By G. Jeffrey MacDonald, Special for USA TODAY Across the country, fall is high season for "church shopping," as people in search of a new faith community to call home set about the task of finding one. But that doesn't mean they're showing up, singing hymns, shaking hands and sampling doughnuts at a different church each week. Instead, observers say, they're visiting church websites and evaluating congregations — often without having actually met anyone at the church. And that has some church people worried that the practice of faith is getting ever more impersonal — and consequently less powerful — in an age driven by efficiency and impatience
Church websites multiplying
Church shoppers "used to have to go to the service, sit in the back row and watch," says Tom Bandy, president of EasumBandy & Associates, a church consultancy. "The website has just replaced that. The color schemes, the formatting, the language, the music — those things powerfully reveal who they (in the church) want to come there and who's going to be accepted there."
As tools for reaching potential worshipers, church websites are growing in number and getting more sophisticated. One sign: Five years ago, churches made up only 5% of clientele for StreamGuys, an Areada, Calif.-based provider of streaming audio and video services. Today, churches represent more than 20% of the company's business.
At Community Church of Joy in Glendale, Ariz., worship services began streaming live over the Internet in September. Video services are available every Sunday morning on the church's website. "We're working as fast as we can to add those components to help people feel a connection," says Mark Sorensen, who oversees the site. "Just like people do a lot of car shopping and major purchase shopping online, they see what they can find out about the church online before their decision to come for the first time." Large churches, especially evangelical ones, are most inclined to use the Web for outreach. Eighty-two percent of churches with more than 200 worship attendees have websites, compared with only 29% of those with fewer than 100, according to a 2006 Ellison Research survey of 871 Protestant congregations nationwide. Another finding: Evangelical congregations are far more likely than mainline churches to offer sermons in streaming audio, pages for teens or video testimonies from parishioners. Find a congregation that fits
Efforts to leverage the Web for recruitment are paying off for congregations, says Hartford Seminary religion sociologist Scott Thumma, who says church shoppers increasingly make the discernment process a largely online experience. "I hear from people in churches that they're constantly running into folks who say, 'I saw your website. Now I'm here,' " says Thumma, author of Beyond Megachurch Myths: What We Can Learn From America's Largest Megachurches. "Having a website allows the religious consumer to be a much more informed consumer. (If people) can find can a congregation that fits their needs and their interests, they're more likely to make a long-term commitment and to be a serious participant in the life of that church," Thumma says. Though good websites need resources to support regular maintenance, advances in technology have made it much easier in the past two years for small, thrifty congregations to stream or archive audio and video on their sites, according to Jonathan Speaker, chief operating officer at StreamGuys. Yet in practice, some congregations don't always find it easy to make a good first impression online.
For instance, the Evangelical Free Church of Salt Lake City (average attendance 225) has capacity to store only one video on its website. It features the most recent worship service, and even that's "not the highest-quality" video, says senior pastor Steve Clark. As a result, viewership consists largely of church members who are traveling or people who live so far away that they'll probably never visit, Clark says. Semblance of a connection
This reality leaves Clark with mixed feelings. On one hand, he's glad to be communicating with people far and wide. But he also is concerned about offering a tool that creates the semblance of a spiritual connection but doesn't ultimately satisfy a thirst for God. "It definitely concerns me if it stops there," Clark says. "That's not actually attending church. You miss the benefits of community, of being with other people who will correct and encourage you." Not all churches are doing the meet-and-greet online. In Maine, where 80% of United Church of Christ (UCC) congregations have fewer than 100 attendees on an average Sunday, attracting newcomers with streaming Web content is a mostly untried experiment, says the Rev. David Ray, associate minister for small church development in the UCC's Maine Conference. Ray wonders, "Are people wise enough to say, 'Yeah, that's pretty slick, but can we get beyond the slickness of what's there?' "
Proponents of Web-based recruiting say yes, that visiting a church's website is a starting point for building a strong relationship with a congregation. But Bandy has doubts because, in his view, the Web gives many what they unfortunately want: "shallow religion." "The Web has allowed people to be cowards about profound religion," says Bandy. "It allows us to hide behind our e-mail, jargon names, URLs and stuff like that.
"But religion is really an act of courage — to submit, to surrender, to be vulnerable to the other, to that which is beyond yourself."