CEDARBURG, Wisconsin (Reuters) - Father Tom Eichenberger began a recent sermon by playing an iPhone ring tone of church bells into the microphone and talking about how praying is like using the popular mobile device.
"The same rules apply," he told the Sunday mass congregation at St. Francis Borgia Catholic Church in this small town north of Milwaukee.
"You don't just use your iPhone for phone calls, you have to use the apps," he said, referring to small programs that make the popular smart phones perform specific tasks.
"And you don't just use prayer to beg for things and treat God like Santa Claus," said Eichenberger, 60, reminding parishioners that prayers are also for giving praise or listening to the Spirit.
With smart phones boasting apps to do everything from finding convenient restaurants to identifying stars in the night sky, developers were bound to make programs that bring age-old religious practices into the digital world.
Many contain full texts of scriptures like the Bible or Torah. Muslims can calculate the times for their five daily prayers and Hindus can present virtual incense and coconut offerings to the elephant-headed god Ganesh.
Not all religious leaders are as enthusiastic as Eichenberger. But many recognize that youth often use new media like smart phones or Facebook to define themselves, interact socially and seek answers for their deepest questions.
"Technology is one way we project outward our sense of the self," said Rachel Wagner, assistant professor of religion at Ithaca College in New York. "Religion is an important part of the search for the self. Which apps people run says something about who they are."
Wagner said it was hard to know how many religion apps are available, but faith has turned up in so many digital forms that she is now writing a book about it called "Godwired: Religion, Ritual and Virtual Reality," due out next year.
"My favorite app is this prayer app," she said, showing one of the religion apps on her Apple iTouch. "You type in a prayer to God and send it. A little clock ticks and then says your prayer has been sent. But it doesn't go anywhere, or does it?"
One Jewish app e-mails prayers to Jerusalem, where they are printed out and placed in a crack in the Western Wall.
In a popular Buddhist app, the user shakes the phone to spin a prayer wheel. Buddhism and Hinduism have less problems with electronic prayers than western religions might, she said, adding that the Dalai Lama has said such apps are fine to use.
Another app is a Hindu program called Digital Puja (prayer). There are rosary apps for Catholics and apps to light menorah candles at Hanukkah for Jews.
The rosary is a reminder for saying prayers, so it can be digital, Wagner said. "But with the menorah, how important is it that I actually light the candles?"
Apps can find the nearest house of worship and its schedule, can show the direction of Mecca to pray toward and find the nearest kosher restaurant.
On the website IslamiCity, one user asked: "I have the Koran embedded in my iPhone. Is it OK for me to carry it to the toilet, even when it is not active?" A Saudi imam said it was OK because an electronic Koran was not like the printed one.
A Jew asked on the Hasidic site Chabad.org if God would listen to prayers recited from an iPhone app instead of a printed prayer book. One tech-savvy rabbi declared such prayers valid, but noted certain disadvantages to digital worship.
"You definitely can't pray from an iPhone on Shabbat," he wrote. And, the unnamed rabbi cautioned, "Attempting to engage the Ultimate Master of the Universe while texting back and forth with your buddies is not going to work."
Seeing religions step into the digital world has inspired atheists too. BibleThumper boasts a collection of what it calls the most funny, irrational and strange quotes from the Bible.
Eichenberger said he gave a Christmas sermon asking congregants if they used Facebook. No one over 50 raised their hand, he said, but everybody under 30 did.
"That's the wave of the future -- the electronic community," he said. "Everybody's doing that."
Editing by Mark Egan