The World Wide Web is a lot like God.
It’s everywhere. It knows almost everything. And it has no visible shape in the world around us - until a person sits down to meditate in front of it.
Then, vivid images spring to life.
Believers call it prayer. Web devotees call it surfing.
In Muskegon, Mich., some evangelical Christians are trying to bring God and the Web even closer. Based on the sheer bulk of material collected and the number of visitors attracted each week, the group is running the world’s largest religious Web site, www.gospelcom.net, called simply Gospelcom.
Gospelcom is a realm in cyberspace where more than 300,000 people visit weekly. A church with that many members would be among the top 30 denominations in the country.
“The opening up of cyberspace isn’t just another movement from one form of technology to another. This is a major new epoch in history, and it’s going to change forever the way people relate to religion,” said Quentin Schultz, professor of communication at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., and Gospelcom’s chief architect.
“The invention of the printing press led directly to the Protestant Reformation and changed the shape of religion,” Schultz said.
“The breaking open of cyberspace is like the dawning of the printing press all over again. So watch out!”
Just how big is Gospelcom?
If it were a book, the text would fill more than 200,000 pages. It contains the text of the Bible in eight languages, daily devotional messages, inspirational stories, religious cartoons, games and puzzles for children, artwork with biblical themes, and spiritual audio messages.
Gospelcom even has one practical advantage over prayer: If you raise a spiritual question at Gospelcom, you’ll get an answer by e-mail - a message from the Rev. Robby Richardson, the Web site chaplain.
“We’re reaching people who might not be willing to go sit down in a church, but they are willing to surf over and visit us,” Richardson said. “When people ask spiritual questions, I try to answer them as quickly and completely as possible.
“Sometimes it surprises them. One man wrote me: ‘I never expected to hear from a real person.”’
Gospelcom technicians are building virtual auditoriums, where 500 people at a time will be able to attend inspirational meetings online.
After that, Gospelcom plans to add religious videos that will play online.
Like NBC founder David Sarnoff, who pioneered radio networks in the 1920s and television networks in the late 1940s, Gospelcom’s creators are carving out a new entity: a spiritual network floating in cyberspace.
Gospelcom was born at the nonprofit, Muskegon-based Gospel Films Inc. Since 1950, Gospel Films’ mission has been spreading the Christian message through modern media.
In its first 30 years, the company produced inspirational movies. In 1984 it switched to videos.
In the summer of 1994, marketing director Duane Smith invited Schultz to help him launch a unique Christian Web site. Gospel Films’ major donors, including Amway founder Rich DeVos, loved Schultz’s plan.
Like Sarnoff, who began by signing up entertainers for his fledgling radio and TV networks, Schultz had the idea to sign up dozens of Christian groups and ask each to provide a helpful service for the Web site.
It was an attractive offer because signing up with Gospelcom cost the groups nothing. DeVos and the other Gospel Film donors agreed to foot the entire bill for the Web site, which last year came to about $800,000.
More than 80 groups, including the International Bible Society, which contributed the online Bibles, agreed to offer services through Gospelcom.
As they sign on, the groups also agree to abide by Gospelcom’s two caveats: no political lobbying and no fund-raising. The closest Gospelcom comes to raising money is its online Christian bookstore, but the store is still more of a service than a profit center.
xxxx POPULAR FEATURES AT RELIGIOUS Web SITE Detroit Free Press Each week, thousands of people visit Gospelcom (www.gospelcom.net), the world’s largest religious Web site, based in Muskegon, Mich. Here are Gospelcom’s 10 most popular features: 1. The complete Bible in eight languages. 2. Our Daily Bread devotional messages. 3. Table Talk religious discussion forum. 4. Reverend Fun daily cartoons. 5. Radio Bible Class, including audio interviews with sports stars. 6. Daily Wisdom, inspirational stories. 7. Internet for Christians, guide to using the Web. 8. Web links for youths. 9. Reasons to Believe, introduction to Christianity. 10. Gospel Films, including religious art and games for kids.