Out of the Church Basement and into Cyberspace: Internet-Based Religious Education for Youth

Doctor of Ministry Thesis, April 2001
McCormick Theological Seminary
Chicago, Illinois USA

Table of Contents

Situation Analysis
Theoretical Framework
Appendix: History of Café Pride


Most religious educators' involvement with the internet has been as a place to post a web brochure for their institution, for email, and as an entry point into bookstores or libraries. This project will demonstrate methodologies to use the internet as a venue for religious education, specifically religious education for 16- to 25-year-old persons who are not well integrated into traditional communities of faith.

Progressive religious education is largely affective education. It is not designed primarily to teach skills or facts but to facilitate dynamic engagement with the subject matter. During the first years of the internet's existence, technical information dominated online content. Reflecting that denotative style, most current web-based religious instruction is authoritarian and hierarchical; it does not encourage interaction only information delivery. It is declarative, but seldom evocative, and almost never designed to facilitate response or interaction. Consequently, most faith-based sites practice a conservative paradigm of learning even when the content is theologically progressive.

Current web technology facilitates the distribution of multimedia, the creation of real-time small group meetings and message boards, and many types of interaction and response. These can all be used to good effect in an educational environment. The current technology is ripe for the development of religious education resources and methodologies that foster engagement and are more interactive. This project will demonstrate the use of the internet to create a community of learners. Our participants for this project will be enlisted from persons who have applied to participate in the project by completing and submitting an application from Pride Ministries' web site, cafepride.com. This project's ultimate audience, however, will be those educators who are beginning to look to the internet as a platform from which to practice their vocation.

Situation Analysis

It all started with boredom. He was looking for the next fun thing and like any seventeen-year-old male there were those hormones he couldn't quite ignore. Cruising the web was "cool." It was as if every picture and every idea ever held in anybody's head was online for him to check out. He found sites where he could take free classes on building his own web site, where he could listen to his favorite music, and where he could collect the coolest screen savers and freeware gizmos for his computer. He even found sites where he could join real-time conversations and meet other kids like him.

For a kid who was uncomfortable in social gatherings but who was also terribly lonely, chat rooms were a great place to "listen in" on conversations and eventually, a place to chat with the other denizens of "the room." The conversations in the chat rooms were more interesting than television programs. The conversation online was sexy and sometimes there was an element of the forbidden or of danger; but in the chat rooms, he was anonymous enough to feel a sense of safety. The web even enabled him to try out new identities. In one room, he described himself in his profile as a 26-year-old guy; in another, he was a forty-five-year-old man; and in a third, he was just himself. Within a few weeks of entering his favorite chat rooms, he was more at home in them than among his classmates at school and more comfortable talking with his new "cyber friends" than with his own parents.

Not that it was ever easy to talk with any of his family members. Dad had been mostly out of the picture for years. Mom had her own life, and his older siblings had long ago given up on the birth family. He'd also come to realize that his awkwardness was a part of his being different from his classmates in deeper ways. Sex was more complicated for him than it seemed for the other boys in his grade, and he knew that any questions on his part would only expose him to ridicule. Who could he talk to? It didn't take him long to discover the more specialized chat rooms and web sites where he could bring his special questions. At first, he used an alias to protect himself but before too long that protection was only a memory. He sometimes felt that his only real life was online.

Since the summer of 1995, I have been involved in what is now known as Pride Ministries' Café Pride project. Late that summer, I saw youths I had known as a street minister arrested for loitering merely because no commercial establishment was open to them in the late evenings. In December of 1995, Café Pride opened in the basement of Holy Covenant United Methodist Church to be a safe space for these youths. After a year in that space, we moved to the fellowship hall of Lake View Presbyterian Church where we remain today.

My life has now been intertwined with some of these youths for over five years. I listen to their stories; they encouraged me to build our first web site. And together these courageous and outrageous young people and those of us who serve as adult volunteers have hosted and ministered to nearly 300 youths who have wandered through seeking a safe space.

At Café Pride, we have met several young women and men for whom the online world is more than a fantasy escape. They feel that it is their only safe place. Not unlike the slaves in antebellum America who established safe places to meet in the dark of night away from the view, and control, of their masters, many youths have found the web to be their "clearing of freedom" (Hodgson, 1988 p. 71) It is where they make friends, where they gain the space to think and process, where they can learn who and what they are becoming. The web has become for many what churches, social service centers, after school clubs, and coffeehouses could have been. It is significant that the majority of the nearly 300 youths who have physically visited Pride Ministries' Café Pride have found us though our web site, and in over five years not one has reported that he or she found us though one of our sponsoring churches.

Those of us who live inside the Church and her various specialized support institutions tend to forget that for many persons, particularly young persons, the church is an anachronism with virtually no relation to contemporary values, spirituality, or ethical choices. We maintain styles of worship that were codified nearly four centuries ago and methods of outreach that made more sense in a checkered past. Churches are often better known in the popular culture as right-of-center political institutions than as bearers of Truth. Yet, as in all ages, the Church is called to reach into the marketplace of ideas with a word of grace. But how can the Church reach the young man in our opening paragraphs? Like Paul in Athens moving from the congregation, to the marketplace, and then to the center of intellectual debate, Mars' Hill, if we are to interact with those who have found no entry into our brick and mortar churches, we need to move out beyond the walls of our classrooms into the center of today's intellectual marketplace—the internet.

The church cannot ignore the potential for doing outreach and education on the World Wide Web. The crucial question before the church is how to use this new medium to effectively communicate the gospel. How do we seize the possibilities to reach those who are cruising the web hungry for something more than weather reports, stock prices, and racy pictures of this week's popular Hollywood stars?

Moving religious education out of the church basement and into cyberspace involves several hurdles both small and great, which can be grouped into four areas:

Technical Issues

Every new communication involves some new technology. Fortunately, anyone who can use a word processing program to format a document for a desktop printer can create a passable web site. In fact, not since the invention of the soapbox has it been so easy and inexpensive to reach people. The equipment needed includes a computer with a connection to the internet and a space on some host computer; most beginners will start with a free hosting service like www.tripod.com or www.geocities.com.

