Beyond the Hype: The Internet and the Church

The Internet: full of promise, full of power. And full of hype. As a Christian pastor and theologian, and, until recently, a technology professional, I am disturbed by the fawning hype I frequently hear about the Internet. Some of that hype may have diminished in the wake of the dot-com bust and September 11th, 2001. But the hype has not disappeared entirely, and its presence is seen everywhere from Wall Street to Main Street to Pennsylvania Avenue. One might expect this sort of uncritical hype from those that profit, or wish to profit, from the Internet. But should we expect it, and accept it, from the church? I believe that the church can and should be more discerning in appropriating this technology.

It is often said that the Internet brings people together, that it builds community. Internet boosters tell stories of the community that people have found online. The exchange of ideas, encouragement, loving support, admonition, assistance, sympathy, commiseration: all these are experienced online daily. I can accept these stories. I believe my friends when they testify to the support they have found online for ailments, hobbies, politics, and theologies. Still a question lingers: perhaps the Internet does build “community,” but what kind of community does it build?

It seems to me that, even in “community,” the Internet is inherently isolating, depending as it does on corrupt notions of freedom and selfhood. The Internet may be the greatest tool of the modern age, but it comes with all the problematic dualities that this age and its products have had–both for good and bad, for weal and woe, for liberation and enslavement. Yet many today are unable to understand both the boon and the bane of the Internet, that it can, even while creating community, radically undermine community, and thus foster isolation.

The Internet is isolating because it subtly convinces people that fellowship and community can be had with only as much commitment as a click of a button. If I get bored, or frustrated, or angry, or hurt online, I can just log off, or connect to a different forum. The Internet is the ultimate voluntary society. And the voluntaristic impulse embedded in online interactions is destructive of real community. It erodes trust, and renders impossible the collective building of a shared history and a shared set of ideals.

The church, as a community, must do more than simply bless such an idea of community with tacit acceptance. Rather, the church ought to challenge it by living an authentic alternative. In preaching, worship, catechesis, and mission, the church has the opportunity to subvert the voluntaristic model of community many people learn from modern life, and from its most effective pedagogue, the Internet. The church can preach the good news that God in Christ established a community transcending our voluntarism. The church can teach about the meaning of the Gospel to an information-saturated people. And in mission with and among these same people the church can live out a constancy and patience that will not “log off” when times are difficult and relationships are strained.

All of these are subversive activities, because they counter and even undercut the values and assumptions that are embedded in “online culture.” In contrast to Internet ideals of choice, the church might quietly live out truths of election. Against “liberty,” it may demonstrate obedience. In the face of the exhilaration of random connections, it may witness to providence. In contrast to speed the church might value patience, perseverance, and the fruit of the Spirit. These are virtues far more interesting than the ever-new, ever-now values of the information super-highway.

Daniel M. Griswold is Associate Pastor at The Reformed Church in Plano, Texas. For three years he was Instructional Technology Coordinator at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.