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More Prayer, Less Hassle?

Faithful Try TiVo, ATMs
For Religious Shortcuts

By ELIZABETH BERNSTEIN
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

When the sun goes down at Hudi Schiffer's house tonight, his lights will all blink on without even a flip of a switch -- a neat trick because as an Orthodox Jew, Mr. Schiffer's not allowed to turn on electricity during the Sabbath.

But thanks to a new $2,000 system the 29-year-old installed, he can follow the letter of the law and not leave his bulbs burning all weekend. "I don't even have to ask my rabbi if it's OK," the Brooklyn, N.Y., resident says. "And my bills have dropped dramatically."

Here's some news for people who find worshipping a tad taxing: It's getting easier. A small but growing number of the nation's faithful are trying church-lobby ATMs (withdraw on the way to the collection plate), e-mail sermons and some other pretty neat high-tech solutions to obey religious protocol (TiVo, anyone?). One online outfit, PalTalk, says group prayers on its videoconferences have tripled since 2000, while the Hartford Institute for Religion Research says the percentage of churches with Web sites has risen to 55% from 18% in five years. A recent addition: streaming-video services, just right for pajama-clad parishioners to watch their own pastor preach live.

Naturally, the easing-up is causing some ripples among clergy, but churches are facing the same realities as everyone else: the summer doldrums. Many of the parishioners who came in waves after Sept. 11, 2001, and then again during the recent war have long since gone home, while outreach attempts such as interfaith services and Bible groups in bars haven't helped much. And the economy is only making things worse -- a recent survey by Barna Research, a tracking group in California, found indications that tithing (giving 10% of your income to a church) has fallen since 2001.

So it's no surprise that the absentee gospel keeps spreading. In Lower Manhattan, Trinity Church recently started posting its weekly service on the Internet via streaming video. San Francisco's Grace Cathedral started an audio Webcast a year ago, and it already draws 1,500 worshippers, almost twice as many as fill the Sunday pews. The service, which costs the church about $20,000 annually, is a sequel to a popular preservice talk show that lets worshippers e-mail in questions. Coming soon: online pledging. "It's there to include the spiritually lazy," says Rick Johnson, director of the church's media ministry.

Looking for Shortcuts

The business world is getting in on the quick religious fix, too. This fall, for example, Jenn-Air will premiere a new oven with an automatic Sabbath mode for observant Jews. AutoTime, based in Baltimore, sells a computer program that allows Jews to preset their Sabbath lighting, oven and even air-conditioner settings for 50 years at once. At Olive Tree Bible Software in Lake Oswego, Ore., which sells software that allows people to download Bibles right onto their Palm Pilots, sales are up 15% this year.

FAST TRACK TO SALVATION
This summer, the faithful will have more shortcuts than ever to be observant. Here are some products and services.

Product How It Works Comments
PilotYid (http://www.pilotyid.com/) Allows downloading of lists of kosher restaurants and Talmud selections to most PDAs. It even offers a virtual menorah for those with no time to light the real thing. (Site says its mailing list has increased 50% in almost two years.)
TiVo (http://www.tivo.com/0.0.asp) Digital video recorder allows Jews to record all their favorite shows on Shabbat. Taping is fine, but most Orthodox rabbis say watching TV on the Sabbath is a no-no. "Still, it makes me feel like I'm not missing out," says Meir Taub, a religious Jew.
Virtual Rosary (http://www.virtualrosary.org/) Free 20-minute guided prayer and reflection with special instructions for beginners. Also includes daily Bible passages. Traffic has more than doubled in the past year, with 2,500 hits a day, the site says.
PalTalk (http://www.paltalk.com/paltalk10/index.htm) Internet service allows people to attend Bible and Torah classes via videoconference. Basic service is free; video is $29.95 per year. "I can sit at home relaxed and not wear rabbi clothes," says Rabbi Ze'ev Smason, who teaches a class on the site.
Time-it Right (No Web site) Program (made by AutoTime) presets lighting, oven and air-conditioner settings for up to 50 years. Popular with Orthodox Jews, the system's not just for the basics: It also keeps warming drawers, crock pots and electric window shades running automatically.

This isn't the first time American preachers have turned to technology to help spread the word. They were quick to jump onto radio in the 1920s and TV in the 1950s. More recently, religious institutions began hitting the Internet en masse, but the options were limited. (A typical offering: still pictures of monks with recorded chanting.) Now, things have gotten so sophisticated, you can even log on to Islamicity.com and watch the Hajj, Muslims' annual pilgrimage to Mecca, live.

It all works for Erin Polzin, a 20-year-old college student in Minneapolis who admits to looking for a few shortcuts in worshipping. Each week, she listens to Lutheran worship services on the radio, confesses online regularly and uses PayPal, an online payment service, to tithe. The last time she went to church? A few months ago. "I don't like getting up early on Sundays," she says. "This is like going to church without really having to."

But is it? In Baltimore, Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg says he's noticed a dropoff in attendance since he started sending his sermons via e-mail to more than 2,000 subscribers each week. That's better than nothing at all, he says, though "seeing them in person is better." One tactic to stem the flow: He waits two days to post the sermons -- but that hasn't stopped folks like Rosalie Alter from sending the sermons by e-mail to friends and family, while taking a break from temple in the summer. "I prefer the sermons in person," says the Baltimore mom. "But if I don't go, reading them online makes me feel less guilty."

Another addition: ATMs showing up in church lobbies, a move that's becoming more common as churches struggle with the economy. In Baton Rouge, La., the Catholic Diocese is even considering putting informational kiosks that take credit cards in some of its parishes. But Mark Blanchard, the diocese's development director, says there's one main issue holding it back: "We don't want to assist people in incurring personal debt."

Faithful, but Lazy

For its part, the Vatican recently issued a warning to bishops and priests about the dangers of online confession (one big concern: hackers). Some leaders worry the developments are making religion too easy -- and even encourage the faithful to be, well, lazy. Critics worry worshippers will get too comfortable praying from home. Says Mr. Johnson of Grace Cathedral, "there is a concern that people will isolate themselves."

But supporters of the shortcuts say they're just a way of reaching out to people and aren't intended to discourage devout worship. Indeed, Ze'ev Smason, an Orthodox rabbi in St. Louis, says that since signing up for an instant-messaging service, he's developed close relationships with many congregants, and dispenses advice to seven or eight of them daily. Instead of being cut off from his flock, he feels more accessible. "They have a rabbi sitting next to them all day long, for better or for worse," Rabbi Smason says.

Write to Elizabeth Bernstein at elizabeth.bernstein@wsj.com

Updated June 27, 2003

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