Mr. Thomas Manoj Samuel
Cyber church is the extension of the universal church into cyber space. It is an institution that teaches and practices its religious beliefs entirely or primarily through online methods. The presence of Christian community online is often viewed as the emerging church attempting to express faith within the given cultural change. Members of the cyber churches meet, connect or congregate by way or use of the Internet. A wide variety of ways hundreds of churches use the Internet to facilitate its religious activities, particularly worship services are conducted through Internet technology. Primarily, the church engages through websites, audio/video podcasts and blogs, social networking sites and other electronic online provisions that act as interactive means within the cyber space.Thousands of audio/video sermons, conference and seminar recordings, documentaries, faith-themed films, and more are accessible online. Interestingly, Andrew Careaga in his article Embracing the Cyber Church, identifies six issues that the traditional church ought to consider if it is to embrace the new culture of the cyber church. He assumes a pragmatic approach by noting that the Internet is: “Interactive, not Passive; Networked, not Hierarchical; Postmodern, not Modern; Questioning, not Accepting; Collaborative, not Isolationist; Asynchronous, not Time-bound.”
During the early nineties, several attempts were made to create online Christian communities. Initial efforts were largely reflected in more of traditional versions of church acting as extensions of their religious institutions through their websites. Churches began posting informal messages and sermons to the visitors of their respective websites. Later, teaching methods were evolved in the forms of video, audio blogs and podcasts. In his book Cyber Church (1997), Patrick Dixon explores ways churches and Christian individuals embrace web-based technologies, and anticipated the rapid development of online content, especially by large traditional churches that developed global influence as a result. George Barna predicted in his book Revolution (1998) that congregations would search for spiritual experience through Internet without physically traveling to a church. He viewed cyber church has the potential for “macro-expression” (large scale forms) of church in the future, together with other “revolutionary” forms of the church. Andrew Jones in his blog Tall Skinny Kiwi and Tim Bednar in his paper, 'We know more than our Pastor', detailed the blogging movement’s influence on the experience of faith. At present, cyber churches offer members alternative to the traditional church. They utilize various communication formats like postal services, telecommunication, emails and various social networking platforms to maintain pastor-member interaction. More often these global and interactive approach proved to be effective, especially with the advent of several innovative gadgets like smart mobile phones, pads, laptops and so on.
Blogs: Predominantly, blogging dominates an individual’s faith expression in cyber church. Articles concerning God, Jesus, church, faith, etc. are published in their blogs. Most of these blogs often communicate first person account of Christian experiences, opinions on current issues based on theological or societal concerns, and more. Bloggers can use multimedia to create audio and video blogs that present experiences, opinions, dialogs, stories, and teachings, creating a more live feel to the blogging experience in cyber church. Many prominent Christian thinkers, authors, and leaders have blogs with podcast or streaming audio of speeches, lectures, or sermons. Video sharing sites like YouTube and Google Video allow anyone with a web camera to post religious video and make it available to users globally. It allows personal tones to content and sharing ideas about faith in new and creative ways. Readers have the provision to post comments in reaction to blogs or posts about content on their own blog using a trackback. Blog sites allow people to embed audio/video hosted remotely onto their blog or website, powering video-based communication across the Internet. Christian-specific sites have also recently sprung up to provide faith-based video sharing services. Such technological provisions develop communities through inter connectedness. Occasionally, these online communities lead to meeting people in person, and can extend to other forms of Christian community and fellowship.
Social Networks: Like many Internet users, cyber church communities are increasingly using social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google Plus, etc. These sites incorporate blogging technology,and make more concrete connections between users, allowing them to message each other online by connecting them officially as friends, rate and rank each other, etc. These connections may or may not be possible in the real world, but many people now consider online relationships a significant part of their lives, increasing the potential influence of a Christian presence in these environments. Although there have been prevalence of questionable content and issues of safety in these social sites, yet several cyber church communities use them cautiously for their social networking purposes.Others view it for missional stance, using social networking sites and networking components of other Internet mediums like blogging, chat, and instant messaging to evangelize new converts and spread the Christian gospel.