For reasons that will be obvious later, a religious education site should include six elements:

Most of these elements are familiar to anyone with a passing acquaintance with the internet. A few deserve a bit more explanation. Chat rooms and message boards are technologies that permit multi-part communication among all the learners involved in the online educational enterprise. Hosting services often provide simple versions of these appliances. For more fully featured versions of chat rooms or message boards, advanced users may choose to install one of several free software programs or purchase a preformatted appliance. But even with the simplest free software, it will be possible for learners on opposite sides of the planet to correspond in real time in a chat room and for the learners who think of the right thing to say a day or a week later to communicate and participate together via the message board.

A well-built web site will also contain several mechanisms for evaluation. Although in traditional academic settings it is usually the teacher who does the evaluating, the learner can be encouraged and excited by (successful) self-evaluations and tests. The use of the JavaScript language makes creating mechanically graded quizzes quite easy. The teacher may even choose to design the instruments to receive email records of the individual learners' progress on these quizzes. The technical coding for such quizzes already exists in libraries online. The educator merely needs to select a style of evaluation and insert the proper text into the template.

Educational Issues

The first significant educational issue that must be addressed is that merely presenting information online (or in the classroom) is not education. Following Paulo Freire and bell hooks, educators have become aware of the problem of assuming that we are educating when we are merely presenting information and not encouraging response, interaction, and even struggle with the subject matter. The Brazilian Freire has called the use of pure declarative text "the 'banking' concept of education" (1993 pp.52-67) which only allows the learner to pull out of his hollow bank-like head whatever her or his teacher put into it. In a sense, Freire contends the learner is enslaved not liberated by such deposited information. Religious web sites that do not encourage response, engagement, and even dissent exemplify Freire's critique. Examples include the web site of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese (goarch.org/access/orthodoxy) with its long essays delineating what one should believe and that of the gay supportive Evangelicals Concerned organization (ecwr.org), which on the question of belief simply publishes the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the National Association of Evangelicals Statement of Faith. These presentations of religious material do not create openings for conversation or engagement. This is where the values and opportunities of chat rooms, message boards, and email become obvious. Open-ended evocative questions in a traditional text can be useful, but how much more useful when the evocative question can be followed by give and take responses. The African American educator bell hooks would even claim that the educator has to be willing to embrace change and the turbulence and fluidity of multicultural identity conflict to be true to the vocation of educator (1994 p. 44).

An impediment to education online is the assumption that the entire experience online is about text. Although the modem speed needed to download real-time voice conversation and real-time video is only slowly becoming available, that speed is increasing and becoming more widely available constantly; however, even without these technical advances it is possible to link the learners with a variety of sources that can enhance the learning environment with audiovisual material relevant to the topic at hand.

Howard Gardner in his book Frames of Mind identifies what has since come to be known as multiple intelligences—the several ways the brain takes in information, processes it, and transmits it in a new form. Although the web cannot address all the intelligences Gardner identifies[1] it does permit more than a textbook or even a workbook alone and provides for multimedia possibilities that most religious education classrooms currently lack. Educationally there is no reason that an online educational experience cannot be rich and diverse.

Developmental Issues

Online education can also be structured to account for the different developmental abilities that various ages present. Since this project is designed to take into account the interests and developmental issues related to adolescence, it looks and "acts" different from one that is aimed at the developmental issues presented by a senior citizen's online Bible study or an online pre-school religious education class. Beyond the surface issues of color choices, graphics, and level of engagement with the text, the online presentation needs to take into consideration the attention span of the audience, the need for encouraging feedback, and the importance of communal versus individual interaction with the material.

Most educators struggle with silence (Parker, 1998 p. 82). It is often easier to fill the void between teacher and learner with words than to allow space for thought. Taking developmental issues into account, the educator will keep younger learners stimulated and engaged with action, sound, and options for interaction while the same educator might insert reflective music clips to give the more thoughtful older learners a chance to process the text that was just presented.

Non-threatening evaluation provides the learner appropriate (hopefully positive) feedback and an opportunity to recognize that learning is going on. The usual multiple-choice quiz online includes a correct answer and no more than two possible-sounding incorrect answers and some obviously incorrect answers. The educator must remember that these quizzes are not to identify mastery but to demonstrate to the learner that she or he is in fact learning. Learners (especially 16- 25-year-old learners) are more likely to continue in a lesson if they experience success. If they feel they didn't learn, as an anonymous surfer, they have little incentive to continue. Older learners on the other hand may be insulted by questions that do not challenge them.

Some online appliances allow the learner to see how his or her scores relate to others who have taken the quiz. (These templates are often labeled not as quizzes but as polls.) This is important for youths who are trying to get a sense of how they fit in and how well they are achieving. Although it is not wise to dwell too heavily on such comparisons, it is an obvious way to remind the learners that they are not alone in this endeavor. Such comparisons obviously would be less important for younger learners who are still largely self-focused.

Theological Issues

The most notorious of the potential theological impediments to this project is that it does not facilitate community, but rather can become a substitute for community. Although there are persons who use the web compulsively, the same can be said for any number of technologies. The response to the argument that the web can create isolation rather than community is to provide links for the users of a religious web site to local flesh-and-blood congregations that are willing to provide face-to-face ministry.

A related impediment to doing on-line religious education of this kind is the question of whether a significant number of local congregations really want the youths that will be reached though online evangelism and education. Perhaps the most common question from the youths who have contacted me by email over the last three years of cafepride.com's existence is where they can find a church where they will be welcome. Since I am usually replying to youths of minority sexual orientation, I frequently have had to refer these youths to congregations that are hours away from their homes. Although the scope of this project is not to study the integration or reintroduction into community that is at the heart of religion, I have decided to include on Café Pride's web site links to congregations that have made a public declaration of inclusion.

I heartily agree with Mark U. Edwards that the community that is established among learners online is not an alternative to flesh and blood communities where people experience all the non-digitizable qualities and failings of human interaction. The very sharing of the Eucharist itself requires more than cyber presence (2000 p. 1262). It is my hope that these online endeavors—rather than replacements of community—can be a new type of evangelism through education revealing not only God's unconditional love but also the inclusive love of religious communities where the Word is declared and the sacraments are observed.


