Some Problems with Online Christian Communities | And Why You Should Stay Away

Screenshot Online communities continue to grow Myspace, Virb, Facebook, delicious, flickr, twitter, digg, 30boxes, box.net, etc, etc, all offer a way for people to share and stay in touch. I personally like the attention web 2.0 companies have paid to making the web more interactive in this way. I use many of the services above, and have found that they add to my life in various ways simply helping me to easily connect with other people.

But there is another growing trend on the web, and that’s Christian online communities (or ghettos). There are discussion boards, dating services, Christianized versions of facebook, a video web service called Godtube (though I can’t currently access it), and many others. While there is a place for something like a topic specific discussion board (you can do this on any online website with groups) there are a few reasons why I think Christians should avoid these type of online communities.

Internet Evangelism, Commodity, and the Christian Ghetto

Screenshot1-1 I can see at least three things wrong with these kinds of websites. First, is the attraction of internet evangelism. Rightfully so, churches want to connect with people “out there” but the phrase “internet evangelism” not only makes me feel nauseous it contains within it a subtle yet dangerous flaw. We’ve learned from people like Brad Kallenberg that evangelism that is both honest to the Gospel is an evangelism that is lived and embodied within a local community. Not to mention these groups aren’t organic and can often be seen as phony. This notion radically challenges the assumptions that underly radio and TV evangelists, but looking at the way Christians have largely presented themselves in the media it should be of little surprise that some are saying the modern discipleship process is broken.

Secondly, is the problem with commodifying the Gospel. These are web startup companies, they are trying to capitalize on the millions of dollars that other Web 2.0 companies have been rolling in over the past few years. They know, just like in the Christian books, video games, music and movies market, that there is money to be made by marketing to the Christian population; said more strongly, by selling the Gospel. It is a niche market, but it is still a market. The church needs to denounce such obvious attempts to tie the Gospel and capitalism together.

Finally, these communities perpetuate the ghettoized/suburbanized Christian identity. We tend to gravitate towards people who are like us, people who appear to be “safe.” We’ve seen this in the past century as church communities moved out of the downtowns and into the homogenous suburbs in order to stay away from the corruption of the city. Leaving places like Myspace or Facebook for a more “Christian” website is no different. This mindset also perpetuates the idea that because it has the label “Christian” it is good, and we know that’s far from true. It would be the same to say, “I moved into a wealthy neighborhood so I don’t need to get to know my neighbors or worry about my why my kids are doing because this area is safe,” American Beauty told us something very different. We’ve been in our own ghettos for far too long, it’s time to move back into the cities and non-Christian spaces in the world.

The Life of Jesus and Online Mission

The life of Jesus is instructive for our response to these issues. He modeled a lived evangelism, one where practices and theology were so intertwined that he told stories and taught through example rather than through systematic treatise. Real evangelism happens in the day to day ways we interact with others, not because of the music we listen to or because people visit my website to get “saved.” Jesus was against the commodification of God’s worship (cf. the temple action) and exalted those who were poor in Spirit (the beatitudes) and in finances (the widow with two mites). Finally, he did anything but exemplify a ghetto mentality, he broke the mold concerning who was in and who was out, he broke the social codes and challenged the idea of “safe” living.

“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26-27)”

There’s little safe about that one little statement, and we could find many more. What this calls for then is learning how to be a Christian on social websites, in the “unsafe” environments of the world. As Ryan Bolger says, “Jesus wasn’t so much counter-cultural as he was non-conformed within culture.” Instead of being counter to the culture, running in the other direction, we march into the city centers and live as a light to the world. Christ followers are called to radically re-interpret the values of their culture, this often includes flipping them on their heads.

We can think of some new questions for investigation: How do we embody the practices of Jesus, and out traditions while living in the partially dis-embodied world of the web? How are we peacemakers on Myspace? How do we live simply on facebook? How do we share to good news of the Gospel through our lives online? I invite you to offer answers to these questions.

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Published by

Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.

