Gospel, Community & the Cyberchurch of God

June 01, 2008

Gospel, Community & the Cyberchurch of God

Humans crave community. This is because we were created in the image of the God who is community in himself. The God of the Bible is triune—he is defined by his relationships and created us as intrinsically relational creatures who long to be known, loved and accepted by God and by other people.

The Internet is an outworking of this love of community. On the World Wide Web, people can find others with significant shared interests. They can communicate with one another and satisfy the human craving for community through sites based on these shared interests.

Christianity is the most genuine experience of community. This is because God, through Christ’s death and resurrection, brings Christians into relationship and what the New Testament terms ‘fellowship’ (koinonia) with his triune self.1 Those who have fellowship with God through Christ also have fellowship with one another. Christ did not redeem solitary individuals; he redeemed the church, a community, a people for himself.2

This fellowship is not passive. It is not a synonym for socialising. Fellowship is active, and outsider-focused. This is because the God with whom we have fellowship is active and outsider-focused. Jesus came to seek and save the lost.3 So the church he brought into being must also be outsider-focused, or else it is not Christ’s church.4

This active, missionary fellowship is not reserved for authorised ‘priests’. All Christians have been gifted to build up the body of Christ (in maturity and/or numerically) in some way.5 Indeed, in one sense the way the church evangelises is simply by being itself. As we share community with each other, that community, because it is founded and brought into being by the gospel of Christ, of necessity must testify to Christ.6

Cyberchurch and cyberchurches

The term ‘cyberchurch’ was coined in 1997 by Patrick Dixon.7 It encompasses every form of internet communication used to share spiritual matters: websites, blogs, chatrooms, discussion boards, networking sites, podcasting, webcasting, etc. As such, the term is too broad to be useful. This article will focus on cyberchurches—particular communities or sites where communication about Christian matters becomes focused and specific.

Cyberchurches have developed alongside the Internet. In the 1990s, websites of churches and other Christian institutions appeared, functioning simply as extensions of the institution they represented. But with the vast development of individual internet publishing—especially blogs—activity has shifted to individual users. Active cyberchurches are identified not by the grandeur of their web design but by the depth of community involvement they enable. This is similar to physical churches. An active physical church is not identified by its grand architecture but by the depth of relationship that the members of that church have with God and each other.

It is no accident that cyberchurches have developed with the Internet. Fundamentally, the Internet is no different from any other community. It is an expression of our God-given, healthy craving for relationship, for ‘connectivity’.

However, it must be noted that with the Internet our communication is mediated through the actual technology and through the personas and avatars8 that users create online. This mediation has three characteristics: anonymity, speed and choice. On the Internet, users are in complete control of their identity. One can create an avatar, invent an alternative persona or concoct a testimony and no one will know if it’s really you. Fast access lowers initial commitment and enhances individual choice. Users can sample a site and, if they don’t like it, move on in a fraction of the time taken to visit a physical store, let alone sit through a whole church service. The Internet is the ultimate market, the ultimate consumer’s paradise.

Like most things, the anonymity, speed and choice that characterises internet-mediated community has both benefits and disadvantages. The fact that the Internet transcends physical limitations of space and time means that any person can have the whole world at their fingertips. People living in countries officially closed to Christianity may be able to freely interact online. Additionally, the Internet often lowers inhibitions: users may be more honest and inquisitive online than in person.9 On the other hand, it permits more extreme destructive behaviour as well. For example, www.churchoffools.com had to drastically limit users’ privileges following vulgar behaviour from a small number of disruptive users.10

Different kinds of cyberchurch communities

Different kinds of sites support different kinds of community. www.cyberchurch. co.uk mimics the functions of social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace. Once registered, users can connect with other people, chat and create interest groups—Bible studies, youth, music etc. This site probably supports a fairly stable community. Many users probably visit regularly, communicate frequently with their contacts and feel part of their sub-communities.

Other sites do not present themselves as focal points for Christian community, but provide resources to enhance that community. Christian blogs provide an insight into the joys and struggles of ordinary Christian life. www.godtube.com provides a Christian version of YouTube; www.theopedia.com is a Christian theological wiki. Some sites, for example www.christianity.net.au and www.challengingdavinci.com, are deliberately evangelistic. These sites usually have facilities for interaction— questions, comments, discussion boards etc. They periodically become the centre of a spontaneous community when something—a question, a post etc—sets off a frenzy of discussion. Posts and emails fly across the ether; chats are engaged, disengaged, re-engaged. The community itself morphs as participants log in and out. And then, as suddenly as it began, it is over, and the impromptu community dissolves.

