Douglas Estes, in his book SimChurch, describes the experience of creating an avatar (virtual character) and visiting a “virtual church” at a website called Second Life. His online character is able to experience a church service with all the usual elements of a real-world church – congregational music, sermon, offering, and communion. The service is attended by other like-minded avatars, though there is no way to ascertain their true spiritual commitment.
As I read Estes’ account, I was surprised that someone would create a virtual church, with a virtual pastor in a virtual world, and that there were real-world users creating characters to participate in virtual services.
A new generation
We’re facing a generation whose spiritual values and beliefs are being shaped outside the home and traditional places of worship. Individuals aren’t finding out about faith from pastors, rabbis, priests, or imams but from the internet.
In Give Me that Online Religion, author Brenda Brasher says, “Using a computer for online religious activity could become the dominant form of religion and religious experience in the next century…[furthermore], like the Diaspora synagogues of Judaism after the Second Temple, like the cathedrals of medieval Latin Christianity, and like the Bibles of European Protestantism, online religion is a form of new religious practice that possesses the capacity to transform the religious alternatives with which it now competes for human attention.”
In our Canadian context, Reginald Bibby, sociologist at the University of Lethbridge, suggests Canadians are more likely to visit a website or join a social network group to learn about, discuss, and experience Christian faith, than visit a local church.
More than a tool, the internet is shaping and influencing how religion is experienced, shared, and communicated. Estes calls on churches and leaders to consider this reality – to discern theologically and practically how to engage in online spiritual formation, in order to faithfully and effectively fulfill the great commission in the 21st century.
Give me that online religion
During any given week, part of my administrative task as an associate pastor includes uploading weekly announcements and Sunday’s audio sermon onto our church website, as well as posting a Facebook status update about what’s happening the following week. I may also update our Facebook page with an upcoming event, ideas for our “Each 1 Love 1” ministry, or a new blog post. Am I engaging in online spiritual formation when I perform these tasks, or just giving out religious information?
Simply put, “online religion” is the provision of information about a particular religion and/or service. Authors Dawson and Douglas in their book Religion Online say, “This includes the many thousands of websites established by congregations, mosques, temples and synagogues… [as well as] commercial sites selling an astounding variety of religious books, products and supplies.”
Most Christian websites are introductions to local churches or parachurch ministries, broadcasting who they are and what they’re about. Others provide information about faith from a denominational distinctive, or serve as avenues for evangelism and outreach.
Our traditional approach with these sites is to engage the mind, in hopes of changing people’s hearts to bring about personal and societal change. Thus, the Christian faith community has provided copious amounts of information about Christianity and the gospel message, perhaps believing that with enough information, those seeking to fulfill their spiritual curiosity would choose to accept the claims of Christ above all other religions.
But the traditional route of knowledge and reason is no longer the pathway of digital natives. We need to move away from online information about religion to online spiritual formation.
People desire a place to belong before they believe. They want to observe how Christians behave and may not visit a brick-and-mortar church to do so. Instead, they’ll visit and participate in virtual churches and faith discussion groups.
This begs the following questions that researcher Mark Maddix asks about the challenges of engaging in online spiritual formation:
- Can we be spiritually formed through a medium that relies on text-exchanges between physically isolated individuals?
- Does online spiritual formation supplement or substitute real-world interactions?
- To what degree does online spiritual formation influence how we express or nurture our spiritual lives?
- Can we form genuine community via online spiritual formation?
These questions are valid and require thoughtful reflection. However, whether we appreciate the technology or not, people are being spiritually formed online.
This chatroom is bound for glory
So how do Canadian Mennonite Brethren churches engage their faith communities and “seekers” in spiritual formation through internet technologies?
In the MB tradition, we’re not just bibliophiles – we believe disciples live out what the Bible teaches in community. According to Paul Bamer, this spiritual formation is the “learning habits of the heart and practices of devotion needed to carry out one’s vocation in a way that is faithful to God and sustains the person and community.”
In short, spiritual formation is learning to live biblically in our families and work-a-day worlds.
We align our minds, behaviours, and attitudes toward God’s ways for kingdom living here on earth.
So, how does the church take these principles of spiritual formation and apply them online? Many of us who use the internet read online devotionals, follow prayer guides, or listen to podcasts from other pastors. These resources can help us cultivate the spiritual disciplines of Scripture reading and solitude. Perhaps we could provide the opportunity for people to read the same devotional or listen to the same podcast, and then encourage users to comment online or share them via Facebook.
For some churches, this is new ground – thinking about church websites, blogs, Facebook pages, and tweets as more than information providers. We may even have some questions about Sunday mornings: how do we spiritually impact and interact with people who turn to smartphones to search Bible verses and view commentaries while the pastor is preaching?
At The Life Centre in Abbotsford, B.C., we’re just learning to embrace these forms of spiritual formation. Our website links to our other social media. Our blog follows a Bible reading plan, where writers from our faith community share what God is teaching them through his Word. We use Facebook to broadcast news and events, as well as share ideas for our ministries and reflections from our blogs and sermons. Lastly, we use YouTube to educate our church about Sunday-morning worship songs, which include choruses in various languages. In everything we do online, comments are invited and discussion encouraged.
In the age of the internet, online spiritual formation is already taking place. By developing a broad online presence, and engaging, not merely hosting a website, we have an opportunity to influence the spiritual formation of our faith community and the world.
I would love to hear how your church is engaging online. How can we participate in online spiritual formation? Add your voice to the conversation at www.facebook.com/MBHerald.
–Sherman Lau is associate pastor at The Life Centre, an intentionally multicultural church in Abbotsford, B.C. He is also working toward his DMin degree at MBBS Canada, where he serves in the area of student enrollment.