Almost exactly 200 years ago, Thomas Jefferson took office as President of the United States. Arguably, the major achievement of his presidency occurred two years later when, for $15 million dollars, he secured 800,000 square miles of new territory. That colosal real estate deal, which we now call the Louisiana Purchase, forever altered the American experiment.

Almost immediately, a growing tide of explorers, settlers, and rogues advanced westward and over the Great Continental Divide. As they faced mountains reaching heights of 14,000 feet and looked for passes and gaps, these folks tamed a wilderness and discovered secrets about our great land. Many perished in these treks or turned back. A few, like Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, triumphed and became part of the love of our land.

Inevitably, the first explorers’ paths became thoroughfares for many followers. Elijah White led the first wagon train along The Oregon Trail in 1842. By 1869, railroad lines from east and west met in Promontory, Utah. The Continental Divide, which had been a treacherous, uncharted territory frequented only by the bravest explorers, was within 70 years crossed by thousands and settled by many. A nation that had understood itself as a collection of eastern seaboard colonies was reshaped by a new western frontier.

A Virtual Frontier
In many ways, our generation finds itself face to face with its own new frontier. This time it is not uncharted land, rocks, and mountains, but a virtual frontier of bits, Web sites, viruses, and instant messages. Our challenge is not to cross the Continental Divide. It is to make our way across the digital one.

The brave new electronic world that we face is older than we think. Early trailblazers included Blaise Pascal, who invented the first adding machine in 1642, and Charles Babbage and Augusta Ada Byron, who created a primitive computer called the Difference Engine in 1829. In the 1940s, when Howard Aiken invented the first digital computer, the digital divide began to come into view.

At first, as in Jefferson’s day, no one grasped the full significance of this new frontier. But just as railroads quickly followed Conestoga wagons in the nineteenth century, so transistors, micro-processors, and new computer languages soon led to laptops, servers, and networks. In 1973, for the Department of Defense, Vinton Cerf created ARPAnet, a network designed to help the various military services communicate in the event of a natural disaster or nuclear attack. By 1984, that technology had migrated to the private sector and the Internet was born.

Now, vast numbers are exploring a digital world that was unknown just a few decades ago. Over 150 million people in over 100 countries have logged on. Every four seconds, a new Web page is launched into the Internet ether. E-mail delivers more correspondence than the U.S. Postal Service. Dell Computer has sold as much as $30 million worth of computers in a day. Not everyone is an early adapter, of course. Many sat out the westward expansion in the nineteenth century and many—either by choice or circumstance—are not yet citizens of the new wired world. Nonetheless, the world has changed, and those of us in the religious world must learn to live on the other side of the digital divide.

How Are We Doing?
How are congregations and their leaders faring in this new environment? Until recently, we had only anecdotal evidence. The Indianapolis Center for Congregations, for example, has now worked with more than 150 churches and synagogues seeking to move further across this great divide (see page 10). Some of these congregations seemed to be still in the Conestoga wagon stage, with antiquated hardware (or none at all), the wrong software, and staffs ill-trained to navigate in the worlds of bits and bytes. Others are steaming ahead like the great railroads of the nineteenth century, harnessing new technologies in exciting ways.

Recently, the Pew Internet and American Life Project published Wired Churches, Wired Temples: Taking Congregations and Missions into Cyberspace (December 20, 2000), the result of the first extensive quantitative survey of church and synagogue use of the Internet. The surveyors admit that their study is not fully representative, since it was sent out by e-mail and thus was sure to miss many congregations that have not yet logged on. But 1,300 congregations did respond, and the results tell us a good deal about the electronic changes taking place in American religion at the local level.

The response was overwhelmingly positive. Eighty-three percent of the congregation leaders report that their use of the Internet has helped congregational life. Eighty-one percent say that e-mail use by ministers, staff, and congregation members has strengthened the spiritual life of the congregation to some extent. Ninety-one percent report that e-mail has enabled congregation members and staff to stay more in touch with each other and 63 percent feel that e-mail has helped the congregation connect at least a bit more to the surrounding community (p. 2).

Currently, the majority of these congregations use their Web sites to post mission statements, sermons and other texts, to link to denomination and other faith-related sites, and to encourage visitors to attend. They also link to Scripture studies and devotional material and post schedules, meeting minutes, and other interal communications.

The surveyors found a “broad scope” of online activities already present in American congregational life. Homilies, maps and prayer requests are posted, worship services are Webcast, new members recruited, college-level theology courses offered, reports from mission fields (one from Siberia!) filed, online gatherings for young people hosted, and homework assigned for confirmation classes. Some congregations have “Ask the Pastor” e-mail services. Others have a FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) page on their Web site (p. 3).

Seekers Crossing the Divide
The Pew study also gives important information about the Internet and religion in general. The researchers found a “healthy audience for religious and spiritual material online.” In fact,

21% of Internet users, between 19 million and 20 million people, have looked for religious or spiritual information online. This makes the search for religious material a more popular feature on the Internet than the performance of online banking (which has been done by 18% of Internet users), participation in online auctions (which has been done by 15% of Internet users), and the use of online dating services (which has been done by 9% of Internet users) (p. 6).

How many religious users and seekers have crossed the digital divide? “More than two million Amiercan Internet users are seeking religious or spiritual material on any given day” (p. 6).

As congregations move into cyberspace, we see new forms of community being created. Some congregations that serve dispersed populations, like Calvary Lutheran Church for the Deaf, are appearing. Church-shoppers vet congregations online before paying a visit, and former members can stay plugged into a cherished congregation’s life by logging on. Music leaders check cyber-hymnals for new music, and prayer networks allow people to intercede for each other and follow up in a variety of ways.

Going to the Heart of Ministry
Walter P. Wilson, an evangelical Christian who has founded his own software applications company, is an enthusiastic promoter of the new technologies. His new book, The Internet Church (Word Publishing, 2000), presents a case for congregations taking the new technology into the very heart of their ministries. Beyond streamlining adminstrative processes or improving internal communications, he
says, the Internet opens possibilities for preaching the gospel, doing pastoral care, and forming community across once formidable barriers of time and space.

Wilson’s own congregation, Calvary Church in Los Gatos, California, crossed the digital divide in four years. Now, messages from distant missionaries reach supporters instantly, people browse online in the church bookstore, the congregation’s radio ministry is broadcast globally, and more than 1,000 people a day (in over 30 countries) log onto Calvary’s Web site. The church now has a full-time minister of electronic ministry and has invested $125,000 in Web site development (pp. 82-3,125).

Wilson claims that his congregation has created new forms of community that allow people to interact from around the world in what the computer folks call “real time,” which means that people are freed from the hassles and delays of normal communication patterns. In the safe space of e-mail, inquiries can ask spiritual questions and receive an individualized response. Young people, senior citizens, and even members of the adult Bible class are now weaving new patterns of interaction, care, and spiritual formation.

No Turning Back
Others, of course, are more cautious. Some questions just how real virtual community can be. Others worry that this new medium, with its 24/7, always-on style will further erode the boundaries of sacred time and space. Still others express concern about the dangers of what has been called the “world’s largest anarchy”—the Internet. Concerned that when no one is in contol, bad things can happen, these folks are appropriately cautious.

But the world has crossed the divide. There can be no turning back as more and more log on and make their own crossings. Those of us who live in and care about local congregations cannot turn back the digital clock. But we can help congregations and their leaders find their way in a world where no government and no denomination can control the flow of information and ideas. With courage and vision we can become, as our predecessors were, creative users and shapers of an amazing new human discovery.