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Memphis Flyer The First Church of Cyberspace

The virtual church has interesting elements but lacks the human touch.

By Mary Allison Cates

SEPTEMBER 27, 1999:  From the moment I entered the First Church of Cyberspace I sensed that it's not a conventional church. Worshippers clutching mice in their hands came and went as they pleased, and nobody would have noticed me if I hadn't gone out of my way to chat. But despite this unusual situation, people from all over the world have visited the church (located at www.godweb.org). The church has had more than 10,500 hits since April 1, 1999.

The First Church of Cyberspace was founded by Charles P. Henderson, pastor of the Central Presbyterian (U.S.A.) Church of Montclair New Jersey, and is now sponsored by a consortium of ecumenical churches and individuals. Worshippers are invited to select music to accompany their experience as well as sermons listed by topic and preacher. The "Choose Your Own Adventure" style offers a unique flexibility.

Articles about such social issues as creation versus evolution, school violence, and Y2K are just a click away, and surfers can even access reviews, from a theological perspective, of top movies.

"I see [the First Church of Cyberspace] as being uniquely suited as a place where people can engage in free and unfettered discussion of controversial topics that may be too hot to handle in many other settings," Henderson remarked in a recent interview he posted on the Web.

Clicking the word "sanctuary" will launch you into a dark room with interpretive religious art surrounding a flaming tabernacle. You don't have to keep up with your Bible because a "hypertext" Bible is available for your reading pleasure. View religious images by visiting Galleries I and II, or experience the music of J.S. Bach by accessing the appropriate link.

When you are ready to discuss what you have read, heard, or seen with fellow computer nerds, enter the chat room. Open 24 hours, these chat rooms are places where cyberchurchgoers are encouraged to relay their comments and issues of faith that concern them. Every evening beginning at 8 p.m. eastern time, these conversations are moderated by Henderson and a woman named Sharon, who Henderson describes as "an extremely bright, articulate Catholic." If you want to discuss a particular topic, there are theological issues up for "online debate" in other rooms. One popular such issue is homosexuality and the Bible.

According to Henderson, "One can actually discover a deeper faith by searching the uncharted reaches of cyberspace." But the information flow at First Church of Cyberspace is not limited to the Internet. Like most places of worship, the church has a newsletter that anyone can receive by snail mail after they fill out a short Internet form. The church also hosts conferences, such as the one on violence coming up in New York City on November 6th. And Henderson's telephone number is easily accessible in case members of the cyberchurch want to contact him directly and actually hear his voice.

The Internet has finally made it possible for humans to separate the body from the soul. Those involved in cyber romances know that souls connect beautifully without the complications of the body. Most members of First Church of Cyberspace know each other only by their comments, their faith journeys, their interests, and their spirits. But who wants to make a long distance call every time you want to hear the voice of a minister, and who wants to travel to New York to see fellow worshippers face to face?

Who is going to visit these people in the hospital when they are sick, embrace them when they are crying? Who is going to baptize them? The body's senses lend light to the soul, and these people are missing out.

It's the sight of the tired faces of the homeless who join us in worship that reminds us to reach out and engage in relationships. It's the sound of other voices added to ours in song that evokes power and emotion. It's the taste of the bread and wine that reminds us of who we are, and Whose we are. The soul cannot fully prosper without its own body, and those of others.

Amid the pornography, bomb-making instructions, and money scams that reside in cyberspace, perhaps Henderson's church is a good idea. It encourages faith that exceeds the bounds of Sunday mornings and permeates other aspects of life. But in the end, true faith moves people off their couches and away from their computers, into churches and out to the streets.

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