18 thoughts on “Some Problems with Online Christian Communities | And Why You Should Stay Away”

  1. Wess,
    Great post. It is interesting to note that the three problems you cited can easily be attributed to many other aspects of church today that are not online. Typical mega-churches and Christian television immediately come to mind.
    In the internet age, where information has now been democratized, embodied relationships now take on even more importance. When better information is merely a click away, real relationships are vital. The question is how do we express relationships online vice just swap information?
    A thought that comes to mind is art/multimedia. Art of any form (visual, music, poetry,etc.) transcends informational boundaries. It’s not a coincidence that more than a few Christian bloggers post photos on Fridays and not much else.
    We need to reveal more of our character, that stuff that is at the core of who we are. The artist does his or her thing and opens up what’s inside them in a way that a textbook cannot. Jesus told quite a few stories that did the same thing.
    On another note, I have a really hard time thinking about living simply as I sit in front of my $1500 laptop….

  2. It seems pretty simple to me – the key issue is, if Christians all hang out socially on Christian websites, how are they evangelizing? They’re just preaching to the choir. Before I was a believer I wouldn’t go near a site that marketed itself as ‘Christian’. So how was I to hear the good news? Same goes for TV – I would change the channel immediately.

    I grew up in the states, surrounded by a culture built on Christianity and yet I really believe *I never heard the gospel*. And I don’t say that lightly. All I knew about was this group of people who made a whole lot of hurtful comments and that I wasn’t interested in that sort of thing. I never had serious human interaction with Christians. They all hung out together and avoided evil things like me and my rock music and my bars. (Of course I exaggerate, but it’s to make my point.)

    And it wasn’t until I met and became friends with a Christian, in my community, in my normal, worldly, crazy bar goin’ Hollywood life, did I hear the gospel. And want to learn more instead of changing the channel. Waddya know.

    And please don’t get me wrong, I do thing there’s an important place for Christian based organizations and websites and so forth – we do need to find one another. And where else would we argue about the finer points of church doctrine and theology??!?

    But living outside the Christian bubble is vital to evangelism.

  3. most of my sentiments on the topic have already been succinctly addressed by C.Wess and the comments thereafter.

    i would just add that like cate (hi cate!), i do not believe the gospel is truly presented pretty much anywhere in the media. televangelists represent a gospel of exclusion that is founded on the idea that once you “live right” you can have whatever you ask (commonly called “name it, claim it” theology”). They fail to mention that the gospel is good news for our souls and sometimes not so good news for our lives on earth. Why do we get to live wealthy, easy lives when the early christian church suffered horrible methods of torturous death?

    i joined an online group called “gay christian network” and closed my account after a week. my idea was that i could connect to people like me, who are still rather difficult to find (gay christians, that is). i thought about that and realized that they are hard to find because people like ME are running towards the familiar rather than standing my ground and being a light in the darkness. this was the point in which i changed my online moniker to “gaytheologian.” and now i find myself in “relational evangelism” with a wide range of people, most of them not even gay but interested in the concept of a gay christian. they figure, quite accurately, that if they have been condemned and pushed out of churches, and my exclusion has been even more finalized (excommunication), that someone who maintains their faith through all of that must have something to say that can help them.

    in basic queer liberation theology, we talk about the fact that authentic christianity cannot be expressed without the context of community. i learned long ago that at least american christians have been taught that capitalism is a biblical value (how they decided that, i have NO idea) and therefore capitalize on their own community with bad music, ridiculous books that spawn a marketing spree (think prayer of jabez or purpose driven life), and even novels that are basically romance novels for christian women. it’s insane to me how successful these enterprises are. in my hometown, we have a christian bookstore called Pathway, and it is generally believed that “if pathway carries it, it is good and holy.” they carry anne coulter. i rest my case.

  4. Great article Wess!

    I had a chance to go to the Web2Expo put on my OReilly a couple months ago, and had a chance to hear from a lot of the industry leaders on the foundations of the Web 2.0 movement, and where they are looking to go next. The most striking learning I came away with is that all the values of the church are being expressed in the Web 2 movement, it felt like it was societies attempt to recreate church without the Christians/Religion.

