I worked out with Rob Bell this morning. I try to do this at least a few times a week. Rob is the pastor at Mars Hill, a church of 10,000 people in Grand Rapids, Mich., and he always has something interesting to say. There I was, pounding away on the treadmill, sweat dripping down my face, listening to Rob go on about Jewish purity law and cleansing rituals and how Jesus went out of His way to trash them every chance He got.
I should clarify that Rob was not actually with me in the flesh. Actually, I was listening to a podcast of a sermon he delivered a few days ago. This is the kind of thing that happens in the age of the internet. Rob Bell preaches a sermon in Grand Rapids on Sunday. A couple days later, I am listening to it in a gym in Oakville, ON. For those who can remember a time when the switch from hymn books to the overhead projector was the hot topic in church leadership circles, it seems amazing. But in truth, this is just the beginning of the possibilities for interaction between the Church and technology.
It is no secret that the internet is changing how we think and relate to one another in the twenty-first century. Whether ordering a copy of the latest bestseller, buying tickets for an upcoming concert, or logging on to do some banking, the internet has become a part of everyday life for many North Americans. And now, the advent of so-called Web 2.0—a catch-all name referring to the trend towards increasingly collaborative sites with user-generated content—is changing the game again. Sites like Facebook, YouTube, and Wikipedia are taking off in popularity precisely because they involve the user as part of the action. Instead of going online to see what some slick web design firm has generated for me to see, I can post photos of the family reunion for those who couldn’t make it or add my two cents on a blog discussion about the latest political issue.
Presented with a culture that is being shaped by these new technologies at an unprecedented rate, churches have responded in a variety of ways. Some have been dismissive of the explosion of opportunities in the cyber-world, seeing them as a threat to real relationship and authentic community. Others have rushed headlong into the fray, seeking to leverage the new possibilities on the internet for the advancement of the Kingdom, as evidenced by copycat sites like GodTube and Conservapedia, which seek to provide Christian alternatives to popular mainstream sites. And a growing number of groups have begun to experiment with the idea of forming online communities, whether by creating discussion boards that church members can contribute to electronically or by establishing fully virtual churches with no physical meeting place.
Life Church (www.lifechurch.tv)—a multi-site church based out of Oklahoma with locations in six states—has recently launched a campus within the popular virtual 3-D world, Second Life. Second Life users, who create profiles for themselves and can move about the virtual world and experience everything from online casinos to personal conversations to real estate deals, can now attend a cyber-version of New Life Church, where they can listen to sermons, talk with a youth pastor, or browse the church bookstore.
So what are we to make of this proliferation of ways to experience Christianity online? Can someone really find God on the internet? Or does the Gospel lose something of its power when it is digitized and transmitted through high-speed DSL cables?
A historical perspective is helpful here. No one would accuse the Church of being on the cutting edge of technological innovation—not today or in the past. Nor has technology always been the evil force encroaching on the traditional way of doing things, a threat to all that is wholesome and relational and good. Rather, God has used technology in powerful ways to spread His message. Think of millions being able to tune in to Billy Graham Crusades through the magic of television. Or, to rewind a little further, think about the invention of the printing press and what it meant for getting the Bible into the hands of the average person. If we wish to go back even closer to our origins, we might look at the system of roads built by the Roman Empire, without which, the Early Church may not have had the means to spread the message of Jesus as far or as fast as it did.
In the end, the internet is just another wineskin that can carry the wine of the Gospel. Where we find it is helping to open doors for people to hear afresh the message of Jesus or to bring people into authentic community, we can celebrate it. Where we find it distracting from or even hindering these goals, we can happily put it aside. If you ask me, we should all be cheering on our brothers and sisters who are seeking to bring about God’s kingdom here on earth, whether by posting an encouraging comment on their blog or just giving an old-fashioned pat on the back.
And now, I have to go run some errands. I think I’ll bring Philip Yancey along for the ride.