by Rev. Charles Henderson

Web Plays Host to Religion

Jun 01, 20015 mins

I am frequently asked how I decided to trade my pulpit for a computer. As the organizing pastor of the First Church of Cyberspace, I am also asked how this somewhat whimsical name for a church came to mind in the first place.

As new age as it sounds to some ears, I chose to name my new congregation following a venerable tradition. In the early years of the Republic, when Presbyterians moved into newly chartered communities all across North America, they named their churches in chronological order. So the First Presbyterian Church of New York City was followed soon thereafter by the Second Presbyterian Church and so on, as far as required by the number of Presbyterians residing in particular neighborhoods. Owing to the lack of reliable transportation systems, each of these churches of necessity was within walking distance of the congregation’s membership, religion being then, as it is today, influenced by the technology available for communicating the faith as well as gathering and sheltering the faithful.

So I selected a name, learned HTML, created a homepage and began gathering my new congregation, much to the consternation of numerous members of the brick-and-mortar church that was then paying my salary. Though the lay leaders of the Central Presbyterian Church in Montclair, N.J., agreed to sponsor this journey into cyberspace, some members clearly felt that their pastor had blasted off with a homemade rocket on his back. This digital Icarus would be quick to fall.

I can report today that I not only survived liftoff but have prospered in this new medium. Rather than preaching to a congregation of 200 or so on a Sunday morning, I now communicate on a daily basis with a congregation numbering in the thousands?a virtual family that spans the globe. Every week, I record more than 200,000 hits at the First Church of Cyberspace homepage and the newer spinoff,, where I serve as one of 700 “guides” within a publicly traded media company. I have also shepherded a 50-year-old religion journal, CrossCurrents, into the digital age, carving out its presence on the Web and attracting a new generation of readers.

For me, the transition from sacred text to hypertext has been an exciting ride. I have come to realize that in terms of the religious life of this nation (and perhaps the world), we are only about halfway through a transition more important than any other since the Protestant Reformation. In fact, what we are witnessing today might be understood not so much as something radically new but rather as the next logical step in the way religion is organized and practiced.

As many commentators have pointed out, the widespread availability of printed text in 16th century Europe?first in the form of the Bible, and then in a flood of religious books?shifted the center of power and authority over the life of the soul. This power first slipped away from Rome and toward the nation state, and then away from the nation state, with its state religion, toward that newer form of religious life: the denomination. The 20th century in America was the period in which denominational religion came full flower, but it’s also when it began to age, wither and die. Today, people no longer define their faith by denominational affiliation but rather by personal preference. The center of power and authority has shifted from the group to the individual.

Increasing numbers of people are putting their spiritual life together in much the same way as they would furnish a home, choosing how to fill the available space based largely on personal preference. Do-it-yourself spirituality has largely replaced the denominational church, and the fastest-growing religious group in America is the church of the unaffiliated. Cyberspace is the place where you can see all this happening. Whether you celebrate the change as a victory for the human spirit or lament the loss of old and venerable traditions, you can’t ignore the significance of what is happening.

I am delighted by the realization that people can now gather online to share their spiritual quest with whomever they please, whenever they please. Chat rooms, bulletin boards, forums and instant messenger systems are open 24/7, unlike the traditional church that gathers the faithful at a set time and place. I am equally delighted that spirituality has become one of the hottest topics pursued by Web surfers. At, my feature articles, forums and chat room on Christianity draw as much traffic as topics like sexuality. Further, depending on which search engine you use, you can find as many websites by looking for god as you can find searching for sex.

Having said that we are only halfway through the transition made possible by digital technology, I am tempted to venture a couple of predictions. First, as the spiritualities of the 21st century carve out new frontiers within cyberspace, so digital technologies will find wider uses within traditional religious communities. Expect to see more projected and moving images within the sanctuaries of the future, as sacred stories come to life in new ways. Digital art, music and 3-D virtual environments will be as common within churches and synagogues as were the stained glass windows, organ music, icons and statuary of medieval cathedrals. This movement has the potential of bringing new vitality to public worship, but the danger is that worship will be increasingly indistinguishable from other forms of entertainment.

Likewise, digital technology will expand the possibilities for practicing one’s faith within the privacy and comfort of the home. As high-bandwidth Internet connections make it easier to sense the presence of other persons, even at a distance, the “gathering of the faithful” will be possible whenever and wherever the faithful choose to go online. Thus cyberspace shall be perceived as potentially sacred space, as likely a place to encounter God as the holy mountains and cathedrals of old.