‘It’s church Jim, but not as we know it’
Laugh, loath or love it. The web church is here to stay. What’s more, it is making an impact and people are becoming Christians. Here, Jim Currin from the Churches Coordinating Group for Evangelisation, tries to make some assessment after a recent meeting was held of some key players who host ‘web church’ sites and other experienced practitioners of online Christianity. The meeting was hosted by Rachel Jordan at Church House Westminster.
‘Lynda’ has been cited in the press and online as being a success story. St Pixels is one of the web churches which is now firmly established on the internet. Lynda joined the online community. A Mormon by background Lynda asked questions in the discussion area and a non judgemental conversation continued. It led to her discovering a new faith in Christ and she now leads virtual worship on the St Pixels site.
This was one story relayed in the recent meeting of the web church hosts, but they were not triumphalistic. Indeed one said ‘I bear the battle scars’ of managing a web church’, relating to various experiences, one of which was when someone wanted to post pornographic links and insisted, ‘it is a free society’. Others spoke of critical Christians who had 'caused such a commotion' that discussion boards had to be taken down and reconstructed. Another host of a virtual church spoke of the enquiry called for when decisions had been made by the administrators without consulting the online community. He said, ‘it sounds just like offline church doesn’t it?’
So, it is clear that virtual Christian communities have been established, but are they worth the effort? Certainly the hosts who met together displayed continuing enthusiasm and commitment for the ministry they offer, nearly all in a voluntary capacity, and consuming many hours of commitment. Several said they felt a call and a vocation to reach out in this way, and though often understood, they were happy to help people on their spiritual path.
Apparently, the first web churches did not set out to be 'web churches' at all. They wanted to explore spirituality on the internet and found people wanted to come together in community. One of the first anticipated 30/40 people joining a discussion group, but 1000 soon became involved. Most projects started out as one thing and became another, which was observed as a 'hall mark of both the internet and of a community'.
In one sense ‘nearly everyone belongs to a virtual community’ as most have access and use the internet in the UK. It is used for information and social networks which are two key aspects of church and community. If the web helps people to pray and read the Bible, how can it not be seen as a means by which church can be created? ‘It depends what you mean by church?’ of course, but that question has been with us for many generations and comes up in many other conversations so is not just a question for the web church.
The 80th anniversary of the BBC Daily Service shows that virtual communities are not new. For many of the older generation, the daily broadcast on the radio is church, especially for the infirm and remote who cannot get to a building on Sunday. In the same way, and not exclusively for a younger generation, the internet provides another means of achieving the same sense of ‘church, but not as we know it’.
The BBC welcomes visitors to sit in on the live recordings of the Daily Service and have organised visits to the Holy Land. In the same way, web churches have now started to have ‘real’ gatherings for worship, and individuals are meeting up in real life for fellowship. There has yet to be a Baptism or Wedding online, but no doubt that will happen sometime! This possibility raises important questions discussed in the forum, ‘what actually happens online and how real it is offline’. These are interesting questions which have yet to be fully explored.
One of the common questions about church is how the sacraments are administered, especially as Holy Communion is for many the distinctive sign of being a church. It was a surprise to some present in the consultation to hear that bread and wine have been sent in the post so the virtual congregation can partake. This adds new meaning to the ‘Holy Mysteries’ and one which requires the further reflection which many are considering on and offline.
In terms of thinking theology and being community, as well as prayer and Bible reading (even the singing of hymns which takes place online) it is clear to me that the web churches are churches. Indeed they are surprisingly 'old style' churches and they need liturgy in order to happen. From what I heard at the consultation people pray, study and support each other. I can go along with people who call it ‘their church’, even if it is not mine.
Now, the natural outworking of any church which has life and witness, is the call and commission of every Christian to evangelise. So, how does that happen on the internet, and how effective is it?
It was evident in the consultation that many web churches consider themselves to be about outreach. When St Pixels did some research among their members, they found that all of them agreed in principle. However they did not agree about style. What members found difficult were the old methods of evangelism which told people what to do and believe. If that is what is meant by evangelism then they resisted the concept that they are an evangelising community.
The ‘Church on the Net’ however, was set up specifically for people who do not go to church and it does aim to introduce people to Alpha courses and other offline ways in which people can consider Christ and join ‘real church’. The intention is evangelistic. The hosts are from a local Anglican church and the 'Church on the Net' is seen as part of their mission work. They are happy to consider more traditional methods of evangelism and see 'Church on the Net' as an extension of that ministry.
At this point it has to be said that many people who join web churches are ‘hacked off’ or ‘had bad experience’ of church as we have known it for many years. Anonymity is an advantage here! This is also the case for people who find going to church difficult for a wide variety of reasons. Unusual examples have been cited of people being disfigured with illness and don’t want to be seen. However, the vast majority of people visit a web church, it seems, simply because it is convenient, always open, interesting and enlivening to their faith. Some members have been attending online, for quite a long time.
So how does God operate on the internet? This was a recurring question in the consultation and I couldn’t help but think that He operates in the same way as he does everywhere else. From the work done so far it seems that ‘discipleship’ rather than ‘evangelisation’ seems to be the core activity. However, in the complexity of life, even seen in the Gospels and disciples who first followed Jesus, we see an interaction that cannot always be separated.
A ‘Virtual Vicar’ present at the consultation spoke of the hours she spends helping one group in the i-church congregation explore vocation, while a Youth Coordinator spoke of the ‘Urban Saints’ tour to help young people discern the dangers of the internet. The possible introduction of SKYPE was discussed and how to reach the millions on Second Life, Facebook and other social networks that some Christians feel the call and concern to belong to, as evangelists.
It might not be ‘church’ or ‘evangelisation’ as we know it, but clearly people are being changed and drawing closer to Christ. The numbers may not be great, but how is that different to the 'real' church too? Is it worth the effort? 'Yes' as everything we try to do as Christians to extend the Kingdom and bring the Good News of Jesus to a new and old audience is worthwhile. It depends how we do it. ReJesus is a brilliant example and one which often comes top of a Google search for Jesus. This shows that vast numbers of people are interested in Christ. What we have to do, is point people to Him.
‘Is it effective evangelisation’? We have always been called in to the unknown and take risks. The virtual world is here and inhabited by millions of people and of all ages. We have not seen revival yet, but disciples are being made so it is more than a good start. I think Mark Howe’s Grove Book called: ‘Online Church? First Steps towards Virtual Incarnation’ is a good description of where we have reached in the virtual mission task so far.
Jim Currin, Advent 2008
Churches Together in England Group for Evangelisation.
Links to visit;
Grove Books for the Mark Howe book.
St Pixels, Church on the Net, and i-church are web churches mentioned
REJesus is the website serving Churches in Britain and Ireland