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Linking to Cyberchurch

(Warning: tech speak ahead)

If you have engaged in the Internet through the reading of religious blogs, downloading church podcasts, watching videos or chatting online with Christian friends—chances are, you’ve participated in cyberchurch. Cyberchurch is one of the fastest growing macro-models of church today. So says George Barna in his book, Revolution, which describes cyberchurch as “the range of spiritual experiences delivered through the Internet.” There’s no doubt that the church has grown through the media of the Internet—but what’s in store for the church on the web in the future?

Will it be a simple upgrade of the same cheesy graphics, spinning GIFs, heavy flash intros and online tithing options that we experienced in the nineties? Or will the church online take on a new identity and shape, sharing life in fresh genres that are native to the Internet?

Wired Mag’s Kevin Kelly recently said, “Any hope of discerning the state of the Web in 2015 requires that we own up to how wrong we were 10 years ago.” Perhaps the first step in understanding what the cyberchurch is and what it might be in a decade is to look back to 1995 and see how wrong we were.

Cyberchurch is People, not Institutions.

Early forms of cyberchurch were websites made by institutions. Today, the cyberchurch is formed by people linking to people to create new clusters around issues, key words, common interest and strategic mission. It is aggregation more than congregation. The blogosphere is a good example, a collection of 50 million personal web logs that chronicle the lives and stories of human beings vulnerable enough to share. The interlinking and interweaving of these blogs maps out social networks in a way previously invisible and conjures up images of Chardin’s ‘mind layer.’ Tim Bednar, pastor of E-Church, sums it up well when he says, “I participate with bloggers who collectively link the cyberchurch into existence.” In other words—people, not institutions, make the cyberchurch work.

Cyberchurch is not a Department Store for Consumers.

Cyberchurch exists by participants offering their gifts rather than spiritual consumers downloading devotional goodies for their quiet times. It’s not just a place to get stuff from. It’s a place to put stuff in. It is a depository more than a department store. The Internet has provided a place to leave gifts for all who would find them useful and to pass on stories for all who are interested.

Cyberspace is a world of post-post-literacy, a renaissance of writing—says Douglas Rushkoff—in which readers become writers and consumers become co-creators and Generation Next becomes Generation Text. And as others link to our stories, gifts, memes and lives, the cyberchurch grows in size and visibility.

Cyberchurch is neither democratic nor non-hierarchical.

Cyberchurch, as was predicted, saw power flow to the margins, to the “others” in society who did not have a voice in the previous hierarchies. But once those people find their voice and gain their congregation, the flow of power stays with them rather than flows out in equal measure.

Cyberchurch is not a centralised network but neither is it a distributed network that hands out power equally. There are hubs that attract more links than others, which enable these clusters of nodes to grow exponentially large and influential. And yes, there will be megachurches in cyberspace.

Cyberchurch does not replace the physical and it does a poor job reproducing it.

Most new forms of media mimic the previous until they find their own feet. Email was like sending letters, early blogs were like essays in a magazine and cyberchurch web sites had pictures of physical churches.

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Patrick Dixon, in his remarkably prophetic book, Cyberchurch, described it as an “electronically linked group of believers, aiming to reproduce in cyberspace some aspects of conventional life.” He was right about the first part. The hypertext link is the building block for the new online communities. But the cyberchurch is not “aiming to reproduce” what could be done better in the physical world.

But much of what we see in the cyberchurch today is native to the Internet. RSS feeds, P2P file transfers, grid blogging, communal blogging, sending money with a click of the mouse, data mining, conversations inside blog comments that are permanently filed and immediately available for anyone to access.

Andrew Careaga hoped that “the church will seize the power of the Net to supplement flesh-and-blood ministries.” What he hoped for has already happened. Physical ministries have shaped the spirituality of the Internet. But something else is happening—aggregations of believers formed on the Internet are shaping the traditional churches in the physical world.

Last week I baptised three of my daughters. We used real water and a real location. Using the virtual spa in my virtual online web space would have been easier and warmer, but some things cannot be replaced by the virtual. Christmas dinner, for example, and baptism—just don’t work on the web.

How do you build a cathedral? My German friend Hans-Peter Pache knows the answer. You plant an oak grove, he says. In a hundred years, you have enough wood to build your cathedral.

The cyberchurch has been growing for over a decade, and like those young trees, its infantile frames and awkward efforts will find new definition before it reaches maturity. It is already behaving differently from the baby steps of the mid nineties and will no doubt change again. But it is growing, and it will continue to grow. Step by step. Link by link.

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