Churches are being dragged into the biggest cultural shift since the industrial revolution.

Today on Joseph Ratzinger’s Facebook page there is a post from a friend called “Christianity is the Epitome of Evil” concerning an archbishop in court on abuse charges.

“The Pope should be locked up in the same cell with this creep!” writes one reader. Two others note their approval with the “like” button.

Below, Ryan is outraged CEE is allowed to exist and argues that atheist freedom of speech threatens the freedom of the world’s faithful to worship.

Gina, a new Catholic, asks: Does the church think addiction is a disease? Mark questions Friday Penance: Do we still observe it?

“My Beloved Pope Benedict XVI — I Love You!!!” writes Dorothy.

“Your Holiness, please grant my family your blessing and remember us in your prayers,” writes Ferdinand.

“Holy Father, when you have a second check out both my web sites! I think you will enjoy them,” writes Mike from askacatholic.com.

“OMG, ISNT THAT THE GUY FROM STAR WARS? THE EVIL GUY?” writes Kurt Jesus.

It’s unlikely that the Pope is listening.

During the Catholic Church’s World Day of Communications in January, he came out in support of social networking, calling it a “great opportunity”.

Personally, he chooses to communicate through a less direct Catholic-designed app called Pope2you, which includes iPhone and Facebook functions and its own Youtube channel.

Nonetheless, this unofficial page created for him by someone else is an active online community, has over 9,000 followers and says a lot about the climate churches are entering when they stick their toes in the pool of new media.

Changing communication

New media — or social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook and blogs — are reviled by those who consider their major function to be wasting time, narcissistic shrines and privacy invasion.

Other prominent voices are calling highly interactive web publishing the biggest cultural shift since the industrial revolution.

While the printing press took books — including the Bible — out of the hands of the few and made them available to the masses, new media takes translation and distribution a radical step further, allowing the international publication of semi-formed ideas in almost every language to be instantly viewable and just as quickly challenged, amended, discarded or spread.

Publishing in this environment is fluid, fast and, to some people, very uncomfortable.

But like it or loathe it, the Web 2.0 environment is not simply a technological fad — it’s changing the way we communicate and exist in the world and churches are not immune.

“The rate of adoption of Facebook alone was faster than radio, television and even the internet,” writes Caleb Gardner in Relevant magazine.

“Not only can the Church not afford to ignore this shift; for those who choose to embrace it, social media can provide amazing opportunities.”

The good

Web 2.0 replaced what was referred to as Web 1.0: the internet as a series of passively read, static pages.

Web 2.0 is the current online environment in which readers help create and contribute to the places they visit by posting comments, writing entries or spreading the messages through their own online channels.

Lisa Miller, author and former religion editor at Newsweek, believes Web 2.0 is having a major impact on the way we read — and that includes theology.

In her CNN article, “My Take on How Technology Could Bring Down the Church”, she writes that young people now want to consume their spirituality by “dipping and dabbling” — the way they do Facebook, the news or their music.

“Especially among 18-29 year olds, Bible reading has come to feel like homework, associated with the ‘right’ interpretations and ‘wrong ones’ accompanied by stern lectures from the pulpit.”

New media, she continues, has the power to make theology playful, interactive and more interesting to the elusive under 30 market that churches chase.

She foresees a day when the gilt-edged family Bible is a thing of the past, replaced by a live, online document with personalised features, links to photos of weddings and baptisms and buttons for “sharing” favourite verses.

Dr Ben Myers, Lecturer in Systematic Theology at the United Theological College, is another believer in the potential of new media. And he’s seen the fruits it can bear in spiritual development.

His own blog, Faith and Theology, was among the first of its kind. Since beginning in 2005 it has grown to over 7,000 subscribers and has had over two million visitors, two thousand posts and 20,000 comments all concerned — either loosely or directly — to theology.

His posts attract a strong community of spiritual debate, support and learning that reach far further than any classroom-contained lecture.

He argues the blogging opens up theology to a larger and more diverse audience.

“The immediacy of blogging begins to mould theology into a more flexible, provisional form,” he writes in his paper, Theology 2.0: Blogging as a Theological Discourse.

Unlike the printed word, this discourse in unfixed; ideas are “live” and continue to grow, amend and ramify.

The fact that blog entries are not understood as a complete artefact means that people are free to write about many things without first achieving scholarly mastery over the different topics they cover.

Rather than this being a bad thing, he argues Web 2.0 theology inches closer to the work of pastors and clergy who are constantly challenged to theologically address unanticipated problems and solutions.

“There are encouraging signs that Web 2.0 technologies may be narrowing the divide between church and academy — a divide that has long had a deleterious effect both on the ministry of pastors and on the work of professional theologians.”