Some hints about the research that this project will involve have been laid in the previous pages. Although this will be, primarily, a demonstration project designed to prove that the internet can be used effectively for quality religious education, the structure of this project has theological roots deep in Christian tradition, contemporary culture, social analysis, and personal experience.

Christian Tradition

The declaration of the good news is the heart of the Christian tradition. From ancient and modern missionary movements to the whole development of the field of religious education, the Church has sought to obey the Great Commission as recorded in Matthew 28:18-20, Mark 16:15-18, Luke 24:46-47, and Acts 1:8. Yet, even a cursory analysis of these related passages indicates that there was not uniform agreement about the nature of this core teaching within the early Church. Suddenly the declaration of the gospel becomes a much more complex issue. Anyone attempting to do religious education or evangelism without having taken the time to come to grips with these difficulties runs the risk of being confounded by what Friedrich Schleiermacher in 1799 called religion's "cultured despisers." Schleiermacher is frequently identified as the father of the current liberal movement within the Reformed tradition. As such, in the context of a discussion of online religious education and evangelization, however, he is one of the first in his age to recognize that evangelization was not merely the task of those Europeans assembling colonial empires. But that new ways of understanding the emerging "rights of man" required new ways to declare the love of God. His use of "liberal" approaches to scripture was not intended to be an attack on divine authority but was a way of doing evangelism in a world that was (and still is) in the process of rejecting hierarchical feudal authority. Schleiermacher cared enough to use the emerging paradigms of his time to declare the gospel in a manner appropriate to his friends—cultured, intellectuals who were rejecting the gospel as they overturned the despised feudal paradigm of hierarchies in all human relationships. In my opinion, Schleiermacher never met better-prepared "cultured despisers" or more God-hungry young people than today's MTV generation.

Where one eventually settles in the struggle with these issues will determine a great deal about how one's message will be communicated. As a minister in the Reformed tradition of the Christian church, I believe that a person's salvation is not dependent on any actions, constancy, or will of the individual but is solely the work of God through Jesus. As a member of the Reformed tradition living with a contemporary interpretation of that tradition I choose to believe that, somehow, the logic of double predestination and limited salvation to the contrary, divine grace is already in place for all, in the words of Titus 2:11, that "the grace of God has appeared bringing salvation to all" (NRSV).

Often remaining consistent with the actual words of a passage requires one to remain rooted in the First-Century context. Universal suffrage was not on the minds of the writers of the New Testament. Even when the unity of all believers was declared as it is in Galatians 3:28 there is no indication that the church took this passage as a declaration against slavery, sexism, or ethnic division. As Peter Gomes has pointed out, Paul was emphatic "that in this life distinctions do count" (p. 89). My personal engagement with the Gospel compels me occasionally to cut loose from these First-Century assumptions and embrace an egalitarian model of salvation that is not rooted in class distinctions or the declarations of authoritative councils.

Because of my placement in the Christian tradition concerning the nature of salvation, I can responsibly structure a web site that is not immediately occupied with behavior modification on the part of the unchurched or dechurched learner. I am not bound to quickly press for either an immediate intellectual acquiescence to any simplified "plan of salvation"[2] or for an immediate exercise of the sacrament of baptism. This site will be structured under the assumption that the Great Commission and our evangelistic mission is to create an atmosphere—an opening—that facilitates the Holy Spirit's work of enabling the learner to recognize and enjoy the gift of salvation already in place. In these terms, repentance is not about expression of sorrow or guilt or even entirely about some kind of behavior modification as much as about turning from alienation from God to enjoyment and ultimately glorification of God. I, therefore, will be structuring this site and inviting persons to access it without regard to whether or not they consider themselves to be Christians or believers/practitioners of any religion.

My contention in writing curriculum is not so liberal as to respect no boundaries but rather is willing to recognize that the learners may not all be persons who would be comfortable in or an appropriate match with the congregation where I worship. The boundaries of an individual congregation need not be the boundaries of a given educational setting. Not all supportive churches have the same character or tolerance. A "Welcoming" Unitarian Church will be quite different from a "More Light" Presbyterian Church and both will be different from an inclusive high-church Episcopal congregation or an inclusive Reformed Jewish congregation. These faith communities are both caretakers of complex cultural traditions and communities with integral methods of communicating those values and belief systems. For example, the sherry hour in an Episcopal parish and the carry in dinner on the grounds at a rural Presbyterian congregation each teach with unique integrity the entrance, liminal stages, and full membership within that community. Although I brook no disparagement of the place of formal religious education in each community, no formal educational setting communicates the complex implicit and null curricula the way a shared meal does. Online religious education can engage young gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youths from all of these settings at the same time, but even the best online experience is no substitute for a Seder.

Evangelism if understood from a framework of liberation theology, addresses not merely lack of knowledge of God as in traditional orthodox theology or a need to experience God's love (in material or psychosocial ways) as in purely liberal theology, but an acknowledgment of God's love for all creation and the individual's connection to all the other "little ones [which] to him belong." Traditional evangelism is about absolving guilt before an absolutist God. Liberal evangelism is about overcoming ignorance of our relationship to God. Liberation evangelism is about reconfiguring connections. Dorothee Sollé has taught (1990 pp. 66-67) that liberation evangelism among marginalized persons is a process, not of attacking pride, as Reinhold Niebuhr taught (1941 pp. 188-189), but of building pride. Evangelism among sexual minority persons is more than teaching that the penitent is loved by God; it is teaching each of us to turn from shame and rejection of God's creation in ourselves to self acceptance and integration with all God's good creation.

Contemporary Culture and Social Analysis

Much has already been said in this paper about the need for familiarity and engagement with the contemporary phenomenon known as the internet. There are, however, other elements of the contemporary culture that must be addressed as well.

Robert Bellah and his students have done much to make us aware of the individualistic nature of contemporary American religion. Many religion writers have decried the isolation and alienation created when persons choose to separate from worshipping communities and engage in solo spiritual journeys—what Bellah calls "sheilaism" (p. 221). Given the nature of recent unhealthy community activity among many religious groups, from the creation of apartheid in South Africa to the sack of Kosovo, however, many faithful persons must wonder at this past Christian century's glorification of organized religious groups with access to power. Among the youths at Café Pride who feel they have been driven from the church and battered in the name of God, the Church is not often seen as the vehicle of God's love but rather as the center of right-wing political organizing and occasionally the lair of embodied hate.