Few Pioneer Models: Severalattempts have been made to initiate cyber church within the virtual environment. LifeChurch.tv began cyberchurch within the Facebook community using an Internet campus technology,while i-church (i-church.org) has existed since 1994.Church on the Net (church-on-the-net.com) is a joint initiative between the Methodist Church and the Church of England. Church of Fools (shipoffools.com) has one of the indigenous ideas of 3D virtual church, where visitors can take cartoon form, walk about, sit in pews, kneel, worship both hands raised high, explore and so on. Cyber-Church.com claims that it can never replace fellowship in local church, but it can be ‘home away from home’ church, as the site offers Christian fellowship, bible teaching, discussion, chat room, etc. Alpha Church (alphachurch.org) appears to be full-fledged online global church with bible studies, prayer group, contact the pastor, participate in holy communion, receive baptism and be married, as the worship services are provided with sound.Several mega churches have adopted into the culture of cyber church. For instance, David Yonggi Cho’s Yoido Full Gospel Church (english.fgtv.com); Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church (saddleback.com); and Sam P. Chelladurai’s Apostolic Fellowship Tabernacle (revsam.org) are few good samples. Several churches are beginning to connect with the virtual world, where people can attend and worship together online. Although many of these cyber churches retain elements of the traditional church (such as songs, sermons, etc.), yet they also attempt to adapt to the unique social norms of digital media (such as users referred to by their online usernames).
Optimistic View: With the negative view of traditional church marked by: docility, authoritarianism, irrelevance, narrow-minded ness, limitation, etc.In this context of not a very edifying picture of church,the growing interest in online communities has come as alternative within church. Tom Brok, The Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) noted that in the future there might be new kind of ‘membership’ of churches in Germany, a special web congregation. Interestingly, Jonathan Kerry, The Methodist Church in Britain observed, “Methodism’s 18th century founder, John Wesley said: ‘The world is my parish’ and 300 years later that parish includes cyber space as well. Bricks and mortar churches will continue, but now supplemented by online Christian communities.”
Brian Vasil serves as Internet pastor of Potential Church (potentialchurch.com) states, “The goal is to not let people at home feel like they’re watching what’s happening, but they’re part of it. They’re participating.” Rob Wegner, Internet pastor at Granger Community Church (gccwired.com) advocates the need to consider Internet as another neighbourhood, where real relationships can be built harnessing new ways for reaching the spiritually lost. “Fifty years ago you could expect everyone to come to you. Now, we have to meet people where they are”, said Tim Stevens, Granger Community Church’s executive pastor. Kurt Ervin, overseer for the Internet campus for Central Christian Church (centralchristian.com/central-online) argues in favor to create a platform for Internet church, when people in the global cultural age adopt online options for school, bank, commerce, entertainment and so on.
Jean-Nicolas Bazin and Jerome Cottin in their book Virtual Christianity: Potential and Challenges for the Churches advocates that the churches must be able to have a presence on the Internet, where new space for social dialogue is authenticated through ethical human interaction. For them, the churches’ response to the Internet challenge is based on the conviction that “the visibility of God is ahead of us and is not within our control”.
Sceptic View: There has been varied sceptic view advocate against the use of cyber church. For the sceptics, the influence of the cyber space increases the number of cyber church users online. People tend not to go to local church anymore, since cyber church sufficiently caters to Internet users’ need. Such attitudes promote separation in fellowship that takes place between people at the local congregation.
Further, the breakdown of the Christian community is yet another issue of the extensive use of the cyber church, since meeting in Internet church is made possible only through computer mediated communication, and not person-to-person contact. Such contact between individuals breakdown tangible physical community spirit.
For Matt Rich, Inter Mission opinion that cyber church has the disadvantage elements whereby the community aspect of the church life is limited; i.e., through online it’s difficult to be of service to the needy, weak and vulnerable human community.
In his article, Is an Online Church Really a Church?, Ed Stetzer states that online church experience ought to enhance, not replace, personal presence in the physical community. Online church should not be the ultimate goal of the church sponsoring an online presence.According to him, the church should be online, but need not be ‘online church’. Transition from an online community to a physical one is essential, without abandoning the online aspect. People engaging in church online are real people and their participation matters to God. For him, “the best way to do church online is to intentionally work to move everyone possible from being alone on the screen toward being in community with others and being incorporated into a covenant community.”
