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
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.
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