    There is the networking or fellowship of groups, there is the strong “sharing” theme in user generated content that could also be called a “testimony” or witness of what they have experienced. There is a strong sense of social activism to address needs around the world, and there is a desire for experts to emerge that you can trust, who are vulnerable and accessible, who are on the same journey.

    This lists of parallels in values between this “web 2.0” movement and the values of the church continue and the only reason I bring it up is because it shows how “ripe” the public square on the web is to have the same conversation as people who follow Christ want to have (or at least should).

    The last thought I have had on this is that sites like meetup.com are very unique because they use the web and social networking to get people off the web and connected face to face. When a social networking site connects people and then is able to “mobilize” them, especially Christians, then it has tremendous value.

    But when it is just the Christian version of a social network designed to get people there all day to drive up ad sales, it more in line with money changers in the temple.

  5. “…that there is money to be made by marketing to the Christian population; said more strongly, by selling the Gospel. It is a niche market, but it is still a market.”

    wow… are you knocking on my idea to write a fluffy christian book to sell to pay off my seminary debts? the mens and womens editions, the keepsake edition with italian leather, journals… catchy title with a pretty cover??? no???

    jokes aside, i love ryan bolger’s quote. and good, challenging questions to think about at the end there.

  6. @Paul – great observation about the connection between online communities and mega-church/Christian TV types. You’re absolutely right to point out the increasing importance of the face-to-face relationships.

    I think one thing the church will have to encourage in healthy ways is how to be the same online as you are in person – for Quakers we’d tie it to our testimony of “truth-telling” for other traditions I am sure there are equivalents.

    I really like the idea of just posting a picture once a week as a way to transcend the drive for information, what a great way to subvert that desire. I may borrow that idea if it’s okay.

    @ Cate – Hey – who can argue with your point, it’s based out of lived experience. Christ is not vacant from the bars, venues, and other less likely places, and the church shouldn’t be vacant. Fortunately it’s not, at least some of the church is present in those places living out God’s love in the day to day. You got to experience that first hand and I think it’s quite a story.

    Yes, and where would “we argue about the finer points of church doctrine and theology??!?” I mean really? 😉

    @Esteban (Gay Theologian)

    “They fail to mention that the gospel is good news for our souls and sometimes not so good news for our lives on earth. Why do we get to live wealthy, easy lives when the early christian church suffered horrible methods of torturous death?”

    Wow – very well put.

    And:
    “learned long ago that at least american christians have been taught that capitalism is a biblical value (how they decided that, i have NO idea) and therefore capitalize on their own community with bad music, ridiculous books that spawn a marketing spree (think prayer of jabez or purpose driven life), and even novels that are basically romance novels for christian women. ”

    I don’t think I can add much to that other than that these values have a reflexivity to them, which reinforces the very perversion of the Christian faith rather than supplementing faith. In other word, I used to think that if I bought Christian gear it helped me be a better Christian. Listening to Christian music doesn’t make you a better Christian, in fact it can often times cause a laziness in our discipleship process. And another point – the romance novels perpetuate a particular often times patriarchal understanding of male/female relationships.

    I’ve been to a pathway before, and work at a Christian bookstore called Berean, I know exactly what you mean. Carmen was one of our top-sellers. Are you kidding me?!

    Have you met http://a_musing.blogspot.com/ yet? He’s a Quaker friend, check him out.

  7. that’s funny…i used to think listening to anything but carmen was a sin…

    if i had a buck for every carmen concert i’ve been to…the sad part is that he “chooses” what some call a “side b” christian life, which is celibacy not based on an actual calling to celibacy but choosing celibacy because their orientation it towards the same-sex and they did not succeed at “changing” their orientation. these are the people who “profile” for the highest rate of suicide….

    i totally used to think if i bought something at pathway it would make me a better christian…now i realize that if i doesn’t come from there, it will probably make me a better christian…haha

  8. Wess, your article triggered me and gave me a reason to refer to it on Smartmobs. Personally I take a different stand. Ofcourse you seek the communities with like minded people. That is one of the great things of the net. In my opinion the platform in itself is context independent. It is the people that contribute that make the community. I am glad there is plenty of choice so why kick the evangelicals the way you did. I do respect your beliefs and am impressed by your works but do disagree with your intolerance to groups that are less liberal than you are. Thanks for writing the article anyways, it gives food for thought.