Consolidating Cyber Church in Context: We have often quoted Jesus’ words: “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (Mat.18:20). Can multiple individuals truly commune with each other as church through Internet technology without being associated with physical reality? And, can the church gather through cyber space that would build the type of community Jesus intended for a New Testament church? Those regularly gather over Internet through online churches would agree positively to these questions. Few cyber churches are well established with sizable congregations, healthy budgets, and backed by major denominations as well.
Internet churches are a phenomenal resource for those who are not physically able to attend church. For the bedridden, for missionaries in closed countries with no access to a local body or for individuals who are frequently abroad, this is a valuable alternative to a local, physical church body. However, it’s difficult to determine the genuineness of individual participants in cyber church, since community building that address to the real life’s issues is often not catered.
The Greek word for church, ekklesia, means‘assembly’. New Testament passages refer to a group of people assembles together as community. Nicola David, spokesperson for Church on the Net (church-on-the-net.com), says she believes her online community is the definition of ekklesia. She says, “You can do worship online, but if someone is only judging from the comfortable standpoint of being an existing Christian in the embrace of a traditional church fellowship, they’ll never get that!” It is certain that geographical lines do not define the church, but at the same time the biblical emphasis on the existence of a local and regular assembling of individuals cannot be negated either.
Administration of the sacraments is one of the essential marks of a true church. Most online churches neither perform the sacraments electronically nor defend their inability to do so. Online churches at times de-emphasize the importance of sacraments and suggest that members take them physically at their local church. Some Internet churches strangely attempt to offer sacraments online, but one may question the meaningfulness inadministration and celebration of them.See samples of online Holy Communion in YouTube, Let’s Share Communion Anywhere!! Pt. 3 (https://youtu.be/IrYPShJ99v4); and Communion On-Line (https://youtu.be/lYSprVkzWkE).Also see online Baptism in YouTube as for example, Flamingo Road Church First Internet Baptism (https://youtu.be/qThUe1-RvXU); and “Skype” Baptism- Cindy Wall (https://youtu.be/6tY_Xhb2rbM). In her online article Is Online Baptism “Real Baptism?”,apart from location issue, Gordon Marcy accepts the validity of the online Baptism experience for the believer, the participants and the church. In fact,the church will face questions like this with increasing regularity in a globally connected world.
Changes Ahead: In the featured article on Churches using the Internet to their Advantage, adopted from ‘Insights into Religion’ (religioninsights.org), quoting Scott Thumma, a professor of sociology at Hartford Seminary, suggest that it makes perfect sense to adapt the latest technology to bring growth in church. A church that’s willing to change and adapt to people’s new lifestyles is poised to grow. He says, “Technology in the church offers a flexibility and responsiveness to individual needs and desires.”
Internet churches now exist all around the world; but still criticized for their lack on ‘human connection’.However more importantly, whether one accepts or not, technology is changing the world around us. Churches will have to decide what tools to incorporate into ministry.Cyber church can also be a valid outreach tool if one accepts that the expression of God’s intent and design for his church is to gather in worship and scatter for the work of mission in the world (cyber space included).
Digital revolution continues to build online communities bringing prospects for online opportunities, for online outreach through the role of Internet pastors. In fact, the role of online pastors would become more prominent in the days ahead within the cyber church. At the same time, the accelerated growth of social media strongly encourages person-to-person relationship within the body of cyber church. With post-modern view, people vary their lives and perceptions, and virtual church may be seen as an nonthreatening way for them to begin their exploration of the spiritual dimension to life.
Finally, cyber churches could also change the theological discourses towards online sourcing. In the recent past, theological community sought to use the Internet as tool, and more theological deliberations are done online. Theological courses are now offered primarily through cyber space, delivering class content, and lectures in multimedia, video-based classrooms, and many more. Currently, various programs / projects are making attempt to move theology from it’s institutional settings and give public access to their theological contents. Through ‘open source’ software, several websites offer theological ideas to be deliberated virtually by anyone. For example, the innovative idea of Wikipedia made it possible to build theological ‘wikis’ with user-built and user-edited encyclopedias, both in existing environments or theme-related websites. Hence, church need to harness the potentiality of cyber culture in this generation and learn ways to use the technology for the glory of God. Failure to do so, the church would result in becoming increasingly irrelevant in a world shaped by the Internet.