Grab a virtual pew

Last updated 00:39 17/09/2008

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Blogging, Bebo and online confessionals are just some of the ways New Zealand churches are spreading the word to the internet generation.

The Rev Paul Stanaway, from St Barnabas Church, an Anglican parish in Christchurch, said much of his pastoral work with younger members of the congregation was conducted through text messages and the Bebo social-networking website.

Young people seemed to find it easier to broach difficult topics via multi-media rather than in person, he said.

The church also had plans for a new website where people could light a virtual candle, join an online blackboard discussion of biblical topics or enter a private chatroom for counselling.

Stanaway said it was impossible to recreate a church online, but these tools were an add-on to church life and allowed him to reach out to greater numbers of young people.

The internet and mobile phones could be very helpful, but were also "astonishingly harmful" when used in the wrong way, he said.

As a youth minister, he had dealt with cases of cyber and text bullying which were usually more serious and destructive than face-to-face bullying. "There's a huge danger, but perhaps that's all the more reason for the church to get to grips with what's going on."

Another Christchurch Anglican church, St John's in Latimer Square, streams weekly sermons via its website, with listeners as far away as Alaska and Italy regularly tuning in and more than 70,000 MP3 files accessed in the past year.

The Rev Wally Behan said the site got thousands of hits a week.

He had a regular group of followers in a Wanganui rest home who listened in every Sunday.

"We have a whole new congregation out there who I have never met," he said. "Communication is changing so rapidly that we have to keep up with it and it presents us with huge opportunities."

Bible Society in New Zealand chief executive Mark Brown created an Anglican cathedral in the role-playing virtual world Second Life a year ago.

What started out as a "nice idea" had become increasingly serious, with 500 members and seven services a week.

People from around the world visited the cathedral to hear sermons or book times for counselling and confession with one of the cathedral's 10 priests, he said.

Another popular religious site, www.liturgy.co.nz, is the brainchild of Christ's College chaplain, the Rev Bosco Peters.

The site attracts up to 1000 hits most days and up to 2000 on religious holidays. It includes a virtual church with daily readings, prayers, a worship blog, podcasts and videos.

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Peters said the site was used by clergy and lay people worldwide. "... the internet is just another land and place in which we now live."

He had no fear the internet would harm the traditional idea of a church community as church attendance and internet based faith were complementary.

 

- The Press

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