Dotcom Churches: Ministry or Marketing? ; A Texas Church Expands Web Evangelism, Offering Psalms with News and Horoscopes

Article excerpt

Like many congregations across the country, the Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas, is setting up a fancy site on the Internet to reach out to a new generation of parishioners.

But unlike other churches' sites, the Fellowship website, launching today, won't stop with soothing sermons and inspiring Bible messages from Job.

People who visit the site can customize it to fit their needs, calling up scriptural verses, movie reviews, stock quotes - even horoscopes. The church has even changed its name to Fellowshipchurch.com and hired an official "technology pastor."

"This is one more way to branch out and reach people, says Preston Mitchell, marketing manager for the church."

In its quest to become the Yahoo! of worship, Fellowship is in the vanguard of a budding electronic evangelism movement. Across the country, churches are using the latest technology to try to attract new parishioners and stay relevant in an age when "portal" is as much a part of the lexicon as the prodigal son.

Its proponents tout Web-based religion as a way to reach larger, more diverse audiences and create a high-tech image.

Nonetheless some theologians worry that mixing marketing with ministry can dilute and divert religion's message. At the very least, they say, ministers should proceed with caution in this brave new arena.

"I have no doubt that the church is able to use technology as a beneficial means," says Hemchand Gossai, a religion professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa. "Careful and judicious action are requisites here, however. We have much on television today that is promoted as 'Christian worship,' but in reality is little more than theater and marketing."

What most do agree is that the Internet is fast changing the way religion is disseminated, much the same way as the printing press did centuries ago.

"Churches must do this to participate where humanity is headed," says Richard Thieme, a business consultant who studies human relationships and cyberspace. "The Internet is no different than the printing press was."

The 12,000-member Fellowshipchurch.com - the first to become an official dotcom - is taking its Internet presence to an entirely new level. …

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