  9. @Tony – Good to have you comment here! I totally agree with what you’re saying, tons of online communities, apps, etc parallel values we as Christians espouse. In many ways I think we can learn from these gestures. It would be really cool if someone catalogued these things more thoroughly.

    Interesting about the meetup.com – that sounds like it has some good uses to it.

    @Hikari – I hope you write something available in italian leather otherwise I may not buy it or carry it in my man purse. It’s too bad you never took a bolger class, I could have been your TA.

    @Esteban – wait, are you saying Carmen is gay? If so that is sad that he doesn’t just come out and very interesting in terms of how he’s dealing with it. Do you know if he went through the ex-gay movement?

  10. @Gerrit – Hi thanks for linking to the article. I appreciate your disagreement with me and thanks for adding to the conversation. I totally agree that the people who come make or break the community – this is true in all of life. Actually, to be honest, this is why I tend to not like myspace very much.

    I certainly don’t mean to be intolerant, I meant to challenge our common perceptions and assumptions about how we relate to the world. I am not making any value judgments on the people using sites like fellowship builder, etc. But I am challenging the assumption that underlies how we make our choices – I think they ought to be in the manner of how Jesus, as a missionary, engaged his world.

    Also – I am an evangelical, albeit I use that word carefully. If you look at the basic thrust of this article it screams evangelical – a getting out there, into the world and being Christ to others, as Cate suggested. So I am sorry if it came off the wrong way.

    Finally, I am interested in what you mean by platforms being “context independent.” I don’t see how this can be so. Every platform that is made, is made by people in a particular context (time, space, etc), for a particular purpose, and with a particular audience in mind. And also, most of those communities start with people all stocked, like a stocked pond. Take for instance, Virb.com. They sent out beta invites to a ton of designers (that social network is mainly geared towards artists, designers, musicians, etc), I got an invite because of some of my friends in web-design – when I joined up 3 weeks prior to it going public there were already thousands of people on it. We all had 10 invites to send to our friends for beta testing as well. In other words, it was aimed at particular people, and if you look at that network its basically people who are web savvy, musicians, etc (I’m not dogging it, just making a point).

    Anyways, I wonder if I am understanding your point about it being context-less or if you mean something else. Either way, I think your point still stands out how important the people are that make up these websites. Thanks again for your comment.

  11. a couple thoughts;

    there cannot be such a thing as a website or social network being “context independent.” myspace was not created to connect people…it was and always will be a way to market things while giving people the vague sense of community that will never come to full fruition.

    or take a dating site like eharmony…it was created by focus on the family more or less…it is exclusive to heterosexuals and mostly people of faith.
    but it knows how to make the bucks.

    i am a little hurt to hear my friend here being called intolerant; as i’ve said before, quakers are THE most tolerant of any christian movement, in particular those who claim to be evangelical. i think intolerance is me joining a site simply because it’s “gay” or “christian” or just a sex-driven meat market like facebook and myspace. i like the fact that christians see the term “gaytheologian” and go running out the door as if a naughty word had been spoken. it’s actually all straight people who read and comment on my blog, and the gay ones send me messages, both good and bad, reaffirming that most if not all “web-communities” are ghetto-ized to some degree.

    this is an interesting discussion though…and as we connect more and more to each other through the web, we begin to see the sheer absurdity of thinking we can really be in community with one another on the web….

