This blog post will involve a change of tack from my previous, much more analytically driven posts (here, here, here, and here), and will be somewhat more reliant on the anecdotal – though I do think it has an internal logic and should be investigated in an empirical fashion.
I’ve made comments before about the downsides of social media, recognising that it can be a useful tool whilst also severely inhibiting genuine communal existence and encouraging self-promotion and self-obsession. I would like to turn my attention to the internet more broadly speaking, particularly as it relates to Christianity.
Simply put, I believe that Christian communities have a responsibility to be active, to some degree or another, with online outreach. The internet is stereotyped to be (with good reason), a rather atheistic and amoral (dare I say, immoral?), place. I offer two data points here – a correlation between the rise of the internet and the rise in atheism in the US since the 90’s (though not totally explanatory of the rise in Atheism), and the prevalence of the usage of pornography online (https://www.webroot.c om/au/en/resources/tips-articles/internet-pornography-by-the-numbers). The point that I am making here is that the internet is a veritable wild-west of good, bad and ugly. It has become the battlefield of communication and information distribution of our time. It is now the marketplace of ideas, and we have been losing the battle for a long time, largely due to the fact that we have not known how to use it.
I think there is, however, a rising glimmer of hope. The Catholic Church has an official online outreach ministry entitled Word on Fire, spearheaded by Bishop Robert Barron, auxillary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. It started as a YouTube channel tackling the claims of the New Atheist movement and providing commentary on movies and other cultural phenomena. The content is incredibly informative and engaging; it provides meaty content which doesn’t infantilise people in an era of individuals crying out for purposes and meaning. The channel now has a worldwide audience of over 200,000 people (https://www.youtube.com/user/wordonfirevideo), which admittedly is rather small when we are talking in terms of global or even YouTube subscriptions, but it’s not insignificant. Speaking anecdotally, in Eastern Orthodoxy there appears to be a phenomenon where we have a lot of inquirers and converts who come to the Orthodox faith through the internet (I consider myself to be one of them). Due to the unprecedented level of access to ancient Christian texts and to online communities which discuss faith (amongst many other factors), a lot of people have become interested in, if not found, God through Google.
Buying into the space of virtual relationships has its downside. The face-to-face nature of faith communities means we have contact with people who need not be tolerated in an online, social media relationship. In the virtual world the idea of having to deal with an annoying or troublesome person – as we might at church – is a disturbing anomaly to be removed rather than a reality to be dealt with, often through self-sacrifice. Moreover, virtual relationships cannot adequately induct people into living as Anglicans, or as Catholics, or as Orthodox Christians. However, these are not insurmountable problems.
I am not advocating for the widespread use of digital technologies in everything the church does. The Church is not meant to be an exact copy of the world. The Church has different priorities and ways of being, particularly in its worship. However, the internet is a mission field, particularly to access young people. Churches need to invest in an online presence to meet people where they are at, and bring them into the fullness of truth. If we truly believe the great commission, we must go to the far reaches and corners of the digital globe with the light of the gospel, inviting all to come and see Christ.