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Will the Internet Kill Christianity?

Some Christian leaders think the web is harming the faith. Are they right?

The United States has seemed oddly immune to the huge growth of religious skepticism over the last half-century. That perception changed two years ago when an American Religious Identification Survey noted the number of Americans who profess Christianity fell sharply from 85 percent in 1990 to 76 percent in 2009. Perhaps even more surprising was the surge in those who claimed no religion: The number nearly doubled from 8 percent in 1990 to 15 percent in 2009. In his April 2009 Newsweek article, “The End of Christian America,” Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jon Meacham suggested America had begun its encounter with an “old term with new urgency: post-Christian.”

“What has changed everything?” Christian apologist Josh McDowell asked his audience on July 15 at the Billy Graham Center in Asheville, N.C. His talk, titled “Unshakeable Truth, Relevant Faith,” had detailed a certain uncomfortable fact in anticipation of the question: that young Christians in America are rejecting Christian fundamentalism—and doctrinaire concepts such as absolute truth and biblical infallibility—in droves. Why is faith in God being supplanted, earlier and earlier, by relativism, secularism and skepticism? McDowell’s answer was simple: the Internet.

Of course, his response touched off an immediate flurry of online activity—much of it from skeptics. “Does he or does he not think Christianity can win in the marketplace of ideas?” one atheist blogger asked. “Either you can handle the arguments or you can't. You're just whinning [sic] because you can't.” The highest-rated responses to the story at The Christian Post, among the first outlets to pick it up, joined the gasconade:

“Christianity does poorly when it doesn't control the entire message and allows people a free exchange of thought? What a freaking shock.”

“My prediction: look for theists to start withdrawing into Internet-free communes.”

Can the explosive growth of irreligion—that amorphous term comprising deism, agnosticism and atheism as well as relative neologisms like antitheism and ignosticism—really be linked to the Internet? Some atheists on the web seem to think so. A question in the forums for The Friendly Atheist, a popular blog among non-theists, asked whether ex-theists would have shed their religion if the Internet didn’t exist. Many felt they wouldn’t. A post on Unreasonable Faith (ostensibly a counter to Christian philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig’s book and online community dubbed Reasonable Faith) surmised that the Internet was crucial to the success of the “New Atheists.”

While Christianity enjoys a robust online presence, the edge still seems to belong to its unbelievers. ChristianForums.com, online since 1998, boasts a quarter-million members. But with an Alexa ranking of almost 12,000 in the U.S. and only 68,000 unique page views per month, it lags behind the most popular forums for the irreligious. The web’s largest atheist forum is a subcommunity of the social media site Reddit, launched in 2005. Its Alexa traffic ranking puts it in the top 50 sites in the United States with 2 million unique visitors per month, many of those to its “Atheist” subcommunity of 154,000. The Christian “subreddit,” a devoted group comprised largely of recovering evangelicals with a zeitgeist-oriented view of Scripture, enjoys less than a tenth of the atheists’ readership.

Other mainstays of the influential web 2.0 communities driving the meme-generating social news scene add to the trend. From subversive offerings like Digg and 4chan to the juggernaut of YouTube, all are either predominantly or increasingly anti-religious. The distressing question we’re forced to ask is not, “What has changed everything?” but, “Why?”

A Free Space

The fact is, a relationship between irreligion and the Internet was bound to happen. Religion has long enjoyed a culturally accepted free space in which to share rhetoric—the Church. Atheism has suffered the exact opposite. America’s wariness of (or its outright antagonism toward, in its greatest excesses) irreligion has forced atheism to the fringes of its society. What the Internet has provided is a free space for atheists in this nation to connect with those across the globe whose cultural milieus are more inviting of all brands of irreligion; indeed, some in which secularism is a majority viewpoint.  

It is no wonder, therefore, that atheism is gaining steam in the U.S. Compared with the Internet, not to mention the secular nations of those with whom that space is shared, America is downright stifling. The political sway of the religious right seems somehow more maddening. The “we don’t belong!” rhetoric of American atheists becomes stronger, and it’s a message that today’s Christians buy into.

That’s because the free space in which they share rhetoric was never the Church to begin with. The Church belonged to their parents—the Internet belongs to them. The Internet may be helping to facilitate deconversion among evangelical youth, but it is not because of an “abundance of information” that challenges their faith. Rather, it is because the place where they spend much of their lives is where non-theists often control the discourse. It’s safe to say the majority of voices they encounter in web forums, news blogs and Facebook timelines will not echo those heard in their church foyer.

How will the Christian establishment respond? So far it’s employed much the same tactic it’s been using since the Jesus Movement: creating its own brand of popular culture instead of engaging pop culture at large. YouTube is too dangerous; try GodTube. Wikipedia is too liberal; use Conservapedia. Church remains the bubble in which rhetoric is exchanged; the bubble merely now extends to the web. The net result allows Christians to be “in the world but not of the world” and secularists to control the traffic flow on the largest thoroughfares of the information superhighway.

Sure, the reappropriation of secular pop culture resulted in a glut of success for evangelical Christianity between the '70s and '90s. For a brief period it made hit records, hip fashion, a few regrettable television shows and billions of dollars. Christian bookstores and radio stations were ubiquitous, offering family-friendly access to the latest trends, and the church was still the place where religion happened. But now that moment has passed, and the relative protection of its cultural landscape has been replaced by a more open, more liberal web-driven one. In terms of evangelism, the freedom provided by the web has made inroads in some of the least Christian corners of the globe, but its fast pace has left the American Christian—and her teenaged son—in its wake.