The bad

New media is pointed to as a means of solving many of the Church’s bugbear problems, offering new ways to reach more people (including youth), raise money, lobby governments, launch appeals and organise groups.

But the interactive Web 2.0 environment contains threats alongside those opportunities, as Trinity Church in Manhattan discovered when they decided to tweet their annual Passion Play as it was unfolding live.

The Twitter feed allowed many outside the church to follow along on smart phones and computers. It also allowed for unscripted characters including a Roman guard who put dibs on Jesus’ robe and some crude comments concerning Mary Magdalene.

While the intrusions were not preferable, they did not ruin Good Friday.

“If someone chooses to interact with us that’s fine,” the Rev. Canon Anne Mallonee, the church vicar, told the New York Times.

“The opposite of engagement is not mischief but apathy.”

Not all churches are as comfortable with losing control over their messages.

New media is messy. It needs monitoring. And it forces churches to engage with people, not control them.

But theology after Google does not mean the gleeful destruction of traditional Christian beliefs, the abandonment of church or the advocating of a post Christian worldview, believes US philosopher and theologian Philip Clayton.

“It means entering in good conscience into a new kind of open and exploratory discourse — a discourse in which one’s conversation partners are not committed in advance to landing where past theologians have landed,” he writes in the Princeton Theological Review.

“Many of them do not end up with a vibrant Christian identity but that is no longer a condition for theological discourse.”

Theology 2.0 means that the reach of spiritual community and learning is more accessible than ever.

But the nourishing promise of Church in everyone’s pocket, everyday, is accompanied by another threat: Will anyone still turn up on Sunday?

“Traditionalists worry that technology allows young believers to practise religion without committing to a church home — and they’re right,” writes Lisa Miller.

Gen X and “Millennials” are not as dependant on physical locations and church no longer has to be the central gathering place for believers, she continues.

Dr Geoffrey Sykes lectures in media at Notre Dame University and thinks that instead of worrying about their location, churches should be assessing the value placed on people engaged with the church in an online environment.

The Helensburgh Uniting Church member argues that the church and the media have exciting potential to be changed by each other and that church can become a media event in its own right, broadcast, recorded and published across platforms.

“In a virtual congregation the questions arise: Can a person who does not attend physical events still be an adherent of a church?

“Do virtual communities count as statistics in the same way as regular attendees? Do we need to fundamentally rethink the nature of adherence and church membership to allow all kinds of affiliations in near and distant localities?”

Media technology, he said, creates opportunity but it also requires inspired understanding for its effective use.

“The buttresses of the cathedral of faith are no longer bricks and stained glass but the impervious infrastructure of optical fibres and luminous screens.

“The task of new theology for new media is encompassing and exciting. It is possible to discover new forms of sociality and spirituality within media processes.

“At a time when old rituals are less popular, or even dying, the opportunity for new and transformed mission should be taken up with discernment but also unabated enthusiasm.”

The inevitable

Neal Locke, a US theological writer and technology enthusiast believes the choice of whether to engage with new media is a false one.

“Technology is part of God’s creation and a gift: We can use it for good, twist it to evil or ignore it,” he writes in the blog, Sacred Space in Cyberspace.

“The last option, while always popular, has rarely been successful.”

While some despair that a constant connectedness to devices may look like a disconnection from the quiet, attentive qualities required for spiritual discipline, Philip Clayton writes that, in many ways, the new medium suits the ancient message.

“I believe that the message of Jesus is relevant and as urgent for today’s world as it has ever been. I also find that the message is more accessible in today’s context than it was, say, in the comfortable days of the Eisenhower era — years of growth, comfort and clear self identities.

“This is an age of uncertainty, complexity, and unprecedented change.

“Jesus was not a provider of comfortable answers. He was not a teacher of easy black and white distinctions. He was not a prophet who asked his followers to identify with their friends and vilify the others.

“In each of these regards and in many more, the inhabitants of the Google age may be more attuned to Jesus’ message, way of thinking and way of living than were many previous ages.”

If engaged with effectively, the word of God could be one click away from going viral.

Lyndal Irons

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2 thoughts on “God goes viral”

  1. For me, the response is “Yes” to engagement, but “No” to virtual-connection as the primary means or medium of coming to faith.

    At some stage in the journey, discipleship has to be enfleshed – that is, have a clear IRL connection.

    Why? Because that’s where we really see love in action; where we experience the difference between people who care and people who don’t.

    I saw an apt tweet the other day: “The world needs more activists; there are too many click-tivists.” A faith that rests on virtual presence has no guarantee of actually helping anyone – even the disciple.

  2. There is toooo much conservatism about media in the church – a false opposition between media and everyday life, as if a church service is somehow necessary or natural expression of of faith. There needs to be a balance between the virtual and actual – but this requires understanding of the virtual

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