Online courses offer new venue for churches to teach religion

Sitting next to his laptop, while holding up a smartphone inside his church office in Southfield, the Rev. Chris Yaw asks: “When you look at the plethora of screens out there, where is the Christian voice?”

It’s an issue that many congregations are wrestling with as they struggle to engage people looking for spiritual answers online.

To that end, Yaw — the pastor of St. David’s Episcopal Church in Southfield — has created an online Christian learning program through which people and congregations can take classes on their computer or mobile devices.

Called Church Next, the effort launched in August and has already grown to include 200 churches across the U.S. It currently offers about 50 classes on topics like church history and the Bible, as well as those focused on specific challenges, such as dealing with anger, sex addiction or forgiveness.

The classes “bring a moderate Christian voice that's accessible, affordable, convenient, and brings you expert teachers,” Yaw said.

Today, Church Next will kick off a class with Bishop Michael Curry, a popular Episcopal bishop from North Carolina. More than 1,600 people from 20 countries have already signed up for the class, titled “How to be a Crazy Christian,” which is open to the public.

A native of Bloomfield Hills, Yaw grew up Catholic and used to be a TV reporter in California, picking up an Emmy for his work. But he later became an Episcopalian, and then a pastor, finding in the Protestant denomination his true calling. His 2008 book “Jesus Was An Episcopalian (And You Can Be One Too!): A Newcomer's Guide to the Episcopal Church” was praised by Episcopal Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa.

In recent years, Yaw was searching for ways to reach out using the Internet.

At his church, newcomers used to take an 8-week class for one hour once a week that educated them about the Episcopal church. Now they can take the class online at their own pace through Church Next.

Congregations can build their own schools through the program, which includes mostly mainline Protestant voices. At Lutheran Church of the Master in Troy, the Rev. Paul Walters uses Church Next to teach about the Bible and Lutheran worship.

It gives them an “opportunity to grow in their faith,” Walters said. “This isn’t meant to replace anything we have at church. This is meant to be another opportunity.”

People can take the classes individually or together as groups in their church. The flexibility allows people to learn at their own pace.

“It has become harder and harder with people’s busy lives to gather for education programs,” said the Rev. Eric Williams of Trinity Episcopal Church in Belleville, who uses Church Next. “So I believe online education will only grow in importance as we try to help our parishioners grow in the faith.”

Courses are $10 each, with $15 per month for unlimited access. Churches can make their own online schools for $59 a month. The courses contain short videos of lectures, followed by short quizzes and interaction with teachers and fellow students.

The classes help people find solid, reliable information, which isn’t always out there on the Internet. The teachers are experts in their fields and include noted theologians and authors.

“If you want to learn about religion and you go to Google or YouTube, God knows what you’ll find,” said Yaw, whose church has about 500 members. “A YouTube video is not a learning experience ... Here, you can learn religion from a trusted source."

Privacy is also an advantage. Some may be reluctant to talk about atheism or sexuality in a church class in person.

“If I had a course on Internet porn, I can’t imagine who would show up,” said Yaw.

Church Next comes at a time when growing numbers of Americans don’t identify with a church or religion. A 2012 Pew survey showed that about 20% of the people in the U.S. are what is called “Nones,” meaning there is no religious group they identify with.

“It’s been said that the church has really lost a lot of relevancy in the culture,” Yaw said. And so the classes are a way to “pull you into a community.”

David Crumm, editor of Read the Spirit, a Michigan-based news site on religion, said Yaw “really is giving the world some fresh ideas in religious education.”

It's “a unique approach for his educational offerings,” Crumm said. Students “won't have to go through these courses with the entire Wild West of the Internet around them ... It's a more reassuring way to take a class.”