea is that the Bible can be used and be relevant and up-to-date, just like getting a verse of the day or reading a horoscope," said Chant.

Big-screen churches

New media techniques are also being used to liven up church services. So far the tendency is more common in Protestant churches. Last Saturday the Los Angeles Times described how the Santa Margarita United Methodist Church, in Orange County, uses large screens to put up the words for hymns. When the pastor gives his sermon he uses film clips from movies to accompany his words. Three cameras record everything for use on the church's Web site.

According to the article, last year more than 60% of the nation's Protestant churches used a large-screen projection system, up from 39% in 2000. And the percentage of congregations using video services doubled over the same time, to 61%. Some churches also send out material via e-mail and podcasts.

The technology doesn't come cheap. The Orange County church spent about $75,000 in equipment, plus $15,000 a year for staffing and maintenance.

Not all are enthusiastic about the changes. Baptist pastor Ken Uyeda Fong said some people don't see the new aids as being very religious. Others aren't keen on people just staring at screens in church, instead of more active and traditional means of participating.

At the individual level multimedia programs are also flourishing. Annual sales of religious software have reached the $80 million mark, the Boston Globe reported Jan. 2. A multitude of programs exist offering Bible translations, images, commentaries and other material. God's word, it seems, is indeed spreading fast.

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