Sunday, January 18, 2009

Facebook Church

My wife has just gotten on Facebook this week, and loves it. I'm not especially interested myself, but it's nice to hear her laughing in the computer room in the evening. Many small networkings are not as meaningful to me as fewer, more substantive connections, but I admit I see the point.

Church was canceled today because of the snow. This is still a source of amazement to me, to cancel church. If people can't come, they can't come, but those who can should still have church. I admit that this comes from a mentality of growing up in Manchester, a mile from church. Even Protestants had more of a parish model in those days, and you went to the church of your denomination that was closest.

When new church models based on electronic networking are discussed they sound very unexciting to me, not much like real church at all. Going online for church? Ridiculous, unless you have some significant limitation that prevents you from attending in the flesh. Where is the community in electronic church?

But another side of that occurred to me this morning. If everyone in our congregation had Facebook, we could have had church together online this morning. Not quite Real Church, because it's not as intimate and reassuring. But better than no church at all. I had not considered a hybrid model of electronic church. People who already know each other and have significant connections can have interaction, then move on to a structured worship together, then have coffee and chat afterward. Online worship would necessarily have to develop its own rules and conventions - singing the bass harmony to a hymn I don't know well while sitting in front of my computer doesn't strike me as powerfully engaging my emotions in the service - but it could be done.

It would work well for those traveling, too, which is more common these days. If most people were actually present at a house of worship, but someone were providing a running electronic version to those away on business or vacation, they would be much more connected than they would have been otherwise.

Would moving to this model encourage people not to attend as often, and lead to congregations that were increasingly electronic and seldom met in the flesh? Absolutely, and that strikes me as an enormous problem. Communion and other sacraments would be particularly problematic. Solving one problem often creates another. But that occasionally live, often electronic style of communication is what the current generation is moving toward anyway - it won't seem as strange to them as it does to me. I suspect that electronic congregations will meet more frequently throughout the week. Heck, congregations could meet online for prayer every morning and evening for fifteen minutes. Under a parish model, where people were seeing the whole congregation on Sunday, and selected members throughout the week for choir, youth group, or properties meeting, such online meetings will always seem odd. But we are already in a model of less-frequent congregational meeting, with people traveling much farther to get to their chosen house of worship.

The frontier favored some denominations and styles of Christian expression over others, which is why America has such an unusual percentage of Christians whose churches do not have sacraments. Preaching, Bible reading, and individual prayer all travel well, so Methodist- and Baptist- derived denominations did well west of the Appalachias. Those folks are often unaware of how far outside common Christian practice they are, because in their culture, that what Christianity is: print-heavy; simple, dramatic music; daily devotions; pivot-point salvationism. Catholics, Lutherans, Orthodox - these held on in towns and cities, where even the rural people were oriented toward central meeting places.

Some styles of worship and theological emphases will do better under an electronic hybrid model than others, but those are not clear to me at present. I imagine folks have lots of opinions on that.


GraniteDad said...

"singing the bass harmony to a hymn I don't know well while sitting in front of my computer."

I have such a vivid image of this in my mind that it's scary. I can "see" you doing this.

Ben Wyman said...

The comparison is never "online church" between "offline church." You take your current church and imagine it in online form, and naturally it doesn't make sense. No one is going to be sitting at home eating a Vanilla Wafer and calling it communion.

But a church that meets online that doesn't fit into that form... that is more of a learning experience, a quiet moment to get away - worship songs in a music video format, inspiring short films or testimonies, a good sermon, online content for reading along with the video, study guides, etc. The ability to quietly write back your thoughts as they come to you in a global chat with your other members: "I've been struggling with anger myself this week, and to hear the pastor address it like this makes me realize it's not worth it." "Does anyone know what C.S. Lewis book he just quoted?" "Guys, I could really use prayer about this very thing."

Online church would never appeal to you, and that's the point - regular church does appeal to you. Online church is for people that it doesn't appeal to, or people who can't go. Don't compare it to your church experience - compare it to being in a hospital and watching Joel Osteen on TV.

Anonymous said...

I don't believe that the online could ever take the place of corporate gathering for worship. However, I do find that tools like Facebook to allow me to be more involved in the lives of people I go to church with. I have gotten to know people of my congregation online that I don't really run into at church (large congregation, multiple services-another separate issue).

It's not a bad thing, if used correctly it's just another tool.