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Embracing the cyberchurch

by Andrew Careaga

(andrew@e-vangelism.com)

In 1998, Christian pollster and sociologist George Barna predicted the emergence of a "cyberchurch" in the early years of the new century. This cyberchurch will not be anything like the bricks-and-mortar gathering places that pass for churches in our culture today. Rather, Barna’s cyberchurch will be an online church — one that is entirely on the Internet. Its congregation of millions "will never travel physically to a church, but will instead roam the Internet in search of meaningful spiritual experiences." As the Internet becomes more integrated in our culture, and as traditional church become less relevant in a globalized, consumerist culture, Barna concludes that we’ll see "a majority of Americans ... completely isolated from the traditional church format." Not only will they be surfing the Net for spiritual guidance, but many will also meet in cell groups and home churches, while others will simply have forsaken church altogether..

Barna’s predictions paint a pretty grim future for church as we’ve known it in the West. But the radical changes the Internet and other forces are imposing on our world also offer a tremendous opportunity for us in the church to reinvent ourselves.

Sure, we’re irrelevant and outmoded in the hearts and minds of many. But we don’t have to be. We have set before us the opportunity to embrace this emerging cyberchurch and welcome these online seekers into the fold. The Internet has much to offer the church, and it’s time to integrate the positive aspects of Net technology and Net culture into our Christ-centered traditions and move toward creating a growing, thriving, renewed vision of true church within our congregations.

As a renewed, vital church, we can go out into the byways of the Internet and invite these online seekers into fellowship with us, via church-sponsored chat rooms or electronic forums. We can equip them with electronic Bible studies to help them nurture a more vital faith in this virtual realm. We can connect with seekers from all over the world and refer them to local bodies of worshippers, to help them integrate their online faith with flesh-and-blood Christian fellowship.

We in the traditional church have much to offer the cyberchurch. The question is: Will we?

When it comes to responding to dramatic societal change, our track record is not so good. Rather than acting as "men of Issachar" who understand the times and know what direction to take (1 Chronicles 12:32), we more often adopt a bunker mentality during these challenging times. We hope to ride out the societal storms while longing for the good old days. We hope for things to return to normal, so we can get on with our business.

But the old "hunker in the bunker" approach won’t work anymore. (I doubt it ever really worked at all.) It’s a new day; we’re awash in a new technology (and a new culture); and we need to get on with our business now.

Six characteristics of the integrated church

How can the church make the most of this moment in history? First, we must recognize the Internet precisely for what it is. It is more than a mere tool or technology. It also encompasses a "world" — an entirely new culture — into which the church must enter, if it is to fulfill the Great Commission. The Net is both tool (a medium through which to further share the good news) and a mission field (a world populated by people who desperately need to hear our message).

Then we must consider how the Internet — both the medium and the online culture — has ministry needs and attitudes toward church that may be different than anything we’ve ever encountered. There are at least six characteristics, listed below, that we must consider as we prepare to minister to the online world.

To be successful on the Internet, we must become:

Interactive, not passive. "The institutional church has always had a stake in promoting passivity," wrote Robert Wuthnow, long before the Internet became a household word. "Preachers who fill live pulpits generally find their burdens easier if their parishioners sit quietly and listen, responding only when the choirmaster directs or when the plate is passed." Such passivity is anathema on the Net. This is an interactive medium — one that encourages, and in some cases requires, involvement. Interactivity, writes media critic Jon Katz, "is critically important to the young, who have little experience with passive media. From Nintendo to cable channels to zapper-controlled TVs and computers, the young are accustomed to varying degrees of choice in all their media." Whether young or old, online congregants won’t stand for the type of passivity that is so prevalent in the institutional church. Written Web page "sermons" incorporate hypertext links to scriptures, visuals, audio clips and other online resources to appeal to an online congregation that expects to be involved and engaged by the Net ministry. Chat room Bible discussions are much more interactive and engaging than the typical church Bible study. Aida Sultanyan, who engages in virtual Bible studies at Christianity Online’s women’s area (www.christianityonline.com), points out the benefits of such online communication: "In a real-life Bible study, when you’re in a room full of women, people are afraid to open up. You cannot be as transparent as you ought to be. But online, because it’s anonymous, women feel free to open and say what they need to say. People are honest, and there’s confession."

Networked, not hierarchical. The Net is the most anti-hierarchical communications medium ever devised. It facilitates the free flow of information, often to the detriment of institutions more interested in stifling that flow than in facilitating it. Institutions that try to control the flow of information on the Net through traditional organizational structures will be seen as ineffective, and won’t succeed in cyberspace. The Worldwide Church of God learned this hard lesson in 1995. Best known for the end-times eschatology of its flamboyant founder, Herbert W. Armstrong, and the magazine he founded, The Plain Truth, the Worldwide Church of God began changing some of its doctrinal stances after Armstrong’s death in 1986. When the church leadership announced some significant changes in 1995, many of the church’s most ardent followers began debating these changes via Internet forums. This grassroots online movement challenged the organization’s top-down communications structure. The Internet nearly broke the Worldwide Church of God’s hierarchy. Cyberspace, as Jeff Zaleski explains in The Soul of Cyberspace, "will favor those religions and spiritual teachings that tend toward anarchy and that lack a complex hierarchy." Indeed, many of the most successful Net ministries are anything but traditional. Several are low-budget Web outreaches birthed of the desires of a single person, or a small group, to share the gospel with the online audience. But whether big or small, shoestring or big-budget, ministries must learn to adapt to the loosely structured world of cyberspace. One of the more structured organizations that has made a name for itself on the Net is the Gospel Communications Network (www.gospelcom.net). This evangelical ministry has taken advantage of the online world’s networked environment, creating a hypertext Bible in several versions and languages, and collaborating with hundreds of other ministries, large and small alike. As a result, the Gospel Communications Network generates more online activity than any other single Christian Web site today. It is the only Christian ministry to consistently rank in the top five hundred most visited Web sites. In a sense, it is the online world’s first true mega-ministry.

