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Online church brings faith to the busy, lazy

People all over the world can now attend church in their pajama pants, snacking on popcorn and pretzels. How? Through a new thing known as IRChurch: a pluralistic, inclusive, online faith community that holds their services in a chatroom.

It began in March 2005, when Whitney Cox, a 24-year-old second year Divinity student at Drew University's Theological School in Madison, N.J., was given an assignment to design and hold a worship service. A regular attendee at Redeemer Morristown, a small Episcopalian church with very complex liturgical services, she didn't know many people outside of the choir and held no real leadership position.

Panicked, she did what she jokingly said "any sulky emo adolescent would do" and posted her predicament to her online journal. She received a comment in her journal from a college friend suggesting that, well, she had a community online, so why not conduct the service online? Another friend suggested using IRC, or Internet Relay Chat, and later became instrumental in helping Cox set up and run the service.

Cox's first, highly-experimental service was held this year on Easter, March 27, and garnered around 50 attendees, far exceeding what she had expected. A poll Cox later posted to her online journal revealed that the service had drawn attendees from the West Coast all the way to Europe, with faiths ranging from Roman Catholic to Buddhist to atheist. Seventy-one percent of the respondents were between the ages of 19 and 29.

There have been four services since the first one on Easter Sunday. They have taken advantage of LiveJournal, a popular blogging service where people can create their own online journals and view friends' journals, and set up a community called "irchurch," to make announcements and pose spiritual questions.

Their unofficial motto: It's like church. Only it doesn't suck.

From their Web site, IRC "provides a way of communicating in real time with people from all over the world. . . once connected to an IRC server on an IRC network, you will usually join one or more 'channels' and converse with others there."

In other words, IRC consists of a network of chatrooms, called "channels," that people can use to talk and connect in real time. All one needs is a computer that connects to the Internet and an IRC client, a program that allows one to connect to the IRC network.

"I spent a lot of time pondering the limitations of the medium," said Cox in an online interview, "and came out with what I think is a fairly viable order of worship for a setting where congregational response is difficult." In a "typical" church service, she explained, there is much call-and-response, which is nearly impossible in a medium such as IRC, where a call to prayer would result in "100 lines of people remembering different words, at different speeds, and posting them to the channel – it would take up space, and you wouldn't read any of them, and it wouldn't be a prayer so much as a typing contest."

A typical IRChurch service does have ample opportunity for audience response, but not in the call-and-response manner described above. After opening remarks from Cox, volunteers present several readings, which range from the secular, such as an excerpt from Neil Gaiman's bestselling graphic novel series The Sandman, to the religious, such as St. Francis's Prayer. At this time, the channel is moderated so that only Cox and each reader in turn can "speak," or rather, type. After the first few readings are finished, the channel is opened to a 20-minute discussion of the sermon, which is posted a day beforehand in Cox's journal. Upon completion, the channel is moderated again and more readings are done, after which the channel is then opened to prayer. Then final readings are made, final words are spoken, and the channel is opened to discussion for the rest of the evening.

"Never," said Cox, "does the service demand participation and/or tell you what to say."

There are many positive aspects to such an online community, where people can feel included despite race, age, gender, sexual orientation or religious affiliation.

"This is a congregation of so many religions, denominations, and often the most important of all, the doubters and questioners of faith and God as a whole," said an attendee who refers to herself as H. "I think the most important thing IRChurch has reminded me about my faith is that the core of faith is doubt, and we learn and grow by the questions because we don't ever really get to know the answers."

"I grew up Southern Baptist," said one attendee who calls herself Tiercel online, "and even in my relatively liberal church there was an attitude that all the answers were in The Book. IRChurch seems to say, 'We're all looking for the answers together.'"

However, "we are embodied beings," said Jason Haddox, an Episcopal priest and Ph.D. candidate in Liturgical Studies at Drew University's Theological School who is including IRChurch in his thesis. "The very physicality of our existence obligates us to deal with that reality."

Despite the probable pitfalls, Cox has said that she would like to share the format. "I've spoken with some of my Latin American friends who think it'd be a great tool for Latin American believers in exile, particularly the LGBT ones."

Cox next plans to do a Day of the Dead/All Saints' Day/All Souls' Day celebration. On Nov. 1, she will make a post to the community that people can respond to with ofrendas, or small altars commemorating the dead. They can be physical constructions, digital or even text: "Whatever you feel best remembers the person(s) in question," she posted on Oct. 16. Users can make as many or as few as they like and can even construct ones in honor of lost pets or otherwise. On Nov. 6 there will be an informal gathering in the IRC channel; attendees are invited to share stories, recite poetry and just generally be together.

"Come when you can, go when you must," she posted, "but stick around a while and share in the remembrance."

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