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CYBERCHURCH: WHERE VIRTUOUS MEETS VIRTUAL

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The cement steps leading to the triple-arch doorway at The Church of St. Luke look inviting. But you need not climb them.

Click a button and you're inside.You can see the sanctuary, the foyer, the church hall; admire the statues of St. Luke, St. Mary or St. Joseph; stare in awe at the colorful stained glass windows in the stair tower or on the east or west walls - all without turning your head.

The Church of St. Luke isn't just in Stroudsburg, Pa. It's also in cyberspace. Anyone with a computer and access to the Internet can visit.

Religious resources on the Internet have been around for years and include educational resources and discussion groups for practically every major religion, from Anglican to Zen.

For the cyber-spiritual there's a digitized Bible in six languages, a tour of the Vatican's Sistine Chapel and an exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Library of Congress.

And with more preachers packing Pentiums, churches are creating virtual congregations across the country and around the world.

The Church of St. Luke offers information on its programs, a history of the church and a virtual tour at its site on the Internet's World Wide Web.

"It's like a huge library that allows you easy access to resources all over the world and allows you to publish your resources with infinite distribution, all for free," said Pete Holzmann, a consultant with Paraclete Mission Group in Colorado, which helps Christian leaders around the world build working relationships on the Internet.

The Web offers not only text, but pictures, graphics, audio and video. And it's growing at an alarming rate, Holzmann said.

"It's the world's largest construction zone," he said. "There are estimates that it is growing at a rate of 10 to 20 percent a month."

Pick up your Internet yellow pages and flip to the religion section. You'll find sites on atheism, a Hebrew language tutor, verses of the Koran and Mormon scripture.

Under the yellow pages' Alternative Religion section, you'll see sites devoted to Satanism, Scientology, Pagan Yule Customs and even a Pig Latin version of the Bible.

But just 25 pages past the religion listings is a more seedy selection of cyberspace sites. Computer users can pull up pornographic pictures, study a price list for prostitutes in major cities around the world, listen to sex sounds and discuss fetishes.

Holzmann says that's exactly why religious organizations need to expand their online presence.

"What you see now is a growing Christian presence on every significant online service, from America On-Line to CompuServe," he said.

"On America On-Line, the Christian presence is called Christianity On-Line and it's the largest thing there, being used more than Time magazine or any other service on the system."

But Web sites for individual churches are a very new phenomena, Holzmann said. Everything from large city churches to small rural parishes are establishing their own exit ramps from the information superhighway.

"It started early this year and it's exploding," said Holzmann, who has helped several churches design their sites. "You're going to see more and more churches, organized by denomination and region, popping up all over the Web."

With their own World Wide Web site, churches can provide their congregations with service information and schedules, biographies of their pastors, a history of their church and links to other Internet religious resources.