Nowadays, our online dealings take place in the world of web 2.0, or 2.5, or wherever we are now. Sleek design, usability, mobile-ready pages that don't give our phones aneurysms. But that doesn't mean the old world is gone. HamsterDance.com is being squatted upon by an entrepreneurial usurper, but the original ear-throttling anthem is still out there. GeoCities and AngelFire pages live on, you just have to scroll to the sixth or seventh pages of Google searches to find them. Like the ruins of the Coliseum or shuttered drive-in theaters, the ghosts of web 1.0 linger. And scattered throughout that hidden world are the early internet churches.
At least, the sites where churches used to be. Many of these lost congregations are full of broken links, graphical hiccups, odd fonts, and color schemes that ravage the retinas. The chat rooms have long had their Java scripts revoked, and contact forms send back only automated responses from the old mailer-daemons. So, just what happened to the promises of early internet churches?
In 1984, Reverend Charles Henderson began typing sermons on his personal computer to be spoken to his congregation at Central Presbyterian Church in Montclair, New Jersey. As he once said during a talk at MIT, "it was a convenience, but not life changing." But throughout the years, Henderson watched interconnectivity spread across this thing called the World Wide Web. In 1994, he had an idea.
"Why not create a chat room that was modeled after a church?" he told me.
Thus began the First Church of Cyberspace, located at GodWeb.org. It was a webpage with inspirational music, sermons, even a "visual sanctuary" where people meditated to a pixelated image of a flickering candle. Also in the space was the chat room where, every Sunday evening at eight, 30 or so congregants gathered to have real-time conversations, starting with Bible study and delving into current events and politics.
By most accounts, this chat room was the world's first internet congregation.
For Henderson, the internet was a chance to fix some of the issues he'd seen developing in the traditional structure of worship, as well as a way to slow down the thinning of the flock. "Most Christian denominations have these legacy churches that were built decades ago, but the populations located near them are declining," Henderson said. "Even megachurches that have the advantage of being located on highways have topped out." The internet solved this problem of proximity.
If you head over to the website now, it's mostly gone. GodWeb.org still exists as a clearinghouse for general Christian information, sermons, essays, commentary on current events, and even a humor section. But the flickering candles have been replaced by the question marks of corrupt image files. The chat room has given way to a message board, because Henderson wanted to remove the time-based limitation that real-time chats required.
"People have more complicated schedules," he said. "Even churches are having difficulty getting people to come in at 11 o'clock Sunday morning."
The hit count proves that Henderson's correct in that regards. His 30 chatters on Sunday nights long ago doesn't compare to the 40,000 unique visitors GodWeb gets a week. (Comparatively, as Henderson points out, "the typical Presbyterian church might have 150 people in the typical congregation.") But has something been lost with the shuttering of congregations that meet in real time?
"During web 1.0, there was a real you and an online you," said Nathan Clark, director of digital innovation for Northland Church. "The online you, who knew other online people, in an online way. Now, being online is an extension of your own life."
That philosophy extends to how Northland created their virtual environment. The church was at the forefront of using the internet to extend its message in the early 00s, when radio technicians ran fiber-optic cables from an old building to a new one. The two congregations were physically separated, yet still together.
"People [sang] duets in two different buildings in real time," said Clark. "We realized that part of what was exciting about it was not being confined by the space of the building."
This idea gradually spiderwebbed. In addition to three primary sites in Longwood, Florida, the church—which officially calls itself "Northland, a Church Distributed"—opened "house churches" around the country, "global partners" around the world, a prison outreach program, and invited people everywhere to pop into their " online worship environment" during live services, which are still broadcast today. Through the live services, congregants can watch a video feed of the service while chatting others. They can even participate in communion by tearing bread and chugging wine in the comfort of their living room.
Although a lot of church services have translated well to the web, there are some theological concerns when it comes to, for instance, administering virtual sacraments or last rites. One somewhat creepy church or allowed sinners to email in a confession. Henderson of GodWeb.org hosted memorial services, but that was it. And while Clark said he draws the line at performing weddings, he remembered a time when he virtually performed a reading at a funeral, suggesting that perhaps his terms are malleable.
That's not to say other churches are quick to delve into virtual worship. "Most of the skepticism around online church is motivated by fear," said Clark. "'If they can worship online, will they give offerings?' 'Is online church destroying the community?' It's worth considering, but the fear that drives many of them is not a legitimate reason not to pursue it."
As Clark points out, Northland has never been scared of the web because they don't see it as a replacement to meatspace worship, merely an addition. "A lot of people worship online because they've been wounded by the church," said Clark. "What we don't want to do is just collect wounded and not help them heal." In addition to holding online services, they try to find comparable churches near online congregants in order for them to experience the more personal side of church services. "If all you ever do is dial online, you're probably missing out on the richer experience."