  12. hello Wess,

    Thank you for your insightful response. I will try to explain what I mean by context independance of the platform. As society as a whole we are ‘blessed’ by the same technological innovations. People differ in their preferences, in their backgrounds, in their political point of views and how they value different communities. Recently I read about a Moslim group and how they use twitter. I think that is wonderful. Let every school of thought use the modern means of communication in their own way. What’s new is that by opening their minds with these means they are less of a closed group. I find it interesting to know what you think. In the dialog I discover that I may be prejudiced and need to change some views as understanding grows. It is my belief that in essence people differ not much. I find it another blessing of modern technology to be able to cross cultural barriers, geographical barriers and personal barriers by interacting online. It is an old saying, originated in Toronto, but the medium is the message here. The medium in itself is context independant. It is how we use it, in what contexts and how we benefit from technology in our ways of life. Live and let live. Reading your website we may relate to one another more than I originally foud. You triggered me by taking such a harsh approach. What would Jesus do? I think he would like playfulness. He would say lover your neighbour as yourself. The ultimate thing you owe your neighbour is loving him. I can relate to what Anna Terruwe used to call the miracle of affirmaton. For me the works of Paul Tournier shaped my thinking. He often referred to Jacques Ellul for his views on how mankind uses technology. The thinking of Tournier and Terruwe may bridge how we both look at mankind using modern technology.

  13. Hi Gerrit,
    Thanks for spelling that out more, I see where you are coming from and I agree with you.

    I like what you said here, “I find it another blessing of modern technology to be able to cross cultural barriers, geographical barriers and personal barriers by interacting online. It is an old saying, originated in Toronto, but the medium is the message here. ”

    McLuhan’s sociology and stuff on the “medium and message”is awesome as is Ellul’s both of which I too am influenced by. On the other hand I haven’t read “Tournier and Terruwe,” I’ll add them to the list.

  14. To all who have visited this article with or with out commenting on the subject have engaged in communion. Or the act of coming together to share a similar mindset.
    com·mun·ion (k-mynyn) KEY

    NOUN:

    The act or an instance of sharing, as of thoughts or feelings.
    Religious or spiritual fellowship.
    A body of Christians with a common religious faith who practice the same rites; a denomination.
    Communion Ecclesiastical
    The sacrament of the Eucharist received by a congregation.
    The consecrated elements of the Eucharist.
    The part of the Mass or a liturgy in which the Eucharist is received.

    Iink
    http://education.yahoo.com/reference/dictionary/entry/communion

    That being stated, wherever, whenever, whatever the medium we are in communion. True?

  15. One other thought. Ghetto does not really apply, think about this in a ghetto there are random acts of unlawfulness, ie. robbery, drug dealing, vandalism. In these so called christian ghetto’s are there random acts of faith? For most people even knowing their next door neighbor is a stretch.

  16. Wess, I happened on your site and this article through some info traps I have set up on the phrase “internet evangelism.”

    I’m intrigued by your comments for a couple of reasons:

    1) First, because I’m involved fairly heavily in the internet evangelism community (although I would hasten to add that, for me, this doesn’t mean I’m involved in Christian social networking projects but only in the community of folks seeking to use the internet to spread the gospel).

    2) Second, because I actually agree with what you say.

    My philosophy is that the church should aggressively use the internet, not to directly evangelize, but to intrigue people enough to want to join us in the regular physical gatherings of the Christian community. I think you’re right when you point out that evangelism should take place in the context of community. John 17:21-23 is telling on this point. It’s only when Christ’s disciples are one (i.e., living in deep community) that the world will know that the Father loves them and that the Father sent Jesus (and without those two points of understanding, who can be converted?).

    I advocate using in-depth profiles of people in our churches to become bridges between believers and unbelievers around common life experiences and interests in a local geographic area.

    And so the person whose faith in Christ has enabled them to cope with the emotional struggles they experienced when they found out they have cancer can befriend the person with cancer who has no faith. The person without faith sees the profile of the person with faith and is so intrigued that they want to meet them face-to-face. This friendship may then become a conduit into the faith community. The person without faith may never experience the faith community in terms of a gathering in a church building, but if they befriend the person of faith with cancer, they will most certainly be introduced to the faith community through backyard barbecues, dinners, outings, etc.

    The only arena in which this approach may not be effective is in creative access nations, where different strategies may be necessary.

    Thanks for your contribution to the conversations surrounding internet evangelism. My hope is that your contribution will be widely read and understood!

Comments are closed.