Both the social networking sites and the resource sites permit users to actively initiate community. This ability is crucial for success on the Internet.11 It seems to be the way to experience genuine fellowship, through the medium of the Internet. The anonymity, fluidity and non-physicality of the Internet does not exclude Christian fellowship. But the nature of the Internet dictates the nature of that fellowship. To enable people to engage with God, and each other, in a deep and personal way, through the medium of the Internet, it seems vital to permit people the freedom to actively initiate that engagement their own way.

The sites mentioned so far do not mimic our traditional ways of ‘doing church’. They conduct activities that surround and support existing physical church gatherings (ekklesia)—social connection, personal questioning, evangelism etc. However, there are many cyberchurches that deliberately imitate physical gatherings by holding services on the web12 and in Second Life.13 Users direct their avatars to participate in the service—sit, kneel, stand and even perform a ‘hallelujah’14—while the user sings along with the hymns, hears the sermon and donates electronically when the offertory comes around.

Cyberchurches of this kind probably have a stable core of regular ‘worshippers’. However, they have two major limitations. First, unlike the other two types of cyberchurches, these sites do not encourage users to exercise initiative in building meaningful communities. The user has control over their avatar but the avatar’s interactions are more playful than meaningful. Indeed, by mimicking a conventional church service, these sites encourage the passivity that chokes true internet-mediated fellowship.15

Second, while these sites mimic traditional church services, they lack the key ingredient that distinguishes conventional church services: their physicality. As humans, we are irreducibly physical. We crave not just community, but physical community. Personal attendance at a physical gathering provides that physical engagement with real people that the Internet can not: a handshake, a hug, sharing the sacraments, the whole-body act of communication that happens as you talk to someone face-to-face. This is the vital distinction between the true, but partial, fellowship that exists on the Internet, and the more complete fellowship we enjoy in each other’s presence.

I would argue that the first two types of cyberchurches, social network sites and the informative sites that facilitate ad-hoc interaction, generate deeper fellowship than the third type, church services on the Internet. This is because the first two types capitalise on the nature of relationships mediated through the Internet, while the third is neither here nor there: it lacks both the benefits of the Internet and the physicality of corporeal church. The first two types use the Internet more effectively to help people connect with God and each other in a deep, personal manner.

As noted above, these first two types of cyberchurch conduct activities that surround and support traditional church —social connection, personal questioning, evangelism etc. This sort of phenomenon led Christian pollster George Barna to predict that the cyberchurch (which he defined broadly to include all internetbased spiritual communication) will precipitate the wholesale demise of physical churches.16 But I doubt cyberchurches will replace physical churches. Online fellowship, while real, is less complete than physical fellowship.

Cyberchurches as the missionary engagement of the church with the Internet

What this phenomenon does indicate is that the first two types of cyberchurches are an excellent missionary engagement with the Internet. They are an expression of the active, outsider-focused nature of church. They provide ordinary Christians with various opportunities to share themselves—their lives, stories, hopes, fears, failures—with each other and an unbelieving world. Most cyberchurches were probably created by Christians who instinctively, through the promptings of the Holy Spirit, felt the need to claim this new communication medium of the Internet for Christ.

For this missionary engagement to remain the focus, cyberchurches must unashamedly be what they are: communities built around Christ and his gospel. They must not permit something else—dating, education, socialising, whatever—to replace Christ as the source and foundation of the community. Even if the communities maintain a form of orthodox belief and piety, if Christ is not central then it has lost its fellowship with God and ceased to be a cyberchurch.

If cyberchurches do maintain the centrality of Christ, they will testify to him. Even sites that are not deliberately evangelistic will testify. Because of the Christ-centred, Christ-like fellowship they enjoy, cyberchurches will all point to the supremacy of Christ in the lives of Christians interacting on the Internet. Cyberchurches are the church of God colonising netspace with the gospel of Christ. So carpe diem! Let us continue to populate the Internet with cyberchurches, let us keep Christ as the source and foundation of our fellowship, let us continue to testify to our saviour in this new, exciting world of the Internet.

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