Of course, if there's nothing down the street, where do you go?
Ship of Fools began in the 1970s as a UK-based print magazine as a place for, as the magazine put it, "Christian unrest." "We are Christians, but we believe in self-criticism," said founder Simon Jenkins. "Poking fun at ridiculous religious stuff as a means of good housekeeping."
In 1983, the print version folded, only to be resurrected as a website on April Fools' Day in 1998. Almost immediately, the website's bulletin board began fostering a community of like-minded individuals. The power of such a community wasn't evident to Jenkins until the death of one of its members, who went by the name Miss Molly.
"She got cancer and spent the last three months of her life on a [message board] thread," said Jenkins. "She said, 'I'm dying, and I'd like to talk to you about my life'. And she had quite an interesting life, and people wanted to be with her in her last months." After 1,000 posts, she died. But the extreme outpouring of emotions led Jenkins and his co-founder Stephen Goddard to see that this online community may be something more than just randoms on a message board. " Well, are we actually a church?"
The concept was back-burnered until 2003, when the site created an online reality game called The Ark, which featured 12 characters walking and talking (read: typing) around a virtual 3D environment. Every so often, they'd get voted off until there was one left, Survivor-style. Every Sunday, the remaining characters performed a small church service in The Ark's living room. After the game ended, Jenkins and Goddard thought about creating a real online church.
The following year, the group raised enough funding to create the Church of Fools, a 3D environment where congregants—30 at a time, due to bandwidth issues—strolled, sat in pews, and participated in regular services given by a real-life clergymen. (Well, the avatars of real-life clergymen.) When service wasn't going on, the church was open for congregants to just hang out. "Downstairs was an old-fashioned crypt, and there was a holy water dispensing machine," said Jenkins. "We had quite a lot of visual jokes in there."
If you didn't make the cut of 30 congregants, you could watch the service as a "ghost," which meant others couldn't see you, but you could lurk. "We often had up to 3,000 ghosts in the church," said Jenkins. "We would pray for the ghosts, and the people who couldn't be there, and also previous generations who passed on."
Jenkins was struck by the world congregation this "experiment" made possible. "We would say, 'Let's say the Lord's Prayer in whatever language you prayed it in,'" said Jenkins. "Spanish would come up, Welsh would come up, Latin, English, German. It was a spine-tingling moment." Other times, he was taken aback by the intense emotional charge of the conversations inside the virtual sanctuary. "You'd be sitting in one of the pews and someone would sit next to you, and they might start talking about how they lost their brother in a car crash and came here because they wanted to talk to someone."
But the environment, as any virtual environment does, had its fair share of trolls. "We had no security," said Jenkins. "[Trolls] would post the times of our services on their websites and try to occupy all the spaces. And they'd go into the crypt and worship the vending machines. They would do a wave or all bow at the same time. It was brilliant."
After four months, the experiment ended after the funding dried up. The Ship of Fools website and message board continued, but it was different. Soon, a more pious group of congregants moved on to form St. Pixels. They tried their hand at a form of 2D worship, before delving back into the 3D environment, and then ultimately settling for weekly services on a Facebook app. As of this writing, they have 550 "likes."
So, where does the future of online worshipping go? Since the First Church of Cyberspace, Rev. Henderson has dabbled in other virtual churches, in one instance building a church in the New England Village region of Second Life. Henderson believes this kind of virtual church service will be the next wave in how believers commune with God, not least because web 2.0 is about dissolving the border between real and virtual.
"People who have met in a virtual world can develop relationships in the real world and end up getting married," Henderson said. "One world kind of blends with the each other. They go hand in hand."
But no one mans the structure in faux New England, and no one's there to lead services. So, it just kind of sits, waiting to be discovered by players, who look around, maybe hold some kind of brief service or party, and move on. This isn't a congregation, it's a digital ruin.
"Building a church building isn't enough," said Jenkins. "It just becomes a museum piece. It's kind of meaningless, it's just architecture. You're just talking about pixels, really."
To Jenkins, the Church of Fools was more than pixels. The online community wasn't something that lived in this nebulous "elsewhere." It was a real space. "My mom, who was 80 at the time, used to come to the church on Sundays," said Jenkins. "During the week, on the phone to me she'd say, 'Oh, I'll see you in church.' Even she got into this idea we were in the same space."
If you want to get all theological, churches aren't about the physical places themselves, despite the breathtaking amounts of money traditional spent on lavish cathedrals, mosques, and temples. They're about the community and the people. As Jesus put it, "Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them." He doesn't say anything about those places being in real life.
"Would it be appropriate for a dragon in Second Life to lead prayer?" asks Jenkins. "It's an amazing and wonderful question to ask."
Follow Rick Paulus on Twitter