It is a common observation that persons taking academic classes in religion and even many college graduates coming to seminary need first to be stripped of the faulty "religious education" they have absorbed from the contemporary culture. The theology of the pulpit is not always the problem here. The folk theology that exists in the community surrounding the Church is often quite powerful and pervasive. But even "church theology" has done its damage; many women who were taught self-abasement, many racial minority persons who were taught passivity, and many sexual minority persons who were taught shame received this instruction directly from a pulpit. Without ignoring or demeaning the mission of the Church, it is often easier to do religious education with persons who do not bring the "baggage" of life in religious community. This project has a higher possibility of success because although many youths have absorbed some of the negative aspects of the culture's folk theology most unchurched seekers are not already possessed of the preconceptions and prejudices that many youths within the church bring.

Another contemporary issue that is concurrent with this project is the craving for spirituality among the youths that I have encountered. The rise in tribal tattoos; the sales of Eastern and "New Age" candles, books, and paraphernalia; the popularity of television shows with spiritualism as a theme; and even youth's preoccupation with hopelessly romantic love indicate that young persons often seek something deeper than the mere acquisition of things. Tom Beaudoin, in his book Virtual Faith, takes as his central premise that many younger persons are actively seeking meaning and deeply crave the spiritual even while rejecting the institutional church. Persons in their late teens and early twenties are often asking the philosophical, ethical, and theological questions their grandparents were afraid to ask but this generation is seldom asking those questions of the Church.

Personal Experience

Since 1995, my life has been intertwined with these youths. I listen to their stories; they encouraged me to build our first web site. We have laughed and cried fought a bit and become friends and mutual support.

One of my young friends, a sixteen-year-old boy, was thrown out of his home in Barcelona, Spain when his father found out the young man was gay. His mother bought him an airline ticket to Chicago to live in safety with an aunt. While his plane was over the Atlantic she went onto the internet and searched for a safe place in Chicago for her son. She found cafepride.com and called him when he landed to tell him about the place that must be safe because it was in a church. Off and on for two years, he attended the Café Some of our young men taught him to do his own laundry, and he taught them to cook authentic Spanish cuisine. This past Halloween, one of our adult volunteers with a laptop computer and a digital camera took pictures at the Café costume party and emailed them to our absent friend across the Atlantic and the teen in Europe emailed back to those of us in Chicago his critique of each of our costumes. The young man is now partially reconciled with his father, attending college, and planning on taking the online class described in this paper from his college dormitory room half a world away.

Rodrigo's mother is not the only one looking for resources online. In the first forty-five days of having the "Spirituality Project" online we received 4,012 visitors from over ten countries including 35 visits from the campus of my own estranged alma mater Bob Jones University. My personal experience informs me that pastoral ministry, religious education, and evangelization can be done—in fact is being done now—with the aid of the internet, that there are people—all kinds of people—searching cyberspace for religious resources, and that community can indeed be established and maintained through the creative use of this new media.

Theoretical Framework

This project, while primarily a demonstration of how quality religious education can be done over the internet involving learners from all over the world, is also an integral part of Pride Ministries/Café Pride; consequently, it is a part of our evangelistic outreach as well as a demonstration project for the larger community of religious educators.

Theological Mandate

God uses the Church in the work of restoring and reconciling both in the visible realm of creation and in the invisible realm of the heart and soul. In the last century, we came into possession of tremendous new mechanisms with which to communicate the message of God's love more widely than ever. Yet, the early century's mass communication efforts through motion pictures, radio, and television often failed because they could not foster interactive community unless they were used in intimate relation to existing religious communities. Ministries concentrating solely on these media tended to isolate one of Maria Harris's aspects of religious curriculum[3] (kerygma or proclamation) and to use it to create religious community. Instead of encouraging engagement, I contend that these media fostered passivity and a spectator mentality. Worship is no longer the work of the people it is the religious show that is successful in relation to how well it touches the audience's emotions.

It is the reaction to this spectator mentality in religious life and the rejection of the institutions that have been associated with it that has given strength to individualistic theology and its many related problems. These technologies held great promise, but, I contend, they have often damaged the Church.

We did during this past century, however, learn to use the telephone to strengthen and build faith communities. Few American churches no matter how isolated have not used the telephone to keep in touch with shut-ins, to share prayer requests at times of crisis, and to organize and schedule incidental meetings. The crucial difference between film, radio, and television and the telephone is interactivity. The internet, like the telephone, which is primarily a person to person—listen and answer—technology, permits, encourages, and even demands interaction and response. Chat rooms, message boards, interactive quizzes, polls, interactive games, email, and now emerging audio and video recording and postings allow for person-to-person responses. The television or radio evangelist doesn't know whether I am in the room or not. The director and producer of the inspirational film doesn't hear me if I ask for an explanation. Mass media can never be attentive to the pauses, and leading questions of every individual audience member. But the direct question, the total lack of response, and the pregnant pause evident on the telephone, the chat room, and in various ways in each of these interactive technologies allows the educator and the evangelist to modify the presentation to best reach each learner. By facilitating interaction, these technologies build community.

One of the most exciting issues related to community and interactivity is the release in February 2001 of Phantasy Star Online, an online game that allows persons using different languages to interact and chat in real time using translation matrixes that are built in to the game. This "instant translation" application is the next generation of common online translation programs such as Alta Vista's Babelfish (babelfish.altavista.digital.com). In a few years it will be possible and (I hope) quite common to have religious education on the internet available simultaneously to learners in several languages. This technology will allow the Church, at least on a word-for-word basis if not yet a cultural basis, to engage in the kind of outreach that was part of the miracle of its birth at Pentecost. This technology has the potential to build a community of learners that is worldwide.

