Saturday, January 10, 2009

How the Internet is (Can Be) Changing the Way We Do Church

In an article for the Alban Institute, Andrea Unseem examines the latest Internet innovations and how they are changing the landscape of religion and congregational life today. (Click here for full article.)

The article came to mind following some events this week:
  • A friend reminded me that most congregations continue to plan communications based on a written culture when we are in a digital age.
  • A church worker in my local circuit sent me an email about a blog post I had told the circuit about. “Thanks. I didn’t know how to comment online. It’s the first time I’ve been on a blog.”
  • As a consultant with congregations in stewardship and mission, I find some leaders (mostly younger ones) want everything online and in electronic format, while others (mostly older ones) still want hard copies and printed manuals.
  • Some of the young people who do a great job on congregational web sites express frustration that they can’t seem to move the congregation beyond Web 1.0 (information sharing) to Web 2.0 (social networking).
Unseem says that experiences like this are part of a culture clash in which congregations are having debates—Should we be online? Do social networking sites have anything to offer?—that individuals in the wider society have already resolved.

The essential challenge for congregations is this: In a digital world where community is possible online, what is the relevance of a brick-and-mortar congregation? The Internet’s success springs from a powerful longing for community—the very same force that drives congregations.
... The good news here, says Heidi Campbell (Texas A&M), is that congregational life and online life are not competing in a zero-sum game. If people go online to connect with other believers or deepen their faith, this activity does not mean a net loss for the congregation that those individuals might have turned to had the Internet not been available.

A friend, who is pastor of a mission-focused church in our district, recently wrote, “I’m fascinated with the thought of the church becoming a hub of spiritual transformation that builds networks of vibrant Christian community in our neighborhoods. I like the wonderful contrast between the old picture of the “net-work” the disciples left to follow Jesus and the new concept of network. The Verizon commercials about one being connected to the many could be the new picture of the church. I see Gospel in those commercials.” What Unseem and Campbell are saying is that this new network can take many forms that now reach beyond the brick and mortar barriers of our old concept of the church.

... “People are looking for relationships,” says Campbell. “They’re looking for places where they can care about people and feel cared for. They want a sense of connection, and not just on a Sunday. They want a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week connection to other people. They want an intimate community where they can be transparent with others and others can be transparent with them.”

The article is a thoughtful reflection, and goes on to explore some practical ways to make it work in your congregation; read the article in its entirety.


Freestyle Theologian said...

We as the church are always falling behind society in culture and technology. By the time we realize God incarnates into all culture, and we catch up, society has moved on. Thanks for the post.

Art Scherer said...

Thanks. One of the things we are exploring now is how God might "incarnate" himself into the virtual worlds such as Second Life. If you or others have experience with creating virtual Christian communities, let me know.