By CARA EASTWOOD
CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - "In the Bible, Jesus says we should be fishers of men," said Pastor Ron Daniel of Cheyenne's Calvary Chapel.
But when the pastor says he uses a net, he means the Net - as in Internet - to reach out to his congregation.
Through a tech-savvy, innovative Web site, Daniel makes all the church's resources available to his congregation and anyone else who's interested.
"We primarily use it for Bible study information," Daniel said, but he also posts MP3 sound files of services on the Web, in addition to the notes he uses while delivering the sermon.
The site contains biographies of church leaders, a spot to download biblical clip art, a place to buy Calvary Chapel T-shirts and links to sites like the city of Cheyenne and local attractions like the Botanic Gardens.
The church's Web resource is so extensive that other Calvary Chapels all over the world use their site as a home page, Daniel said.
"We have become the Calvary Chapel Bible study source across the country and around the world," he said, "from Japan to Texas to California."
Among Calvary Chapel church leaders, Daniel is known as "the Internet guy," he said.
But with the Internet's ability to bring church services into people's living rooms, is there the potential for the virtual experience to replace reality and discourage people from going to church?
The Barna Group, a religious research organization, estimates that by 2010, more than 50 million Americans will rely solely on the Internet for faith-based experiences.
These experiences range from buying religious books and spiritual teachings online to actually participating in worship services through the computer.
Sites like www.beliefnet.com offer links to a host of religion resources, prayer groups, spiritual Web journals, daily meditations and information on almost every known religion and faith group.
Critics insist that computers isolate people and break down the interpersonal relationships that unite communities. But the Barna study finds otherwise, identifying the Web as an important tool that links believers together and offers them access to religious resources they otherwise might not be able to acquire.
The sheer volume of people worldwide with Internet access estimated to reach one billion by 2005 - offers a stunning opportunity for religious leaders to seek out new believers through the Web.
Many other faith groups in Cheyenne join Calvary Chapel's push to use the Web in ministering to the community.
According to the official Web site of the Vatican, the Roman Catholic Church encourages the use of the Internet as a powerful tool in communicating Christ's message to even more people worldwide.
But it comes with a caution.
"Temperance is needed - a self-disciplined approach to this remarkable technological instrument, the Internet, so as to use it wisely and only for good," said the Pontifical Council for Social Communications in 2002.
Although some groups barely use the Internet at all, others rely heavily on its ability to disseminate information quickly and cheaply, reaching both believers and seekers with little effort from the organization itself.
But is the Web a threat to the traditional church experience?
Daniel says absolutely not. A critical element of the Christian experience, he says, is fellowship.
No matter how connected people might feel through a religious Web site, Jesus emphasized the importance of coming together to worship and enjoy the community of other believers, Daniel said.
But an effective Web site is helpful in its potential to draw new believers from a variety of sources.
"New people come to us from other Calvary Chapels," Daniel said, after they discover the Cheyenne church through Calvary Chapel Web sites. "They feel at home, because they already know what my voice is like, they know what people look like."
The site also allows newcomers to the area to shop around before committing to visiting a new church.
"No one wants to visit 50 churches," Daniel said. "These days, people start with the Web sites."
Others who come to the church from the Web site are people in Cheyenne just cruising around on the Internet, Daniel said.
Clear explanations of the church's beliefs and practices keep new congregants from being unhappily surprised when they eventually show up in person.
"People can visit our church and see if it's for them before they even come into the door," he said.
Other area faith groups, like the followers of the Bah' faith, use the Web extensively to stay connected to a diverse and expansive worldwide community of believers.
With few followers in the area, the group looks to the Web site for a connection to other believers and to the Bah' World Center in Israel.
Kerry Hart, a Bah' believer since the late 1970s, said the Internet is a valuable means of communication for the Cheyenne community.
"The Bah' faith isn't divided into sects," Hart said, and believers don't proselytize.
Instead, Bah's believe the best way to attract new believers is to serve as living examples of the faith and answer questions for people who are curious.
The immense growth and expansion of the faith, which is only 160 years old, is testament to the power of technology in spreading messages.
Unlike its more ancient predecessors, the Bah' Faith spread as a contemporary of recent technological inventions like the telephone, the television and, now, the Internet.
The Bah' Web site attracts 10,000 visitors a day, Hart said, and each spends an average of 10 minutes at the site. The site works as a powerful recruitment tool, Hart said.
"Of those who ask for more information from the site, one in seven becomes a Bah'," he said.
With a Web newsletter updated every two weeks, followers worldwide remain updated on the state of their faith and the newest advances in the Bah' mission.
Occasionally people traveling through Cheyenne show up at meetings they discovered through the use of the Internet, Hart said.
The Web serves as a stepping stone to introduce people to the faith, but Hart said personal connections and regular meetings remain the glue that holds Bah' believers together.
Teaching a church's beliefs For large churches like The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a well-developed Web site connects a vast community of believers spread around the world.
"We have contact with more than 11 million members now," said Doug Fowler, a leader of the Cheyenne Mormon church community.
Not only does it connect believers, Fowler said, "It's more of a tool for someone to feel comfortable going in and finding out about our faith and yet not feeling like they're being bombarded by people."
Through several main sites, the Mormon church offers a wide variety of services like a meeting house locator, a complete library of Mormon readings and teachings, explanations of the church belief structure, and an extensive list of frequently-asked questions about the church.
Available in 12 different languages, the Web site illustrates the church's position on the importance of education, the role of women in the church and the Mormon family.
Since the site's introduction, Fowler, a senior minister in the church, said he gets fewer than a third of the calls he used to get, asking where and when meetings were taking place in Cheyenne.
Through Web sites, the church reaches out to new members and reinforces the beliefs of those already in the fold. The church's push in the area of family genealogical research further connects believers to the history of their faith.
Of all Mormons in the area, "Youth and single adults seem to be using the Internet the most," Fowler said.
There's even an over-30 singles group that has its own site within the Mormon site. Barbara Byrd maintains the site for adult singles in the area, or stake, as the church calls its geographic areas.
The 74-year-old said at first she viewed the task as an immense challenge, but she has been thrilled with the results and the positive responses from single Mormon adults in the area.
Since the church is so family-oriented, she said single adults with children can sometimes feel isolated.
"We have game nights, study groups, dances and special catered dinners for the adults," she said.
Byrd uses the Web site to get information out to people, but she also sends printed newsletters, and makes phone calls and personal visits to check up on people, saying that not everyone has access to the Internet yet.
An excuse to stay home The potential for virtual faith experiences to eclipse the ritual of attending church or synagogue doesn't worry Pastor Daniel.
He said there always will be people who choose to shirk the experience of church for the chance to remain on the couch on Sunday mornings.
Such an alternative appeals to "the same kind of people who long ago started watching Christian TV instead of going to church," he said.
The Bible emphasizes the importance of the physical coming together of believers to experience the fellowship, the community that church experiences create.
The Web site, Daniel says, is great for information and education, but it doesn't do anything in the important arena of fellowship.