Behavioral Challenges

My vision for this project is to see religious educators at all levels bring the vast and diverse creative abilities they already possess as teachers to this new venue and to take advantage of the multimedia communication possibilities available through the internet to expand their ministries. For years, the religious educator has been trying and creatively using diverse methodologies to make the good news accessible. From the blackboard and flannel graph, to the filmstrip, movie projector, tape recorder and video recorder, religious educators have been the leaders in the creative use of media in the church. Now it is time to enter this new field. With no more equipment than most churches already possess (a computer with an internet link) the educator can reach around the world at the speed of light with the message of the gospel.

An aspect of the internet that may be an impediment to more widespread use is the technophobia that all new media engenders. Although I tend to believe that most true educators are excited by the prospect of new technologies and broader audiences, it is possible that rolling a cart with a video recorder and a television into a classroom is the limit of multimedia adventure for some of my colleagues. In that case, I hope to demonstrate that one need not be a technical wizard to create good online educational environments.

I would also like to see educators not only build good pages, but also link to other web sites where talented educators have put together appropriate sites. Technically advanced teachers could create and post templates for pages with built in interactivity through forms, quizzes, and polls that will enable the less adventurous to begin modifying and building their own pages even quicker. Online publishing for educators can grow from the sharing of lesson plans that is going on now to sharing links, page designs, and original artwork for pages, and generally encouraging one another in the practice of using this new medium. Some secular education materials for online education are also useful, notably The George Washington University educational TIP center (www.gwu.edu/~tip/), Syracuse University's Manal El-Tigi's study of online education (web.syr.edu/~maeltigi/), and The U.S. Department of Education's Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC) (ericir.syr.edu/).

One institutional behavior that I would like to see modified requires the recognition that building a good online educational site is indeed a ministry and deserves the attention, time, and support of staff. This is not something that can be posted and forgotten like last month's sermon. It not only takes time to create; it takes time to maintain. The educator will be moderating chat rooms, answering email, updating links, and generally continuing to teach a class as long as the site remains on the web. Religious institutions need to follow the lead of secular education institutions and the training divisions in industry and change their attitudes regarding the use of funds and staff time to appropriately use this new medium. Standing in stole and gown in front of a congregation or with chalk in hand before a class is no longer the only time an educator is actively presenting the gospel.

The primary persons that will directly participate in this project are those who do not need to be convinced of the utility of the web. They are youths who have self selected to participate in this study and who in many cases discovered this project because of their own search for online spirituality resources. The ultimate audience for this demonstration, however, is religious educators in seminaries and congregations who currently limit their ministries either within a single brick-and-mortar classroom or to traditionally published ink-and-paper materials.

Change Theory

Since this is a demonstration project, the change theory will utilize a change strategy that is primarily educational and occasionally cultural. I will provide a series of options and demonstrate how each can be used in the enterprise of religious education. For most religious educators the concept of building creative and innovative educational sites online is a dream. Some already have this dream but don't know how or where to pursue it and others are still in the process of focusing in on the dream. For others particularly older persons, women, and African Americans, the internet is too associated with young white male interests and has been outside their understanding of themselves and of their communities. This perception that the World Wide Web is only a white boys club and, consequently, that it is not either welcoming or accessible to women, older persons, or persons of color is often called the digital divide. Throughout the short life of the internet there have been studies of the demographics of those online. Some persons frozen by fears of racial, ageist, and gender distinctions have rejected the internet as merely the province of those with large sums of disposable income. Surely there are no homeless people online. Computers are just too expensive.

The perception of a digital divide, however, is changing rapidly. According to an article in IBM Research, technologies are in development that will make the internet much easier for older persons to use such as voice activated browsing and browsers that will actively redesign and simplify pages for persons with vision problems (research.ibm.com/resources/magazine/2000/number_1/inbrief100.html). From the beginning of this project to the present women regularly using the internet have gone from a minority to as much as 60 percent of the current users. In fact, younger women 13-30 years old (also known as chickclickers) are now the fastest growing demographic group on the web (slashdot.org/features/00/03/30/1339259.shtml). And African Americans are crossing over the digital divide as the creation of portals like Black Chicago Online (blackchicago.com), African-American genealogical sites (e.g. ccharity.com), and popular articles like "The Buffalo Soldiers on the Western Frontier" (imh.org/imh/buf/buf2.html) demonstrate. Even some homeless persons, including several of Café Pride's patrons, check their email at public libraries. It is also noteworthy that one of the first churches in America to broadcast its services on the internet was the Salem Baptist Church (sbcoc.org), a largely African-American congregation on Chicago's south side, which has broadcast its services online since 1999. Similar gains can also be identified among Hispanic Americans although, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, along with Native Americans they are still significantly underrepresented online. The divide appears to be becoming more a rural/urban phenomenon rather than a purely racial one (digitaldivide.gov).

This demonstration project should spark ideas. But the change I am concerned with has to do with the experience of being frozen into older forms of communication, frozen in the face of unfamiliar technology, frozen in the hierarchies of who should be working with this technical material (educators or technical engineers) and frozen in doubts about how well affective education can be done with this medium. Through this paper and the publication of Pride Ministries/Café Pride Spirituality Project (www.cafepride.com/spirit), I hope to demonstrate this new technology and begin the process of refreezing the intended audience into confident acceptance of the utility and possibilities of online education in their settings.


The educational processes I will be attempting to demonstrate online are:

I will also be answering the following questions:

The true objective for this project is to demonstrate that quality religious education can be done using the existing, relatively inexpensive technologies already available and the existing visual and audio resources of the internet. This objective will be met through the presentation of a series of lessons, which—although useful in and of themselves will primarily demonstrate the use of these resources. Each of these lessons (beginning at www.cafepride.com/spirit) will be both an intervention and an example.

Each lesson will contain text presenting the concepts at hand; links to a variety of artwork, voice recordings, music files, animation and fiction sites, and a set of review questions. At a mutually agreed upon time, all the learners will have been invited to come together in the chat room for a real-time discussion of the topics and the relevant "surfing." Throughout the entire period of the project they will be able to post longer, more permanent observations and questions on the message board.

The segments themselves are:

How Complicated Is the Process?

