Since its popular introduction in the mid 1990s the Internet has changed how we communicate. Getting a message from one part of the world to another has become so easy, cheap, and quick that geography is no longer the same barrier for communication that it was in the past. At the same time the Internet has expanded our understanding of communication. Using the Internet is not just about passing on a message.
When we send an email or a message through the Internet, we link to the many million websites that are part of the World Wide Web—either directly by placing a hyperlink in our message or indirectly, since what we write and send will be evaluated in the light of other information that can be found online. The Internet has also increasingly become a social experience. We are not just there to communicate, but also to socialise, sometimes as the persons we really are and sometimes, for different reasons, behind a pseudonym.
It’s Here to Stay—So Use It!
The popular breakthrough of the Internet forces the Church, and many other institutions, to think in new ways about its communication. The complex nature of the Internet (being a medium, an information archive, and a social space) demands equally complex thinking from the Church. This article will present a few fundamental ways in which the Internet can be used by a church with a missional agenda, but it will by no means cover every issue associated with the Internet and churches.
My goal here is both to encourage churches to a more focused use of the Internet and point to some of the possible pitfalls that exist when churches go online. My approach to the Internet is very pragmatic: it is there, it is important for our communication today, and most likely it has come to stay. Therefore, it is not fruitful to discuss whether we should use the Internet or not. Instead, we should focus our energy on how to use it in the best way possible.
The mission of the Church is to reach the world with the love of our saviour Jesus Christ by words and through a visible engagement in society. This mission is the same when the Church goes online. Here there is both a need for the proclamation of Jesus Christ in words and the presence of Christians who represent the Kingdom of God in their online behaviour. Both aspects can be formalised in church web initiatives, but must also be held up as a personal responsibility for the individual Christian. There is a temptation to think of the Internet as a non-real space where lying, cheating, disrespecting, and ignoring your cyber-neighbour are more harmless than acts committed offline.
Teaching in Christian Internet awareness must deal with these aspects just as much as with the more outgoing evangelistic aspects and must help individuals to maintain their Christian identity online.
Church-initiated Side of Online Ministry
As mentioned previously, one of the obvious advantages of the Internet is its large reach. This goes well with a church that is eager to follow the words of the Great Commission to “go and make disciples of all nations.” In countries where traditional mission approaches are difficult because of the religious or political climate, the Internet can be an easy, safe, and cheap way in. Although some regimes try to control which websites a population can visit, it is almost impossible to suppress unwanted information altogether given the fluent and decentralised character of the Internet combined with the receiver’s possibility of surfing the Internet in privacy. When it comes to the West and ”traditional” Christian countries, the reach of mission is also increased by the Internet.
Especially in Europe, secularisation has estranged large parts of the population from their Christian roots. People are not familiar with the church and with its language and might find it awkward to go to a church with their questions. For many, it is easier to experiment with religion on the Internet, where a discrete investigation can be carried out from the living room, and a first contact to a church or a minister can go through an anonymous email.
Still, there is a great difference between the potential and the actual reach of a Christian web initiative. Even seekers will probably not know what they need when they are looking for answers on the Internet. Most people will find a Christian website through Google (or another search engine) via a link or by coincidence; therefore, if a website cannot be spotted these ways, it will probably not be seen at all.
Even more difficult is getting in touch with non-seekers who do not actively search for answers. They will not visit a Christian website, but are more likely to be met on the websites they usually visit. Therefore, the church must not isolate itself on its own websites; instead, it must take part in the fluent online traffic and develop initiatives on various platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, and Wikipedia.
The Church in Mission
A church in mission will always try to call people into community with God and with other people. When it comes to media, the Church is often better at distributing the Christian message than creating Christian communities. People might be excited about the gospel when they hear it in a television or a radio programme, but the distance between the sender and the receiver often makes it difficult to establish a social space where the two can meet.
Internet mission is interesting in that regard, since it, more than other media, is able to provide a social space where people can interact in various ways and meet as church. These online communities are not a replacement to traditional physical congregations, but a supplement and sometimes, and for different reasons, a better choice for the individual Christian—in the non-Christian parts of the world because it can be dangerous to meet in public or simply because it can be difficult to find other Christians in the neighbourhood; in the West because many feel disappointed with the church, have left their church, or simply don’t feel comfortable in a traditional church. In both cases, the Internet offers a social space where other Christians can be met and where you can develop your faith in freedom.
The downside of online communities is the lack of physical nearness and bodily shared experiences. Singing, praying, and receiving communion will probably never be the same online as it is offline, and people will continue to be in need of these elements as well. Therefore, the church should not feel threatened by the Internet. It is an extension of our communication and social life, but it can never be a replacement of physical contact. Consequently, part of the online mission should always be to point to the offline experiences which the church can offer.
More could and should be said about these issues. Here I have just mentioned how the Internet can be used by the Church to reach more people and create social communities. I have briefly suggested that online mission is also about representing Christian ethics when going online both as church and as an individual Christian. From my point of view this specific point demands more attention from the Church in the future. Finally, it must be mentioned that the Internet also provides an excellent platform for networking, further discussions about online mission, and the sharing of ideas. The Internet has come to stay and the Church must continually be in dialogue concerning how the Internet can be used to serve its mission.