The State of Faith-Based Online Communities

I am meandering through English countryside on a wifi-equipped train, hoping to arrive in Edinburgh where the rest of my family waits at a caravan park.

The Cyberchurch Symposium went really well yesterday but it might have been a bit grueling for the Americans who had flown in that morning or the night before. Especially the long walk along the London riverside.

Some observations on the state of faith-based online communities, in particular those cyberchurch types that meet regularly in mediated, virtual, synthetic environments or 3D game-based platforms:

1. As it was 60 years ago, when radio was the new media opening up new possibilities for virtual church, the Americans remain focused on the evangelistic potential of the new media and the Brits are focused on the pastoral potential. Americans want to reach the lost and Brits want to shepherd their extended flock. A generality, perhaps, but its seems to fit.

2. There is, at least among the participants yesterday and other conferences I have been a part of, a wonderful, generous spirit of self-giving and serving that pervades these new efforts as well as a complete lack of competition. I wish it were the same with physical location churches.

3. The cyberchurch experiments are still somewhat experimental, still taking baby steps, still learning, still shy to publish their findings and best practices. Some books coming out this year will put some of these experiments on the map but that does not mean that they have all the answers.

4. People are people, whether off-line or on-line. Whatever problematic issues a bricks-and-mortar church have will not be immune from their online recapitulations.

5. Because people are people, those who prefer a high-church experience will end up creating high-church liturgical icon-rich services on the web. And those low-church people who have preferred the more organic, house church or 3rd space emerging church environments in the physical realm will most likely end up in non-service based web communities that are just as complex and simplex as their physical rivals.

6. Offline church people connect with each other through internet technology during the week as part of their church life. Online church people connect with each other (although sometimes little or never due to geographical distance) physically when possible to complete their church life experience. Both groups are online and offline. That line will get fuzzier as web technologies become more ubiquitous.

7. Its an exciting time to be alive. Thanks God for letting me be a part of it.

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Andrew

Andrew Jones has been blogging since 1997. He is based in San Francisco with his two daughters but also travels the globe to find compelling stories of early stage entrepreneurs changing their world. Sometimes he talks in the third person. Sometimes he even talks to himself and has been heard uttering the name “Precious” :-)

14 Comments

  • Interesting reflections – I wonder if the evangelistic focus of Americans is why christianity is so ubiquitous in the US, but so shallow…and the pastoral emphasis in the UK is why christianity is a fading minority, but has some depth….

  • Good question Heather. I wonder the same thing.
    Andrew, thanks for sharing about this event. It is interesting to see what God is doing. In a very real way some people who may never grace the inside of the church may do so virtually, and Christians who are hoping for a deeper spiritual formation than there local community offers may find some of what they need there.

  • Thanks for your encouragement. And regarding USA vs UK, and despite common knowledge, church attendance in physical church is DEcreasing in USA but INcreasing in UK so I dont think the Americans should be so smug about Christianity in the UK or Europe just yet.

  • Andrew – often you find smugness as a cover-up for fear. My prayer is that folks will look to see why church attendance is increasing in the UK and Europe (hence a main reason for my trip). My hunch is we need to shift the focus somewhat to “spreading the Good News” to living out the Greatest Commandment.
    A lot of these numbers do appear to be inflated – I suck at math but often you’ll find that the number of Christians overall remained constant (or fell) but what happened is they got bored with shiny happy church and went to play with their postmodern play-toy but now they’re getting antsy …

  • It was great to attend the symposium, though the walking part of it was a bit challenging to someone with a dodgy leg… I’m not sure I agree about the UK/US divide, the main divide to me seemed to be people who are using an online presence as a way of creating offline plants and those who are seeking to be church online. Lots of examples of both nowadays.
    Of those who are working to be church online, some (like i-church, of which I am part) are moving towards looking at what contextualisation means in terms of online ministry, others are looking at recreating a recognisable ‘church’ online.
    Some are working on an attractional model – if we build it, they will come – which worked spectacularly well for the Church of Fools 3D environment (2004), with the help of expert PR – in fact so well that it overwhelmed the technical and human resources available to deal with the demand.
    Others are working on a more missional model – go make disciples – which is not based necessarily around having a website with the latest bells and whistles to attract people but is more concernde with forming a missional community and working where people are – twitter, facebook etc.
    Exciting times indeed and many thanks to Andrew for facilitating.

  • I don’t think “Christianity is a fading minority” in the US, as Heather said. Rather, I believe the tares are leaving their congregations because their pastor-teacher stopped tickling their ears, and they decided to have them tickled elsewhere more to their liking, online!

  • Well, at least when a false teacher tickles ears on the blogosphere, there are witnesses who can easily post their disagreement and let the wider (and global) church check the sources and see if these things are so. Most ear tickling false teachers I have come across normally avoid the accountability of the online world, or they do not allow feedback if they do, and instead they keep their teaching in a small room with their followers who are rarely able to respond publicly to what they teach.
    Pam – it was great to have you for the walking tour of London and the drinks. What a TROOPER you are and thanks for finding Doug.
    Your co-horts did a great job of presenting the i-church ministry after our dinner. I think if you would have been there for the dinner and the presentation/discussion/QandA/prayer at the end, then you might have also agreed with me on the USA/UK distinction, or at least heard the things that led me to make that distinction. Every blessing on i-church and your ministry.

  • Well sadly that wasn’t possible due to trains and a Sunday morning commitment. Maybe next time.
    I find it interesting that we are thinking in terms of national characteristics on websites anyway! i-church is unusual in having a geographical and denominational identity – C of E, Diocese of Oxford – so you could say it would be ‘typically English’ but even so we have members from all over the place.
    My own theory is that cyber space has been superceded as a metaphor for ‘where’ we do things on the Internet – indeed the Internet as a ‘place’ doesn’t work any more, and that would make sense in terms of groups having national characteristics related to the geographical location of the group who run it. But what about something like Anglican Cathedral of Second Life? Attractional and pastoral with a team based all over the world and a very strong sense of ‘place’ in its online existence. Is it more to do with the model of ‘place’ that is being used rather than the geographical place in which the founders are located?
    After all there’s a big Lifechurch.tv contingent in the UK isn’t there? Are they working to an American or a British model?

  • Andrew,
    Thanks for this post and for your reflections. I would love to hear you reflect further on #1 sometime. (Not arguing at all. This observation is new to me and I am thinking about it.)
    I am wondering why even 60 years ago the focus of Americans toward the new media was more evangelistic while the focus of the Brits was pastoral. Now, as you observe, this continues to be true.
    I would enjoy hearing you reflect more about this sometime. Why is this true? What are the implications of this for either Americans or Brits?
    (You may have already talked about this at some point. Excuse me if you have. Thanks)

  • hi jim. i havent talked about it before and i havent given it much thought yet. just an observation. let me know if you come up with some answers.

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