The first web site that Café Pride had was on Geocities.com, a free host. I designed it using only the graphics and design ideas that were available from Geocities.com or that I found on other sites. Both Geocities.com and Tripod.com, another free-hosting site, offer a wealth of advice, free appliances, and online editing programs so that it would be possible to create a good site with no other input. Arguably, every church with a computer, modem, phone line, and internet access (even free access like NetZero.net) can have a web site with no further expense beyond staff time. If, however, money is not an immediate impediment and you'd like to go an even easier route, Commercial hosting sites with built-in appliances and easy to learn commercial web authoring programs like Microsoft's FrontPage, Macromedia's Dreamweaver, or Allaire's HomeSite simplify much of the work of building an attractive site. There are also free software programs to aid you in web design and in the creation of graphics for the web. (For examples, see download.cnet.com/downloads). Additionally for a serious outlay of cash ($3000 suggested retail) Macromedia's Web Learning Studio is specifically designed to build online learning and training sites incorporating everything from text and graphics to animation, audio, and video.

I began to use the online editing program on the Geocities site and quickly had a useful although static site. It was primarily a way to promote our organization and let others know who we were, where we were, and what we believed in. Very quickly, however, I recognized that anything that I had created on my computer from fliers and newsletters to papers for D.Min. classes could very easily be posted to this site and made available to anyone seeking to learn more about our work.

My first foray into the world of interactivity was to create a form that allowed surfers to send me an email asking to be added to our newsletter mailing list. I also began to assemble a list of interactive links to other organizations that complemented Café Pride's mission. Eventually adding a chat room, message boards, and an online bookstore were logical outgrowths.

In the world of software and web design, imitation is flattery. It is perfectly acceptable to look at the coding of someone else's page to see how to get a certain result. Although obviously it would be wrong to steal someone else's design, it is always acceptable to learn from their examples. The simplest level of web design is the hypertext markup language or html. It is a very simple language and can be learned online in tutorials such as hotwired.lycos.com/webmonkey/authoring. I learned the basics of html there. Over time, I developed my own collection of links, which I regularly use to introduce music and art into one of my web sites. I refer the reader to www.cafepride.com/spirit/sources.htm to see an assortment of what the web offers.

How Expensive Is the Process?

There are two schools of thought concerning the expense of this process. You can go as cheaply as possible and invest a good deal of time or you can invest a little money and save a lot of time. In actuality, little can be done with high priced software that cannot be done with free software. The difference is in the expenditure of time. Some coding that would take five minutes in a web authoring software program can take hours of typing otherwise. The only costs I have chosen to incur on the Café Pride site are the registration of a name, renting space on a commercial hosting site, and purchasing Microsoft's FrontPage Software. This adds up to $35 a year to register a name (sometimes you can get this cheaper), $250 a year to rent space on a commercial hosting site (again smaller sites cost less and renting for a longer period can lower your costs), and a one time charge for FrontPage which now sells for about $70. If I had stayed on Geocities and been satisfied to have advertisements on my pages, if I had been willing to have a meaningless URL address rather than our recognizable "cafepride.com," and if I had been willing to work with a free web authoring program rather than an industry standard, I could have posted an almost identical page for free. In light of my investment of time and of the professional look our site now has, I believe the money is well spent.

How Time Consuming Is the Process?

The time involved in preparing a quality web site depends a great deal on the personality of the educator. I am sure there are people who can work on a lesson plan and then use it without change for years. There are people who can write a book and then not think about how they could improve it if a second edition were to come out. I am not like that and the web allows me to be constantly juggling and fine tuning my product. I fully expect that just as a homeowner needs to occasionally rearrange the furniture and try a new color on the walls, I will always be playing with my pages. It is significant that some sites, notably www.pantone.com, exist to inform the web designer and others of the current season's popular color combinations for web sites. I also regularly compare my site with the sites of Fortune 500 companies and see which of us is following or breaking various design rules. And occasionally there are national lists of the best and worst designed or fastest loading sites. These comparisons, lists, and color options always give us new ideas and suggest improvements so that our teaching environment can continue to evolve and improve.

But how much time should one budget to keep a site up to date. At present, I plan on four to five hours a month to fine-tune and maintain the site. I also plan on that much time to answer and catalog the email the site generates. The original site has been redone several times so I don't know the exact amount of time it took to put up, but I would guess it took about 120 hours to build the original site, create its graphics, and write most of its content. Some of the content was produced for other projects and inserted here later. The whole site is 47 pages long and some of those pages are several screens long. This would correspond to around 200 pages of traditional text.

Another major expenditure of time will be taken up with the creation of appropriate evaluation instruments. These are not particularly difficult, but they can occasionally be tricky and need to be tested and re-tested over and over again. In the online project I have chosen to use five different styles of evaluation in order to demonstrate some of the possibilities available. In a regular site, the educator might choose to use just one or two styles of evaluation instruments and use them more frequently with fewer items. I have also tried to keep up to date on the various technologies available for chat rooms and message boards. You may note that I currently have two chat rooms running simultaneously on the chat room page (www.cafepride.com/chat.html). This is primarily to demonstrate the possibilities of white board usage over the internet, a technology that might be useful for some real-time classes online.

Although there are several languages that can be used to create active pages, I have stayed with JavaScript. At present, it is the most common of the interactive languages and several online libraries (e.g. www.javascripts.com, www.jsworld.com, and javascript.internet.com) are full of cut-and-paste templates already written in that language. Other forms of evaluation and feedback maintain and access a database that is generated from the users' input. Perhaps you have visited an online bookstore like Amazon or Barnes and Noble and on entering your name and password find that the site "remembers" your address, the last five books you purchased, and perhaps even your credit card number. Imagine if your students could come to a page and after signing in be reminded of where they left off in the lesson, what their scores were on the last three quizzes, or where they ranked among the other online learners. This is all possible for an online educational setting now, but the technical expertise is beyond an entry-level discussion like this. Within a few years, however, these technical options will seem no more complex than the filmstrip projector.

How Can We Publish the Product so that the Average Seeker Can Find It?

Posting a site without working to make it accessible to those who are seeking you would be like writing a book and then leaving all the printed copies in a warehouse. There are tens of thousands of sites promoting churches and various religious institutions in many languages and from many perspectives. Making your site known is essential if you are to have a wider audience than those you can reach by more common means.

