Wondering about the WonderCafe

By  Emanuel Pires, Catholic Register Special
  • November 20, 2006
WonderCafe.caTORONTO - The United Church of Canada has launched a $10.5-million media campaign that will span the next three years. It will consist of an interactive web site, national magazine, newspaper advertising featuring a cheeky bobble-head Jesus and other provocative images, and a grassroots campaign all aimed at engaging Canadians, specifically those age 30-45.

But will it work? I went to the media launch of this campaign on Nov. 7 feeling a little skeptical. I think that the Internet is a great tool, but really, can a tool make you more spiritually inclined to join a congregation in any faith? I didn't think so before the press gathering or afterwards.

This campaign emerged from a study of spirituality in Canada. The study noted that 84 per cent of Canadians still believe in God and 75 per cent consider God as an ever-present force in their lives. That same report states that 70 per cent of Canadians believe that their own personal beliefs are more important than any particular denomination's teachings.

Rev. Dr. Keith Howard, executive director of the project, said that the United Church "established WonderCafe.ca as a place to explore moral and spiritual issues, in the tradition of diversity and openness to many points of view. . .  We're opening our doors to listen and to engage. The Internet provides the opportunity for rich and far-reaching conversation."

WonderCafe.ca, the centrepiece of the campaign, uses the interactive and ever expanding world of the Internet as a means to gather young adults in a place "much like a friendly, neighbourhood coffee shop." Visitors to the site can find discussion forums, guest columnists, online polls, member profiles and topical articles, updated regularly.

The print ads are meant to be cheeky and respectful. The first ad, which will be launched during the Christmas season, has an image of Jesus sitting in a traditional Santa's village mall setting, with a child on His knee, and asks, "Would you still take your kids?"

These ads focus on pushing people to the web site and creating dialogue.

But for me, church is about community, gathering and sharing ideas with people who have the same or similar view point in life. A web site cannot offer that, especially one that is open to such a wide range of topics and so many different views. I actually compare this to something else that I don't consider really effective, Internet dating. You can chat all you want to someone online in a virtual world where you can be anyone or say anything. It is very different when you are in front of people and need to be yourself. Human contact is essential in all relationships, in your relationship with your family, your friends and with God. Faith is personal, not virtual.

 While I am critical of this endeavour, I do applaud the United Church for trying something new and bold. However, just because the Internet is an "in" thing (particularly with younger people) and it is cool to have a web site doesn't mean that you should create one.

A web site should have a message and should communicate a particular idea. If the United Church has a web site it should promote the ideals, views and good work of the United Church. There are chat rooms all over the Internet that allow people to talk about anything for free; it shouldn't cost millions of dollars to create one.

My other main concern about this web site is how it is spun to create dialogue for people about topics and if they are so inclined to find a local congregation. But if this was an open forum meant to discuss spirituality, then why aren't all religious denominations equally represented? If I see through my online chatting that my religious beliefs are much more in line with the Anglican or Catholic faiths, then I should be able to find one of their congregations in the same place.

The ads promoting the site can actually be quite offensive to many people. I adore the image of Jesus in the place of Santa. The question is perfect: what is the meaning of the season? It makes the public ponder, is it spiritual, commercial or both?

But showing a can of whip cream and asking "How much fun can sex be before it is a sin?" pushes the boundaries too much.

In the end, I think the United Church will fall short. A web site that promotes the United Church and the good work that it does would have cost a lot less, and been a lot more effective.

(Pires is the graphic designer for the archdiocese of Toronto.)

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