Making connections: Website helps seekers move from cyberspace to parish homes

August 31, 2003

YOU CAN ORDER pizza on the Internet. You also can send mom flowers -- even if you wait until Mother's Day to order them. You can buy movie tickets, check the weather in Paraguay and read e.e. cummings' poetry.

Sometimes, you can find God. 

Explorefaith.org has been a forum for inquiries about faith and God for almost five years. In 1999, it was created in conjunction with the website for Calvary Episcopal Church in Memphis, Tenn. Within a year, it had become so popular that its creators gave it a separate web address and a more national tone. 

Palmer Jones, website director for explorefaith.org, said the creators "wanted to put together a site that offered a place for people to go who were seekers [of God] who were also looking on the 'net. There are a lot of people on the Internet looking for spiritual issues."

But Jones said the site lost its official affiliation with the Episcopal Church when it became independent of Calvary. 

"[We] wanted to present a God of love that ... had an Episcopal feel to it but that did not put forth doctrine that you had to believe to have faith in God," she said.

The result is a site that users say is a comfortable and neutral place to seek answers to questions about faith. Explorefaith.org features a collection of sermons and essays from nationally-known writers and religious leaders, as well as interfaith contributing writers. Essays are posted answering questions such as: Why does God let bad things happen? What if I don't know how to pray? and Why does the church put so much emphasis on the formal rights of worship? 

"It has helped me realize that I am not going to answer these questions this month or this year. "[Faith] is a journey that is going to go on forever," said Noell Wilson, who decided to become a regular church attendee after her husband, Gary, introduced her to explorefaith.org.

Spiritual tools
"It made me really excited to get back to the church," Wilson said. "For the longest time I was really not interested in the church. ... I didn't think my spiritual life was something I needed to devote a lot of time to, and this site has really convinced me [that it is.]"

Explorefaith.org's main purpose is to provide people with the "spiritual tools" to find God, Jones said. Drawing them to the Episcopal Church is second -- which makes the site welcoming to those who have yet to find God in a specific denomination. 

But explorefaith.org "mirrors the Episcopal Church in its openness, its comfortableness with questions, its emphasis on experiencing God," she said. 

Contributor Phyllis Tickle, a contributing religion editor for Publisher's Weekly and the author of 16 books, said she believes cyberspace offers an important venue for ministry and evangelism. 

"As a sociologist of religion and as an Episcopalian, 75 percent of the point of a cyber presence is to serve those who wish anonymity in their search [for spirituality]," she said. "The joy of the World Wide Web is to [serve] those who would be too timid to come in person to explore the doctrine of Christianity."

But Tickle said the growing network of "partner" churches across the country is an important next step for those who gain the confidence to join a parish. Partner churches are parishes affiliated with explorefaith.org; they are prepared to welcome anybody who seeks a church home through contact with the site. 

Making contacts
By making contacts between seekers and affiliated parishes nationwide, Tickle said, she hopes explorefaith.org can take people from "virtual space into a physical and objective space in a physical and objective parish."

The site grows in popularity every year. In 2000, explorefaith.org registered 419,000 hits. In 2002, that number had jumped to more than 7 million.

On Good Friday in 2003, 7,000 people visited the site -- an "astounding" number, Jones said. 

But Jones is not afraid that explorefaith.org will replace the community formed around worship in a real parish. Partner churches -- from Tennessee to Alabama to California -- are ready to welcome people who have been inspired to find a church home, she said. 

Noell and Gary Wilson, who were in Japan when they learned about explorefaith.org, decided to join Calvary Church when a new job brought the couple to Memphis. Although they have found a parish where they feel at home, they still visit expolorefaith.org to read new essays, sermons and daily devotions.

"It works to try to build this shared community not just among Christians but people who think about how to nourish the spirit," Wilson said. "That's really neat about the site ... Maybe that will bring people into the Episcopal Church."

To learn more, visit: www.explorefaith.org

Related Topics: