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Suspicion of online church

Posted on 18 August 2011, 6:47

There’s an interesting conversation happening over on the Big Bible website, where Tim Hutchings is posting good stuff on their blog about online church. Even though the Net has a large number of groups which identify themselves as religious communities, Christians have remained suspicious and wary of them. As Tim says…

‘However sophisticated online churches get, whatever new parts of the Internet they find to grow in, they still make Christians REALLY uncomfortable. If you’re a Christian, and you’re writing a book about the Internet, you’ll almost certainly end up throwing in a grumble about online churches. Online-church-bashing has become one of the most predictable and unimaginative clichés of Christian writing about technology.’

I’ve been thinking about the ironies of this situation for a while, partly because the few Christian conferences I’ve been to in the past year have featured speakers warning against the dangers of false identity on the Internet… a warning so past its sell-by date that it could walk straight out of your smelly fridge and put itself in the bin.

So, a couple of things to say on this.

First, it’s somewhat ironic for Christians to be extolling the virtues of physical communities (‘real-life’ churches) and attacking virtual ones. After all, the whole Christian belief system is based on things that are unseen, including God of course. Our faith may be expressed physically, but the heart of it is virtual. In prayer and worship Christians consciously enter the virtual realm, either closing their eyes to block out the physical world, or looking up to where they imagine God and the spiritual realm to be.

Which makes me think that it is slightly ridiculous for Christians to object to online community on the grounds that it is unreal. It is no more unreal than important aspects of my faith.

Second, online communities are often held to higher standards than we expect from offline communities. For example, here is the Pope (who in fairness has given three thoughtful reflections on digital media in as many years) listing the limits of online communication: ‘the one-sidedness of the interaction, the tendency to communicate only some parts of one’s interior world, the risk of constructing a false image of oneself, which can become a form of self-indulgence.’

Those are good points, but they could equally well be made about the face to face relationships of people in the local church. Creating a fake identity, acting in a superficial way or posing as a pious person were not invented by the Internet – Chaucer had a go at those very human vices in The Canterbury Tales. It’s obviously prejudiced to compare the worst of virtual church with the best of physical church.

In reality, online churches can be just as challenging, boring, exciting and revealing as the church round the corner from you. I don’t see how it could be any other way, since real people, body and soul, make both kinds of church happen.

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Thanks! Helpful comments.

A particularly juicy example of your second point can be found in Tim Challies’ peculiar book The Next Story (out this year), which actually describes local churches as ‘a sociological miracle’. In online churches, you see, people pick and choose who they talk to – which *never happens* offline. I was forced to put the book back on the shelf at this point and go lie down in a darkened room until the pain went away.

Tim Hutchings, Thu 18 Aug, 16:18

‘Slightly ridiculous for Christians to object to online community on the grounds that it is unreal’: Absolutely!

I find I need both online and offline (both are IRL to me) versions of Christian community – they are complementary. I have already begun meeting people I know online and there have been no surprises – people are very much as I had thought they would be. I think we should not overestimate our ability to assess people by visual means, nor understimate our ability to assess people by the way they express themselves in writing.

Laura Sykes, Thu 18 Aug, 14:27

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