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The Internet and How It Affects The Modern Christian Church

 

 

            When Gutenberg first invented the printing press, the Christian church had a new way to disseminate information. In the beginning, it wasn’t cheap and only a few churches could afford it. However, as the technology got better and more affordable, the church had a good way to put out the Word in a cheap way. Now the Church has to deal with another information technology: the Internet. The Internet, invented by the Department of Defense, has become a widely available information source. The church has the same issues with the Internet as it did with books when they first came out. For example, the issue of availability. Some churches, normally the richer ones, could afford the luxury of written media. At the time of the printing press, most were illiterate anyways in those areas. You could compare this to today. When the Internet first became available, only the rich could afford access. Now just about anyone can get online through libraries, universities and anywhere there is a modem and an Internet service provider.

 

            The purpose of this class was the issue of material culture and religion. I am going to discuss how the material, the Internet, has affected the Christian church. I am going to discuss issues regarding the relationship of the church to the modern media and how they are reacting to the Internet, focusing on the issue of community and how community has changed the church and how the church must change to reflect the community.

 

            Modern media techniques are a major threat to the print culture of the Christian church. One issue that the church has is that it tends to deal in obscure language, like Latin and Old English. For a generation that is used to television, these languages turn people off. Also, the churches want the media to conform to them, not the opposite. They demand that the media follow their rules. “We need to do, in our context, what the writers and translators of the Bible did in their contexts throughout history – to bring the religion into the communications systems of our culture.” Boomershine says. The current heads of the churches need to realize that they need to bring the way they communicate into the modern arena. This is becoming more prevalent; for example, about fifteen years ago the St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Tarpon Springs conducted services almost completely in Greek. As they began to lose membership, especially the younger membership who no longer spoke Greek in most cases, or didn’t identify with the high language of the Church, the church switched to one English service, one Greek service, then switched to mainly English services. Van Den Heuval states that while people around the world use the most modern technology, the churches communicate in the language of the “day before yesterday.” He says modern media techniques are a threat to the “word and print culture” that has been a large part of the church. He agrees that most churches have no idea they are so far behind.

 

 Van Den Heuval thinks that the churches need to be more flexible in dealing with the mass media. He says that the current churches want the media to “spread only the churches own views. That is stupid, because the media nowadays are much more influential than the church. We should serve the media rather than expect them to serve us.” He believes the church media should “pick up themes hardly treated in the secular ones.”

 

Van den Heuval sees the Internet as becoming a major tool for pastoralizing. However, he does not think that this should be a role relegated only to clergy, as he believes the laity knows best what they need. He feels that the church cannot be effective as a community leader until it knows fully what it’s people need and can deliver those needs. The same goes for the Internet service of a church. The church needs to make sure that their Internet offerings have what their people want to have. One of the primary necessities in building any website is that it have information people want. A site is not going to get any “hits” or visitors if it only places on it’s site what the church leaders want, and not what it’s peoples want.

           

The Internet offers great resources for the church. You can find many different facets of Christianity from the lives of the disciples to the sacraments of the church. You can also use scriptural search engines. Feeling depressed? Type in the word depression and you can get a whole list of scripture designed to help you. Or, if you want to remember a verse you heard a while ago involving righteousness, enter the word sword and you’ll get a plethora of entries. This can be a boon to the church, as it makes the word of God more accessible, but that is a mixed blessing. When you read any book, the sentence you read takes its context from the sentences around it.  Kellner states that “the ability to move around biblical texts at will and find references instantly may end up lessening our understanding” of the Scripture. He says these programs are unable to give these messages in context, which can have the same effect as only listening to one part of a conversation, especially the only part someone wanted to hear.

 

The Internet, as part of the new and more interactive media, has redefined the sense of Christian community. The community has shifted from denominational focus to a focus on the issues. Local congregations and special interests are replacing national church bureaucracies as the major force in community. Instead of denominational ties, the dividing lines are now the role of women, gay rights and abortion. (Shopping 117)

 

“We don’t have a lot of time to fiddle around with whether we’re in this denomination or that one,” says Fox. “I challenge you to find any twenty-year-old who can tell the difference between a Presbyterian, a Lutheran, a Methodist, an Episcopalian, and a Roman Catholic. And who cares?” Fox is a minister who criticizes the church for its emphasis on redemption and original sin. He now calls himself a “post denominational priest.” (SHOPPING, 25)

                       

How does Christianity define community now, when the lines are so blurry? Do you still define community as the church, it’s physical location and actual people inside the church and their activities? Or do you begin to have a new definition of community that grows and changes to involve people from all over the world in a chat room, or the patrons of a website?

 

“Can we have real community without real location and authentic relationships? We seem to be using the concept of community too loosely and superficially,” says Schultze, but he is not willing to give up completely on the subject of community through cyberspace. Kellner agrees. He says the “incarnational nature” of Christianity is not honored when we can remain connected to people around the world, but neglect our physical surroundings like our family and church. It is important that the physical community still be a major part of the Christian movement or it’s fragmentation and loss of members might increase.

 

Another threat to the community that the internet brings it that as the doctrines of the church become more unimportant to people, as the secular religion becomes more important, the experimental elements of religion will become more prevalent. (Shopping)

The “pick and choose” approach to faith will continue in the coming century, as well as the desire to “take what is wonderful and good.” (Shopping) People in the modern day, in the age of political correctness, don’t want to hear anything they think is negative.

 

 

New technology will forge direct links between believers and religious groups, thus bypassing denominations and bypassing geography. (Shopping, 113) It is easier to do this due to the ease of creating a website. An unofficial group from a church can now put out information as easily as the church home. A Catholic sect can put out a website as easy as the Vatican. Free sites like Homestead and Geocities offer easy and free ways to get started in putting out theology on the Internet. You can also set up virtual communities, bulletin boards where doctrine, news and information can be disseminated and received, all without ever seeing a parishioner or leaving your easy chair. It also makes the faith more accessible to others, where they can get easy and often free information.

One case where this didn’t quite work as it was planned: the controversial Church of Scientology, founded by science fiction author L. Ron. Hubbard. They started an electronic bulletin board system, or BBS, namely alt.religion.scientology designed to introduce people to the basic teachings of the Church. However, the BBS became full of not messages from seekers, but views of the critics of the Church. These criticisms took over the BBS. This BBS does still exist, and criticisms still far outweigh support on the site.

 

The church needs to define what it is going to be in the new century and the new media. Are they going to sit back and let the community get away from them, or are they going to embrace the new definition of community and bring it’s membership into the new era? The internet has millions of possibilities for the church if the church is willing to embrace them.


 

Bibliography

 

 

Cimino, Richard and Lattin, Don. Shopping for Faith: American Religion in the New Millenium. C. 1998 Jossey-Bass Publishers. California.

Kellner, Mark A. Losing our Souls in Cyberspace. Christianity Today. V. 41, p 54 –5

Wired Religion. The Christian Century. V. 114  p. 1183

Gutenberg Church, Internet World. The Christian Century. V. 117 p. 173-4

Schulze, Quentin J. Lost in the Digital Cosmos, The Christian Century V 117 p 178 - 83

 

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