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Wired worshippers log on to meet God

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Leanne Staeger, assistant web technician, gives directions to her camera woman during the online streaming of a Sunday service at Trinity Church in Downtown Manhattan. A growing number of people turn to the Web to worship and pray. (Photo by Snejana Farberov)

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Leanne Staeger (center), assistant web technician at the online TV studio of Trinity Church, is in a hurry to encode the streaming video of a Sunday service, so that Web users could watch it online. A growing number of people turn to the Internet to worship and pray. (Photo by Snejana Farberov)

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The new non-denominational site dear-god.net allows users to address God directly in a blog-like forum. A growing number of people turn to the Web to worship and pray. (Courtesy of dear-god.net)

On a recent Sunday morning, Leanne Staeger, dressed in faded jeans and sneakers, was giving out curt, military-style orders to her four-person crew.

Their eyes were locked on a bank of monitors that showed a middle-age priest in white vestments delivering a sermon in the church across the street. Then, he did something that made everyone in the room gasp and burst out with laughter:

He jumped. Then he jumped some more.

“This is going to be known as ‘the jumping sermon,’” Staeger, 40, said. “They’re going to love it online!”

Recent polls have shown that Americans are losing confidence in religious institutions, but at the same time, an interest in spirituality has been on the rise. In search of new alternatives to brick-and-mortar houses of worship, a growing number of people are moving from pews to Internet portals to find God in cyberspace.

The idea of online spirituality is not new. People have been using the Internet since the late 1980s to form communities, discuss religion and pray online. In 1996, a group of Tibetan monks even consecrated cyberspace so they could meditate on the Web.

What is new is the way cyberworshippers harness the latest technologies, said Dr. Heidi Campbell, professor of communications at Texas A&M University and author of “Exploring Religious Community Online: We are One in the Network.”

“What I mean by that is the examples like the Godtube Web site that emerged earlier last year,” Dr. Campbell said, referring to a video-sharing Christian Evangelical site. “And so we also see Christian versions of social networking sites, and even just the whole godcasting as podcasting.”

But many churches, temples and masques have been lagging behind, said Steven Waldman, a former Newsweek reporter who in 1999 created the spirituality network www.beliefnet.com.

“In the long run, churches which don’t use the Internet to expand their communities will suffer,” Waldman said. “But there’s a tremendous opportunity for the existing churches right now to use the internet.”

Waldman said he would like to see organized houses of worship make better use of the World Wide Web.

“They’re kind of slow getting with it, and I think the medium has offered so many great possibilities to help houses of worship really energize the congregation,” he said.

Trinity Church in Downtown Manhattan has managed to keep up with the changing times by getting wired.

When one of Trinity’s parishioners moved to China in 2000, the rector of the church came up with the idea of online worship. Seven years later, a new rector was appointed to head Trinity, and he too embraced the Internet, naming cyberspace the third sacred space--right after Trinity Church and St. Paul’s Chapel.

On a recent Sunday, a female vicar opened the sermon by welcoming “those who are worshiping with us on the Internet.” Donna Presnell, Trinity’s assistant manager for public relations, said that now every service begins with these words.

Trinity offers live and on-demand webcasts of its services and weekly choir performances to about 4,000 viewers from as far as China and England. Other churches in the United States, including the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.; Grace Church in Eden Prairie, Minn.; and Little Creek Baptist Church in Hartville, Mont., have also gone online.

Sixty-four percent of wired Americans use the Internet for religious purposes, and 86 percent say that religion remains important in their lives, according to a 2004 survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project. Web entrepreneurs and religious groups have caught on to this trend, flooding the Web with millions of sites dedicated to spirituality and God.

This month, Bill Tikos from Sydney, Australia, launched a nondenominational Web site called www.dear-god.net, where users from around the world can write to the Almighty, offer thanks, ask for forgiveness or vent their anger in a blog-like form.

The response has been overwhelming: Six days after the site went up, it received 40,000 hits, and people from places such as Toledo, Ohio; Stockholm, Sweden; and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, posted about 60 letters to God on various topics, including family, sex and death.

Tikos, 38, who signs his e-mail messages as “God” or “Bill” interchangeably, explained that he was inspired to start his cyberprayer site by his friends, many of whom were going through tough times yet struggled to express their feelings. So, he decided to create a forum, where people from all around the world could send in their prayers and rants.

Tikos was born Greek Orthodox, but the idea of organized religion did not appeal to him--he never even read the Bible. Instead, he embraced a more esoteric version of spirituality. So far, Tikos has been reluctant to tell his parents about his project.

“They’re your typical Greek folks,” he said. “If I try to explain it to them, they’ll just have a blank expression. I mean, can you imagine: ‘Mom, Dad, God now has a Mac, and do you want to see his inbox?’”

Back in New York, inside the dim, cool Trinity Church, with its high vaulted ceilings and a luminous stained glass window, worshippers are enveloped in the sweet, smoky scent of incense and soaring hymns. Following the conclusion of the sermon, members of the audience stand up and warmly shake hands with strangers, accompanying it with a smile and the phrase “peace be with you.”

“It’s little things like that that people at home don’t get,” Presnell concluded, shaking the hands of two ladies in elegant Sunday suits.

E-mail: sf2345@columbia.edu