The first step in making your site known is to register with the major search engines. Some of those registration sites are:

Registration involves answering a set of questions about the content and intent of the site and of your organization and then submitting the site to one or more of the categories the search engine uses.

For the Pride Ministries/Café Pride site I also inserted a series of "meta tags" in the source code to make the page more easily visible to the software programs (called "bots" and "spiders") that regularly search the net for clues to cataloging. Several companies exist only to write these tags and seem to try to keep the whole process a secret. MSN Search for instance charges from $199 to $99 to catalog a commercial site manually. The process of making your site visible to the search engines robots is, really, not terribly complex. You just need to figure out how you want to be classified and make sure that you have a tag within the coding of your page that communicates that classification. I learned to do this by taking online tutorials. I suggest hotwired.lycos.com/webmonkey/96/51/index2a.html, www.searchenginewatch.com/webmasters/meta.html, or info.webcrawler.com/mak/projects/robots/meta-user.html.

Another even more elemental way of promoting your site is by making friends with others who have similar sites. As anyone who has surfed the web knows, you don't often find what you want in your first stop. You check links and look for related sites through one after another. Café Pride is linked with all the members of the following organizations, the Queer Youth Web Ring (www.youthresource.com), the Ring for Gay Youth (members.aol.com/LoLforever), and the Gay Teen Resources Ring (www.gayteenresources.org). Additionally we share links with our supporting churches and with a variety of social service organizations and gay religious caucuses. Although it is true that this will eventually link you within a few "clicks" to potentially objectionable material, it can be argued that a corresponding theory to the "six degrees of separation" between any two people on earth is the belief that you can surf from any site to practically any other properly linked site with no more than ten "clicks."

Here are a few random suggestions from my experience that I would like to pass on to other educators:


Since this is a demonstration project, there will actually be two audiences involved in determining the success of this thesis project: the adolescent learners and the larger community of religious educators. To evaluate this project among the learners immediately involved, at the end of the five lessons, I asked participants to provide me with a completed online form made up of multiple choice and short answer questions evaluating their experience. Specifically:

A pre and post test would not be useful since the learners are primarily youths who have already self identified and self selected as having a great deal of interest and, therefore, at least some experience in dealing with these issues. It is unlikely that any of them will receive significant new information on these topics. As a measure of affective education rather than the acquisition of new information, the level of engagement, involvement, and response during the period of the project will indicate more than correct answers alone.

Although the mandate of the project is to encourage the community of religious educators to generate more online educational opportunities, I am not aware of any method within the purview of this thesis project that would measure that increase. In short, the only method for evaluating change within that community will be to watch and wait.

I am disappointed to report that during the first three weeks since the project was published the number of surfers through the site has been small. Although several of the youths who I had invited and who I later re-contacted reported that they had looked at the site, they said that they intended to spend time actually working through the lessons later when they had more time. I had used as my model for the pacing of these lessons web sites teaching web design and various computer languages. I have now concluded that sites dealing with more esoteric material such as spirituality may need to be broken up into shorter, ten-minute-or-less lessons. I am planning on rewriting this project into fifteen smaller lessons rather than the existing five medium-sized lessons. I will also add a great deal more interactivity and shorter evaluative instruments to make the site more engaging to teens.

There is another phenomenon at play as well. During the same period when I have had few youths complete the lessons, I have had many youths fill out the Café Pride email form and asked to be involved in future projects. The site is steadily gaining traffic even though few youths report having completed the entire online class. I am choosing to consider this phenomenon as parallel to the phenomenon of unchurched or dechurched persons being comforted by the existence of a welcoming local congregation even while they are not physically joining the congregation. The mere existence of sites like this—like the existence of welcoming congregations—destabilizes pre-existing paradigms of what it means to be spiritual. For many youths like the young woman who this month contacted Café Pride to find a lesbian-supportive congregation in Puerto Rico there may be a larger appreciative audience out there than is reflected in the numbers of completed surveys.

The length of the evaluation instruments may also be a problem. I have decided that in my redesign these instruments should have no more than five questions, that they should be designed to be a little less difficult, and that they should be more frequent. I intend to have a one- or two-question instrument for every two screens of text.


Determining significance in a demonstration project such as this requires that the larger community of educators become excited and engaged by the possibilities of the technologies and methodologies being used. I doubt that there is a religious educator in America who is unaware of the internet. This project is designed to encourage them to experiment with their own online site and to model ways that existing, inexpensive—even free—technologies can be used to reach a larger audience than could have been imagined only a few years ago. It is not enough that religious educators turn to the internet only to post lesson plans, or publish text-only materials like sermons or lectures, even if beautifully written. Educators recoil from so flat a presentation in the classroom and would do well to avoid such a presentation online as well. This project is significant as a model that allows other educators to think beyond the page and beyond the classroom walls. This project is significant as an illustration of methodologies and uses for technologies that can be replicated in religious education materials on other topics. By demonstrating or reminding religious educators of the audio-visual resources available online that directly parallel what they might choose to bring into a brick-and-mortar classroom to illustrate their lessons.

This project is ultimately not about teaching youths about spirituality; it is about teaching anyone surfing the internet and willing to stop for a moment about the love of God. Paul began his declaration of the good news to the people of Athens in the synagogue, and then in the marketplace, and finally, apparently unwillingly, in the middle of the Areopagus, or Mars' Hill, the forum for debate and the rough and tumble of competing, often contentious, ideologies (Acts 17:16-34). The Hill of Mars was not a pristine natural setting. It was as "contaminated" with evil and ungodly influences as any place could be. It literally was a pagan stronghold. This project is about convincing my fellow educators— sometimes unwillingly—to make the internet our modern Mars' Hill. It is time for us to move out of the mildew, stale air, and relative safety of the church basement and elbow our way into the rough and tumble of cyberspace. Let us claim a platform on the web to declare that God is near even in the midst of commercialization, tawdriness, and obscenity let us claim a place where, in the words written by an earlier religious educator, some may scoff, and others may need to hear again, but where some will join us and perhaps, like the First-Century Athenians Dionysius, and Damaris, and maybe even the lonely seventeen-year-old youth from our opening paragraphs become members with us in the household of faith.

