Lesson 3: Online Christian Communities

Online ChurchI always shudder when theologians predict we shall all be worshipping in online churches before long. I imagine they are trying to show that they are on the cutting edge of history. However, I doubt if they have given much thought to the limitations of electronic communities.

When my son and I studied online churches about 15 years ago we did find the second largest use of the Internet was for religious purposes. The first, as you might have expected, was for pornography. By far, most Christians were using it for research to supplement their face-to-face communities.

At the time there were a number of online churches. When we checked recently, every one of those we studied was gone. The reason seems to be that online communities can bring people with the same interests together and can engage in some teaching; but they are unable to offer other essentials of the Gospel, such as fostering deep human relationships with people who differ and celebrating the Communion meal.

Those that have endured are the televangelists, but their longevity has resulted from reducing Jesus’ Gospel message to techniques that pervert it. The late Bob Nordvall who participated in our online study from Italy, captured it perfectly: God proclaims the Gospel to a televangelist who responds that it will never sell. God says that’s it, take it or leave it. The televangelist considers what he can do and finally decides he will break the Gospel into parts and only preach those that will sell.

The demands of electronic media force that kind of reduction. It is evident in the Laws of Creation that are constantly taught as the Gospel on television. The good news proclaimed by the five Laws of Creation guarantees good health, family, and finances if you rigorously follow: 1) The Law of Forgiveness, which claims that we shall not find success in life unless we forgive others as we have been forgiven, 2) The Law of Faith, which insists we can only receive what God offers when we have faith, defined as confidence rather than trust, 3) The Law of Expectation, which contends that there is no benefit from our good deeds and tithes until we have the expectation that there will be a harvest, 4) The Law of Agreement, which promises that God will grant any petition if two or three believers concur, and 5) The Law of the Seed, which discloses that the basic principle of creation is the seed, interpreted to mean that we must give God something to work with before he can give us anything in return. Although the five are most blatantly proclaimed on TV, they appear in various forms in many sermons in all church communities. The thought forms of our technological society are quick to reduce everything down to doable techniques, even the Gospel.

After a first reading the five might seem to express some decent Christian teachings. However, a second reveals they are a corruption of these. They might be one possible way to understand forgiveness, faith, etc.,but only from a works righteousness perspective. There is no need for God’s grace, Jesus’ atonement, or Christian community. They picture Jesus offering individuals salvation by revealing these five techniques for success in this world. The Christian life becomes an automated process in which you receive your reward if you take the proper steps. Our relationship to God is reduced to a series of business transactions.

You see the same distortion of the Gospel when televangelists and local churches use the ever-popular Plan for Salvation. It reduces to the Gospel to four spiritual laws: 1) God loves you and has a plan for your life; 2) The sin of every one of us has separated us from God and knowledge of this plan; 3) God has sent Jesus as the only way we can experience his love and know the plan; and 4) We must individually receive Jesus as Savior if we are to experience God’s love and know his plan for each of our lives.

The plan then defines salvation as following four simple techniques for entering a personal relationship with Jesus: read the four laws, examine your life in light of these laws, accept Christ’s invitation as presented in the laws, and enact your acceptance by saying a prayer of salvation. You perceive again the automated process when Richard Roberts writes, “If you have gone through the four steps to receive Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord, you are now born-again, ready to begin your new life in Christ. Christ saves you and keeps you saved.”

You readily perceive the same problems we found in the Laws of Creation. When the Gospel is reduced to techniques, essential parts are lost. You can begin with baptism in the Plan for Salvation. This leads me to conclude that Christians will find more and more appropriate uses of modern technology, but they are not going to replace face-to-face worship with online community.

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  1. Derek Halverson says:

    In terms of technology and change I note in the tone of Obama’s speech in the book the flavor some something I’m increasingly seeing which is where specific changes that affect an individual often aren’t even presented as an improvement, but rather as a necessity. For an employee I doubt it’s ever come to pass that a new technology came out that made them twice as efficient and the result was they only had to work half the hours for the same pay. Rather their existing skills are devalued and they’ll have to work extra to understand the new technology. However they will need to master the new technology or they won’t be of much use to anyone. Embracing the change is the only reasonable path forward.

    However interpersonal relationships are not “work” as the book notes and the approaches for solving problems of production may be counterproductive.

    But all the disconnects that the book discusses also affect every other aspect of social and traditional community life. A recent Bible study I was at comes to mind. The subject was community and the opening question was about communities the attendees were part of other than the Church. As the attendees started answering in the order they were seated the discussion almost immediately turned into something more like reading off their resumes. People would rattle off that they were the president of this, the coordinator or that, or the coach of something. There was little if any discussion of any interpersonal interactions or relationships, though I tried to steer things that way on my turn. Perhaps they all felt relationships were implied, but it seems everyone only interacted with other communities through titles and transactions.

    A result of this might be the feelings of isolation in online communities, especially those who lack the technique in a world of [i]technique[/i] ,such as the Incel community and associated groups which have recently been getting more attention after the Toronto van attack. Certainly in online groups there is a lot of suicidal ideation going around. While I’ve occasionally shared suicide hotline information, it occurs to me what they may really need is an awareness of God’s love and a community. I’m not feeling particularly sure how to go about that online.

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