It's convenient, but is doing church online really a valid replacement for the real thing?
"I've stopped going to church."
The statement took me by surprise; especially since it came from a friend who had been a longtime member of his local congregation. It had been years since we talked and my curiosity was piqued. As he described his new churchless existence, I wondered what was behind his drastic decision. Was he just being lazy? Or was he losing his faith?
According to him, it was neither. He was still a Christian, he assured me. But he had traded church for a different spiritual experience, one that came from a combination of books, Bible studies on CD, and mostly, the Internet.
At first I found it tough to argue with his new mode of spirituality. As he pointed out, going it alone had some major advantages to the conventional Sunday service. His pastor's sermons had always been a little short on substance. But now he had his choice of the best pod casting preachers in the world! Then there were all the problems at church: hypocrisy, infighting, gossip — you name it. Online, he could avoid all the flaws and foibles of church life. And of course there was the convenience that the Internet affords. He was able to read devotionals, listen to speakers and sing along to the best praise music at any time, all in coziness of his own bedroom. With all that at your fingertips, why struggle out of bed early every Sunday?
Though I was concerned by his choice, I was hardly in a position to point the finger. After moving to a new city, I hadn't exactly been Mr. Consistent when it came to church either. Wearied by the search for a new congregation, I ended up slapping the snooze on more than one Sunday morning. During the week, if someone asked where I had gone I'd smile sheepishly and reply, "Bedside Baptist."
Like my friend I was supplementing my sporadic church attendance with an increased diet of online resources. Yet unlike him, I didn't feel liberated. I was craving the unique fellowship of God's people that no podcast or webzine could provide. My friend seemed happy. But was he right to forego church?
A recent study by the Barna Research Group shows that he is not alone. An increasing number of Americans are getting their spirituality online. Right now "godcasting" (religious and spiritually themed podcasts) and Christian "vidcasts" are the hottest tools on the net. The study found that 8 percent of adults and 12 percent of teenagers "use the Internet for religious or spiritual experiences." Though only a small percentage currently report using the Internet as a replacement for church, that number is rising dramatically. The future forecast is startling: Barna projects that within a decade some 50 million people could rely on the internet as their sole source of faith experience.
George Barna concludes, "By the end of the decade we will have in excess of ten percent of our population who rely upon the Internet for their entire spiritual experience. Some of them will be individuals who have not had a connection with a faith community, but millions of others will be people who drop out of the physical church in favor of the cyberchurch." This "cyberchurch" phenomenon will have the greatest impact on people under 35 — a group that the study reported was more likely than others to seek spiritual fulfillment on the web.
In a way this trend is heartening. Since the advent of the Internet, we live in a world where everything is just a mouse click away — and many of the things are destructive. For all the Internet offers, pornography and gambling sites still tend to get the most traffic. But a florescence of online spirituality could reverse that pattern, making the Internet a place to find God, rather than gratify base desires.
And for Christians the outreach potential is unlimited. Indeed many churches, particularly those who minister to a younger demographic, have brought seekers through their doors through savvy use of the web. Christian content online can also complement what goes on on Sunday morning by providing believers with inspiration and encouragement throughout the week. Hey, right now you're taking advantage of one of the best Christian resources on the worldwide web — Boundless.org!
But still, when my friend told me he was using online tools to the exclusion of attending church my gut level reaction was one of sadness. And I think I know why. There's nothing wrong with enriching your spiritual life online. However, when such resources take the place of going to church, there's a problem.
Actually, I can think of three.
First, cyberchurch threatens community. Yes, God uses computers as well as sanctuaries, but He also works in our lives through our relationship with others — and it is tough to foster meaningful relationships via fiber optics or wireless connections alone. Every generation faces new challenges to living out the gospel. In our time some of those challenges have come in the form of technologies that promise to bring us closer while actually demonstrating a tendency to drive us apart. The Internet can be a tool for great good, but when it disrupts Christian community it strikes at the very core of what we're about. Ours is an intimate and ancient faith, one birthed in community and carried to the world by sandaled feet. Meeting regularly isn't about honoring a church building or dull tradition; it is integral to our identity as the people of God.
OK, "community" is kind of a buzz word these days, so that might be an easy point to accept. But my second reason for rejecting an exclusively online spirituality hinges on a word that's much less popular: commitment. For westerners cyberchurch serves up an intoxicating elixir of individualism and autonomy. Part of my friend's attraction to doing church online was that he was in control. He could sidestep the inevitable messiness of interacting with fallible people. And he didn't have to deal with anyone critiquing him. Instead he was free to anonymously peruse whatever expressions of faith suited his fancy. And he was accountable to no one. There was no commitment, no one to question him, to pull him up short and confront him when he erred. But in avoiding these aspects of church life, he was missing out on some of the most important parts of being a Christian.
Living the Christian life is hard. Paul wasn't kidding when he chided first-century believers for their habit of "forsaking the assembling of ourselves together" (Hebrews 10:25). He knew that they needed accountability and connections if they were going to remain faithful to Christ. cyberchurching ignores such imperatives, opting for a cowboy Christianity, instead of embracing the biblical model of personal humility and interdependence.
A third reason for attending church involves our witness to the outside world. The church provides a haven for the increasing number of lonely people in our society. We have a responsibility to show them the love and closeness that can exist among the followers of Christ. In a restless and fragmented age, dominated by the ubiquitous presence of impersonal technology, we are called to be the proprietors of human warmth and divine rest. We must show the world that there truly is a last bastion of fellowship, a place where people still find God's love in each other's lives. And you can't download that.
Copyright 2006 Drew Dyck. All rights reserved.