It is clear that Mondays and Wednesdays are no match for long evenings spent surfing the web. Yet the Internet itself, despite its breeding ground for relativism, is not the problem. For American Christianity to hold on to this generation, it will have to engage culture where it’s found and raise the level of discourse accordingly. A sense of ecumenism is crucial to foster the sense of inclusivity provided by the web.

Today’s Church is uniquely challenged to value its online presence as much as it values its physical building, serve its online community as much as it serves the local one. Ultimately the web has to become a place where—perhaps for the first time—disillusioned Christians can truly encounter Christ. 

153 Comments

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Chris J.T. commented…

The true fear, that I have seen in some of my peers and in some of the adults I have talked with, is that if Christianity, as a movement of religion, takes ground in secular culture then we risk being mis-portrayed and "contaminated". True Christianity is not a religion, it is a FAITH, the faith that raised people from the dead and still heals people. That faith never dies and is stronger than the power of death and the grave. Faith can't be "contaminated" and no one can make a good argument to say it is fake. Christian religion has denominations, which are all to some degree wrong because they were made by men. God didn't say, "Hey my children! Lets have like, IDK, 10 or more different versions of my love for you. Just stick to the basics of Jesus' sacrifice and you'll be fine." He said The Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule, everything Jesus said, and everything I spoke to you is true. If followers of Christ will stick to the basics of Christianity and let the Holy Spirit convict them of all other things (which will be smaller personal choices that can be taken on by others), we can actually be appealing to modern culture. I'm just a teen, but I think we can all do better, and I'm going to continue to do my best to be a leader now and in the future. God gave us guidelines as to how to live like Christ, He also gave us the Holy Spirit to guide us personally. Faith is what holds the underground church in China together. This is America, where we are free to speak and to believe publicly.

85,079

Chris J.T. commented…

This could be misread as saying that we have to be hermits, or stay distant from those unsaved. So just make sure you make clear what you mean by any verse you quote. In some cases "THE WORLD" is sinful nature. As long as we befriend the people who are being held down by sin then we are not befriending the world. If you compromise your faith by befriending them then yes stay at a distance, but still display your desire to love them as a person. Point is make your point more clear. :)

Jim van Ommen

5

Jim van Ommen commented…

Will the internet kill the Christian Faith?

Now ubiquitous, in current usage the term cyberspace according to Wikipedia stands for the global network of interdependent information technology infrastructures, telecommunications networks and computer processing systems in which online communication takes place…. Yes, quite a mouthful.
One wonders what to make of this information technology said to now be “ubiquitous” ,meaning everywhere at once, omnipresent?
I have only ever heard this word being used in connection with God Himself. One would almost think that God may have to move over a bit to make room for this “ competing” technology network.
In this computer age we increasingly hear about the misuse and abuse of the online computer communication system, as well as the hacking and computer fraud that is on the increase at an alarming rate. I don’t think that the inventors and manufacturers of the computers and software, promoters, subscribers, governments and other authorities had ever anticipated that this crime would be unstoppable like a run-away train.
As for its content and our exposure and that of our children to more than just the “facts of life” has been the concern of many cross sections of society and individuals over many years. Do we need to know all this? How will it affect the fabric of our society, our attitudes, our moral fiber, our values in the way we relate to each other and don’t relate to each other and our spirituality. Many books have been written about it and probably many more will be, but in essence I think we need to look at the internet, Cyber space communication as a tool. Tools may be made for good purposes, but as we all know they are frequently used for just the opposite. The choice is ours as to how we handle them. Admittedly the options are legion, and we are faced with information overload that can be very confusing and a trap for those who are easily lead.
However looking at the positive side of things the computer age has widened our horizons and also serves very good purposes in spite of the negativity I mentioned earlier. It is also providing us with a source of unbiased information where the better, more durable things in life are presented to us; the things that potentially give us purpose, direction, fulfillment and joy if we plug in on it.

Just look at the list of words below where you only need to type in one, two, or three words at the most and it will immediately display in what priority these words are linked with the most used words in cyber space.

Type in the word …”when”…the words most used on internet in connection with this word "when" is……. "When was Jesus born”
Do the same with…….”Surely”……and the net’s response to the word "Surely is ”goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life.”
“ Seek first”…… and the net’s response is…….“The Kingdom of God”.
“If we say”…… and the net’s response is……. “we have no sin we deceive ourselves”.
“Let him……and the net’s response is……” who has ears” .

And so it goes on, absolute gems , thousands of them. For each of the words in the first column there could be a myriad of secular responses, but that is not the reality we are confronted with.

This is a great indication that our God, who is not only ubiquitous but also omnipotent, omniscient and eternal , is at work and enabling His people to witness to the truth no matter what the medium might be.
As for the question;” Will the internet kill Christianity”? The answer would have to be an irrevocable no as Christ Himself is the Author and Perfector of our Faith. They have tried to kill Him before and failed and caused the Christian Faith to spread to all corners of the Earth.
Seek and you will find is true in more ways than one.
Praise the Lord for those who have been looking in the right places and by their positive usage of cyberspace have caused all these concepts and truths to be there for all to read.

Greetings
Jim van Ommen

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