Appendix - History of Café Pride

Café Pride is a coffeehouse serving underage—sixteen to twenty-one year-old—persons who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, who are questioning their orientation, or who are supportive friends of such youths. The Café is not an attempt to change anyone's orientation, neither is it a place for traditional social service intervention. Café Pride is a ministry of providing safe space in a supportive environment. It is staffed by adults who are integrated into the local community and into local churches. Our mission is to provide what Peter Hodgson (1988 p. 71) calls a "clearing of freedom" in which young persons can "catch their breath." A place where they can examine their lives without the usual external pressures of homophobic society that attempts to quash their orientation. A place where they can be free from the pressures to engage in unwanted sexual activity and substance abuse, which dominate many adult "gay-friendly" venues clandestinely open to underage persons.

Café Pride began as a result of what Holland and Henriot call the "Pastoral Circle" (1983 p. 8). I had ministered in the gay and lesbian community for nine years addressing the pastoral needs of adults and some youths who, although not always economically distressed, had matured in an environment that devalued and marginalized them by denying them equal legal protections, free association, and access to religious community. These persons, although occasionally high achievers, were often deeply wounded. I ministered from the position of a gay-friendly ecumenical agency, which in turn was supported by several radically inclusive churches. My point of insertion was to recognize the experience of the "poor and oppressed" of this community. Much of my social analysis over the years has informed me that the self-destructive behaviors I witnessed among gay and lesbian adults usually stemmed directly from their feeling of unworthiness and marginalization as children and youths. Whether corporate lawyer or street hustler, these adults were scarred by the self-hate they had absorbed almost with their mother's milk.

Although I had little access to pre-adolescents who might be forming destructive beliefs and attitudes, I occasionally had access to youths who were just beginning, because of the relative mobility and freedom of the late teenage years, to come to the attention of law enforcement personnel and school officials as "problems" because of their overt sexuality or awkward forays into the world of alcohol, drugs, and/or prostitution. Once I worked past the convenient middle-class assumption that these were just "bad kids" and began to know some of them personally and to hear and see the world from their perspective, I had to struggle with the pastoral/theological question of what the church should do or be to counteract the system of teaching youths to hate themselves and become self-destructive. It is not enough to be part of a Presbyterian "More-Light Church" (a gay-inclusive congregation) if the persons who need to know that God's love includes them are not in the congregation or aware of the denominational jargon we use to signal parish-level inclusion in the face of general religiously based homophobia.

The last straw for my pastoral "paralysis of analysis" was the ejection of many of my young parishioners from the one low-cost hangout for sexual minority youths when that establishment, previously a coffeehouse, received a liquor license and could no longer host persons under twenty-one years-old. Within a few weeks, several of my young friends had been arrested or detained for hanging out on the streets. They needed a place to be, to socialize, to laugh, and with no commercial establishment welcoming them, the police determined that otherwise harmless "hanging out" was panhandling or a cover for solicitation. Additionally, for many of these youths, to be arrested or accused of illegality was the last barrier to actually trying out some of these illicit activities. These young adults were getting in trouble with the authorities for no other reason than that there was no safe place for them to congregate. Yet many nights, they were being arrested within a few feet of a darkened church building. They needed and deserved a chance at sanctuary.

Opening Café Pride involved several months of false starts and temporary arrangements. We thrived for a year in the basement of Holy Covenant United Methodist Church on Diversey Avenue. Currently, Lake View Presbyterian Church at Addison and Broadway hosts Café Pride, and the Café receives funding and additional support from Lincoln Park Presbyterian Church, First United Church of Oak Park, and Grace Baptist Church. Even one of the local synagogues has recognized us as a valuable community resource and listed us on their web page.

Evangelism among sexual minority persons is more than teaching that God loves the penitent; it is teaching the penitent to grow up and honor herself or himself—to learn to sing God's praises with one's own voice. Persons of many marginalized groups need to experience what the New Testament Greek terms metanoia, often translated repentance (literally "turning from" or "turning away"), not as turning away from pride and rebellion to godly submission but as turning from shame and rejection of God's creation in one's self to self acceptance and integration with all God's good creation.

Pride Ministries was founded as a result of hours of "parking lot" conversations among Café Pride's staff and interested friends. These conversations led to the following conclusions.

Because of these conversations initiated by our attempts to adapt to our string of crises, the volunteer staff of Café Pride began to approach local congregations and resource persons to create a broader "self-sustaining" organization to manage Café Pride and address the other needs we had observed. We would come to call this organization "Pride Ministries."

Pride Ministries' Vision/Mission Statement

"Pride Ministries is dedicated to the proposition that the Good News of God's love is broader than any one denominational creed or religious understanding. It is, therefore, not limited to service among any one type of religious community. Pride Ministries is dedicated to the concept that the needs of all persons transcend the merely material and include access to religious tradition, ritual, community life, and opportunities to serve others."

"Therefore, Pride Ministries is a religious organization that exists

Café Pride's Mission Statement

"Café Pride is a religious outreach of Pride Ministries that exists


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1. Gardner identifies and examines linguistic intelligence, musical intelligence, logical-mathematical intelligence, spatial intelligence, bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, and the personal intelligences. He further assumes that the list is incomplete. Back

2. I do not lightly disparage the use of scripture to contend with a seeker's struggle. I do, however, disagree with the use of fragments of Paul's complex discourses stripped from their moorings to lead to a too tightly guided intellectual assent—conversion by "thesis pushing." I am further annoyed by remnants of Christian cultural imperialism exemplified in attempts at conversion by shaming. I would contend that www.falwell.com is a well designed and largely inoffensive site doing the former and that www.godhatesfags.com/main is a beautifully designed yet intentionally offensive site demonstrating the latter. Back

3. Harris identifies five aspects or curricula, that together, are the vocation of religious community. The five are koinonia: the curriculum of community, Leiturgia: the curriculum of prayer, didache: the curriculum of teaching, kerygma: the curriculum of proclamation, and diakonia: the curriculum of service. (1989 pp.5-6) Back

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