Postmodern, not modern. We live in an era when the notion of objective truth is under attack from all sides. The traditional custodians of rational and objective "truth" — the church, modern science, the university, the democratic model of government — have fallen from their high places. Now, truth is in the eye of the beholder, and "choice" has become the supreme virtue in a society of shoppers. This is a symptom of our culture’s shift from modernism — the philosophy born of the Enlightenment, when reason and empiricism became the basis for judging all truth — to postmodernism. As a medium, the Net is well suited for these postmodern times. It is a great leveler, putting all religions, regardless of their credibility, on equal footing. Christianity competes with New Age and pagan belief systems to be heard in this global marketplace. To be effective in this postmodern environment, Christian ministries must face the fact that our faith is no longer seen as "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:5), but as merely one of many possible "true" religions. The days of Christianity’s privileged standing in society have passed. The church must present its traditional truths to a congregation that is accepting of a variety of religious truths and perspectives, many of them anything but traditional.

Questioning, not accepting. In keeping with this postmodern ideology that rejects objective truth, the congregants of cyberchurch will be even more likely to question the authority of the institutional church than their skeptical baby boomer elders. This will empower more believers to take an active role in shaping church reforms. The successful cyberchurch will be one that not only welcomes questioning and inquiry from the faithful, but also encourages participants to probe beyond the surface of traditional Christian faith to deepen their beliefs. Credible cyber ministries will provide online resources for inquisitive cybersaints.

Collaborative, not isolationist. The successful cyberchurch will seek to collaborate and cooperate with other online ministries. The Gospel Communications Network and Leadership University (www.leaderu.com) stand out as models of collaboration for traditional ministries and parachurch organizations to emulate. Also, individuals, small groups and even local churches in a community can come together online to provide a united, collaborative front to Net culture. Some Net-based ministries will succeed by enlisting the help of people from distant lands. An evangelical Web ministry called "A Voice in the Wilderness" (www.gentle.org/voice) was created through just such an international collaboration. Christians in England, Denmark and the United States worked together to develop this online outreach to non-Christians. Although some of the team members have never met face-to-face, they have nevertheless launched an effective cyber-ministry and resource for those interested in Internet evangelism.

Asynchronous, not time-bound. The online church is unfettered by time or space. At any time, across the time zones, two or more Christians can gather in Christ’s name in a chat room and have church. One participant may be in his pajamas and munching on a breakfast bagel, while the other, several time zones away, may be logging on at the end of a long day. With the Net, it doesn’t matter. The boundaries of time and space are transcended. Church on the Net is not a weekly or twice-weekly occurrence. Church can occur at any time, at any place.

(Andrew Careaga is the author of E-vangelism: Sharing the Gospel in Cyberspace, published in 1999 by Vital Issues Press. He is also a youth pastor at Salem Faith Assembly Church in Salem, Missouri 
(members.truepath.com/salem_faith) and writes for Christian Computing Magazine 
(www.ccmag.com). He is currently at work on a new book, Digital Discipleship: Ministering to the Internet Generation, from which this article is adapted. He can be reached at andrew@e-vangelism.com, and you can read more about Andrew at his Web site, www.e-vangelism.com)
Notes: 1. "The Cyberchurch Is Coming: National Survey of Teenagers Shows Expectation of Substituting Internet for Corner Church," 1998, Barna Research Group, Oxnard, CA (www.barna.org/PressCyberChurch.htm) 2, George Barna, The Second Coming of the Church (Nashville, TN: Word Publishing, 1998), 65. 3. "The Cyberchurch Is Coming." 4. Robert Wuthnow, "Religion and Television: The Public and the Private," American Evangelicals and the Mass Media, Quentin J. Schultze, ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1990), 205. 5. Jon Katz, Virtuous Reality: How America Surrendered Discussion of Moral Values to Opportunists, Nitwits and Blockheads like William Bennett (New York: Random House, 1997), 55-56. 6. Mark Moring and Matt Donnelly, "Christians in Cyberspace," Christianity Online, September/October 1999, 14. 7. The story of how the Internet affected the Worldwide Church of God’s doctrinal stance is detailed in "Interlude: The Network That Broke a Church," in Mark Kellner, God on the Internet (Foster City, CA: IDG Books, 1996), 129-133. 8. Jeff Zaleski, The Soul of Cyberspace: How Technology Is Changing Our Spiritual Lives (New York: HarperEdge, 1997), 111-112. 9. "Gospelcom Reaches Record Level in Traffic for February 1999," Internet for Christians, 1 March, 1999, Issue 78 (www.gospelcom.net/ifc)

 

 

 

 
 



Dec 1999

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