Relaymedia

Praise be! Good Book ascends on an e-vangelistic internet

( [email protected] ) Sep 15, 2004 10:33 AM EDT

A CORNERSTONE of Welsh culture has just been given a new lease of life: the Welsh Bible is now online.

No, not a Bible in Welsh but the Welsh Bible - the first one ever - published in 1588 by William Morgan of Conway.

It was a real landmark in its day and is credited with keeping the Welsh language alive, or at least giving it new validity as the English language spread around the known world.

Arguably more important was the influence it had on Welsh people, encouraging - in some at least - a degree of loyalty to the Protestant Church of England and the English throne.

This, of course, was a time when Catholics, and especially foreign catholic powers, sought to bring England back under the Vatican's influence. Having allies in Wales - no matter how reluctant - was probably critical to the course of British, European and world events.

So much for the history lesson. Morgan's Welsh Bible is now widely regarded as the most important book ever written in Welsh and the National Library of Wales has made each of its 1,110 pages clearly visible online.

But as a functioning Christian resource it will surely not have any spiritual impact.

Christian churches, however, from the traditional to the undeniably wacky, have taken the internet to their hearts. Just as broad as their variety is the use to which churches are putting the digital medium.

Several web sites exist that are dedicated to indexing the breadth of churches and religious issues. One site - Religion on the WWW - alphabetically lists creeds from Asatru to Zoroastrianism.

Another - Religion Online - is a resource for theological students and was founded in

1997 when a teacher in Bangalore realised that text books in India cost around a third of a teacher's monthly salary.

Meanwhile at gospel.com you can train online to become an online evangelist.

And it goes without saying that numerous other sites are looking for donations to help swell church coffers.

One online Christian publisher, Darlene Osbourne, has taken up the pen in the mould of St Paul and uses a newsletter to get her message across. She castigates - albeit gently - those TV evangelists who suggest that you can buy healing.

Of course, similar schemes to raise money in the name of a church abound on the net too.

In the UK bona fide web sites have famously raised funds to "fix the church roof". Of course, scams and schemes that seem out of kilter with the Christian message make the news every now and again.

One site, Pew Internet, analyses American lifestyles and Christianity looms large here too.

It estimates that 25% of internet users have searched online for religious information, which reflects the spiritual profile of the American population at large.

But one very significant difference between Christian webbies and their off-line counterparts is their fervour.

The site found that "some 81% of online religion surfers describe their commitment to faith as "very strong," compared with only 19% of the population as a whole".

Additionally, it records that most go online simply to find information on their faith or another one.

But that hasn't stopped the evangelists - or e-vangelists as they inevitably call themselves. One 86-year-old minister called Gerald Boyd, of Carmel, California, claims to have led 150 people to salvation in the past year.

Mr Boyd told a church news service, "When I first started going online I didn't want to stop to eat or sleep.

"I am a soul winner and when I saw so many lost souls on the internet I wanted to minister to all of them and not miss one of them."

All this at a time when many churches are complaining of declining congregations and the need to reach out to young converts. Could the internet be the salvation of Christianity and the churches? Maybe.

However, it is no coincidence that America, where Christianity is the most widely practised religion, also still dominates the internet. And as the web grows around the world, other religions are going online with a similar purpose.