A Dallas Internet entrepreneur is giving new meaning to Jesus' words in the Gospel of Matthew: Whenever his disciples come together in his name, Jesus is there among them.
Even if it's in cyberspace.
Last month, Bruce Thompson opened the "virtual doors" to his new church, where computers and modems have replaced pews and kneelers. Thompson believes his 777live.com could become the primary source of biblical teaching and fellowship for tens of thousands around the world.
Some 40,000 people preregistered as members while the site was being developed, Thompson said.
His Internet church has an ordained minister -- Thompson's father, Dan, who also heads an 800-member nondenominational church in San Antonio -- and dozens of Christian chat rooms staffed by volunteer counselors around-the-clock. Coming soon: live Webcasts of Sunday services, online Bible study groups, prayer meetings and nearly everything else that traditional churches offer, with the exception of Communion and baptism.
Some theologians say cyberchurches don't meet users' spiritual needs and feed into the idea that God can be turned on and off with the flick of a switch. Thompson argues that his membership numbers prove that traditional churches are a turnoff for many.
While Internet churches are nothing new, until now they've been mostly small-time operations, analysts say, offering links to other religious sites, sermons to download and sometimes a chat room with a pastor. Few make Thompson's claim: that a ministry without roots in the physical world can be just as effective as brick-and-mortar churches.
"The church is the people, it's not a building. It has nothing to do with where people meet," said Thompson, who has founded two Internet companies since 1998. "The Bible says to gather and that God will be with us, and that's what we are doing. It's just over a different medium."
Terry Apple, of Alexandria, Va., said he's been checking the status of 777live.com nearly every day since July, when he read about the Web site in an e-mail chain letter.
"I've had all I can take of going to church on Sundays, listening to a preacher, singing a couple of songs, sitting in a pew," said Apple, who trades Nasdaq futures for a living on a computer at home. "I'm really hoping to get some value out of it. I feel a need for something deeper."
David Druitt, of Springfield, Va., who has difficulty walking because of a back problem, said he'll attend cyberchurch on Sunday mornings when he doesn't feel up to leaving home.
A study by the evangelical Barna Research Group of Ventura, Calif., showed that Apple and Druitt aren't alone. A poll of 2,200 people released by the group in May found that 8 percent of adults and 12 percent of teenagers use the Internet for religious or spiritual experiences.
The study also found that people are warming to online religious services. While only 1 percent of adults and 2 percent of teenagers said their primary place of worship is a cyberchurch, more than two-thirds said they expect to log onto one regularly in the future.
Edmund Gibbs, a professor of theology at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., said cyberchurches are as likely to distance people as to bring them together. "Over the Internet, people can invent their own identities. How would you ever know the real person with whom you are communicating?" he asked.
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