There are lots of opinions on how things like social networking and the virtual world are changing the church. It doesn’t take long to to see how people are using online resources to search for meaning and connection. With this shift towards using technology, there are lots of ideas about how it all affects our theology.
Recently I had the chance to catch up with Douglas Estes, the author of. And with the opportunity to ask him any question that I wanted to, I decided to dig into this question about how our theology may (or may not) be affected by all of this technology. So here is what I asked him, and his response…
BibleDude.net: One of the things that I notice quite a bit within online Christian communities is that ‘denomination’ does not seem as important as the fact that we are all followers of Christ. How do you see the growth of online church affecting our theology? Does it cause us to water down our theology, or does it force us to think more about what we believe?
Douglas Estes: Thanks for the question. It’s not an easy one … you win the blog-tour award for ‘stump the author’ … so due to the complexity of it, I’ll address a few deeper issues, with the final paragraph being a summarizing answer to your questions.
My experience with online Christian communities and internet churches gels with what you’re saying—people that attend and take part in virtual churches tend to do so for reasons other than a denominational label or a theological stance. This is a generalization, I can think of exceptions, but like most generalizations it is generally true. However, we do have a chicken-or-egg issue here: does the internet push church culture to be less focused on denominationalism/theological issues, or is church culture pushing churchgoing internet interaction to be less focused on denominationalism/theological issues? Said another way, people may assume that online church downplays denominationalism, but you could also argue that online churches are simply reflective of church culture at large, which has increasingly been downplaying denominationalism in recent years. I know this doesn’t come any closer to answering your question, but I do feel we need to be honest and say that while the internet may encourage theological fluidity, it also may just be reflecting or facilitating a larger trend in society.
This philosophical issue aside, “How do I see the growth of online church affecting our theology?” I think it will depend on several constants and several variables (but the variables are outside of our ability to know at this point). Let’s consider one constant. We all know that there are sections of the church that are committed to (Christian) ecumenicism, even radical tear-down-the-walls types of ecumenicism. There are also sections of the church that are committed to what they might refer to as ‘doctrinal purity.’ And, of course, people in the middle. As each of these groups increasingly take to the internet, they’ll take their viewpoints with them. I won’t be surprised if in the near future some virtual churches have strict limits on membership while others have little or no limit. (Remember: While there is a lot of debate about the internet (and technology) changing us, let’s not forget that it’s not Prometheus’ fire or a genie in a bottle; we made the internet (Al Gore jokes aside), and we made it in our image. So while we are shaped by technology to a degree, we shape it a lot more than we may want to admit). This is one example of a constant (in this case, human nature) that we know to be true. Another constant is that theology must always adapt to the issues of the day or it will grow stale and die. So we know that the growth of internet campuses must—by its very nature—stretch our theology, and it should do so. There are other constants, but these are two of the most important.
There are also some variables that affect this discussion, such as: Will censorship become a part of the internet, and will some theological viewpoints be censored (such as maybe an internet church that believes in spanking children censored by a government or corporation)? How much will the internet really level the communication playing field (right now, it seems unlikely that a rural church could have a successful internet campus as compared to a McMegachurch)? Will the internet church become an option of the status quo so quickly as to not really challenge the church as a whole (or will we read the book, The 5 Things Virtual Church Can Teach Your Church and be done with it?)
Since this is a blog not a book, let me wrap up with your final two questions: “Does online church cause us to water down our theology, or does it force us to think more about what we believe?” I know this is an unexpected answer but, simply put: No, for most people it does not cause them to water down their theology, and no, for most people it won’t force them to think more about what they believe. The reason I answer this way (a bit pessimistically) is that for people who care about theology, the internet will amplify that by giving them access to people who also care about theology. For people who don’t care much about theology or denominational issues in the real world; they won’t care too much about it in the virtual world, either. Yes, I know that there is a great deal of concern about ‘googling for God’ or consulting Wikipedia on matters of faith but this is a part of the discerning process of humanity since the Fall. Yes, I also know that many internet campuses tend to be less focused on preaching and teaching than a brick and mortar church, but this mostly has to do with the current state of technology. In the end, the depth of theology found in online churches will mostly depend on the depth of its leaders and people (same as with physical churches today). For most people, online church won’t challenge them to think more about what they believe unless they are already open to that challenge. (Of course, the online church can challenge the status quo of church a great deal, and in a powerful way—but it will only challenge those people who are open to the challenge). Ultimately, the internet is a synthetic place/amplifying medium that simply reflects the people who live there/make use of it. Online churches are real churches that exist in synthetic space, and its people will act accordingly.
For more from Douglas Estes:
by Douglas Estes
The virtual church is here, and it’s poised for explosive growth as a generation comfortable with virtual worlds cultivates faith communities online. What is the virtual church, and what possibilities and concerns does it create? This must-read book opens a dialog no culturally aware Christian passionate about the church and evangelism can afford to miss.
For more from other folks on this blog tour: