If somebody drew a map of the World Wide Web in 2005, they might include the hills of Yahoo, the MySpace valley and the City of Craigslist (connected, of course, with Information Super Highways.) But in 2005, we didn’t realize that this was a medieval map, and along the edge should be scrawled “here there be dragons.”
Fifteen years later, the opportunities of the internet have led to the ubiquity of smartphones, the rise of social media, and the many disruptions of Silicon Valley. We’ve seen dragons crawl from the edges to dominate the map.
What are these dragons, and why wasn’t the Church ready for them?
We refer to the time we spend on the internet as being connected. Perhaps the term is meant to evoke Neo plugging into the Matrix. The idea is that technology removes space and time’s tyranny, making it possible to check-in with, make purchases from, or even go on dates with people anywhere in the world.
The truth is that, even before the Great Pandemic of 2020, people were feeling more isolated than ever. According to a CDC study released in early 2020, one-third of adults aged 45 and older feel lonely, and nearly one-fourth of adults aged 65 and older are considered to be socially isolated. Loneliness appears to be on the increase, and it appears to be explicitly tied to our use of social media. Another recent study showed that “73% of very heavy social media users were considered lonely, as compared with 52% of light users.”
It is probably too much to blame the “Loneliness Epidemic” solely on the internet. American life has been working for decades to break down traditional social connections of families, communities, and villages.
Churches are often slow to respond. Those organizations that grew up in a specific era, bound to the era’s social structures, have struggled to retain their members. Newer, entrepreneurial churches seem to thrive by offering a more hip repackaging of Christian community, but they do little to affect the overall decreasing number of Jesus-followers.
“Porn sites receive more regular traffic than Netflix, Amazon, & Twitter combined each month. 8. 35% of all internet downloads are estimated to be porn-related.” And while it is dangerous to rank such things, it seems the type of pornography that people are consuming is becoming more depraved.
Of course, pornography is a symptom of a greater dehumanization problem, a willingness to reject the innate value of others made in God’s image. Dehumanization is also seen in the practice of “doxxing,” where individuals’ private information is published, often with malicious intent.
Stories of doxxing often follow a certain progression. A person says or does something that makes a certain group of people mad, the group responds by digging up and releasing phone numbers and addresses of the individual and their families. The original victim and their loved ones live with insults and death threats, often affecting their ability to make a livelihood, for years to come.
Such bullying or witch-hunting isn’t new, but the internet and social media have opened the door for doxxing to become a simple and common practice.
Sadly, the church is not immune. Versions of such bullying techniques are used in battles between different Christian groups and against church leaders with opposing viewpoints.
The early days of big websites like Wikipedia and YouTube were driven by a philosophy that the internet should be open. Everyone should be allowed to speak. Hopefully, the most valid voices will rise to the top.
In 2020, we realize that truth does not automatically rise to the top, and in fact, many of the tools people rely on for their news can thrive off of misinformation and disinformation.
The freedom of the internet has given us the temporary joys of short-lived Wikipedia edits (“the first law of Thermodynamics is do not talk about thermodynamics”) and, of course, a submarine named Boaty McBoatface. However, it has also allowed for ongoing chaos in the US electoral system, and delegitimized the scientifically accurate approaches to limiting the Coronavirus.
Disinformation has hit the church hard during the pandemic in the form of QAnon. The online movement could be described as a conglomeration of conspiracy theories which has, since the pandemic, risen to the level of a cult. RNS reporter Katelyn Beaty captures the problem this way:
For years in the 1980s and ’90s, U.S. evangelicals, above nearly any other group, warned what will happen when people abandon absolute truth (which they located in the Bible), saying the idea of relative truth would lead to people believing whatever confirms their own inward hunches. But suspicion of big government, questioning of scientific consensus (on evolution, for example) and a rejection of the morals of Hollywood and liberal elites took hold among millennial Christians, many of whom feel politically alienated and beat up by mainstream media. They are natural targets for QAnon.
Ed Stetzer adds that many evangelical Christians have a distrust for mainstream media which “can feed a penchant for conspiracy theories.”
As concerning as it is, it’s helpful to note that in many ways QAnon, with its mysterious ring of Devil-worshipping pedophiles, harkens back to the Satanic Panic of the 1980s.
There’s nothing new under the sun, including disinformation. The problem is, the church still wasn’t prepared.
So, what can a local church leader do?
Three Weapons to Fight the Dragons of the Internet
Many church leaders have felt overwhelmed by the internet and chosen to bow out completely. Churches overwhelmed by the internet have websites that haven’t been updated since GeoCities and pastors who proudly refuse to use social media.
But the pandemic has shown us that ambivalence to the internet just won’t cut it in 2020.
The fact is, your church might not be on the internet—but your church is on the internet.
Don’t be overwhelmed. There are a few basic things you can do to get started.
First, make sure your church shows up on the internet.
You need a website. It should have a name that sounds like your church name. It should list the time and locations that you meet. It needs a few minor backend SEO things set up so that Google can find it. You get bonus points for a real picture of smiling people from your congregation.
You need to show up where people are looking. Set up an account on Yelp. Ask your most trustworthy members to write a nice review. Bonus points if you can get them to put it on Google Maps and Facebook, too. If you feel weird about asking people for a review, just remember, that’s where people are looking. Chances are, if you were new in town, looking for a church, you would look there, too.
You need to be on social media. That doesn’t mean you have to have an immaculate, strategic account on Snapchat and TikTok and every new network. Pick one (probably Facebook), fill it out thoroughly and post a nice picture once a week.
Just get started.
Second, incorporate discipleship on the internet into your plan for discipleship.
Your church has a plan for discipleship—right?
Sadly, not all churches do. If you ask the church’s leaders, they might rattle off something about participating in small groups or Sunday School and eventually becoming givers—which is all great. But what is your plan for helping people become like Jesus?
Think of discipleship this way:
Dallas Willard often referred to discipleship as the process of becoming who Jesus would be if he were you. A church’s plan for discipleship is to help people close the gap between who they are today and who they would be if they were more like Jesus.
This means helping people think and act differently—including how they think about the internet and act on the internet!
Discipleship for the internet age means seriously considering how to live out the Sermon on the Mount in our online interactions (how do you turn the other cheek to a troll?) and how to discern truth from misinformation.
Imagine what it would be like for your church to act just a little more like Jesus…when they get online!
Third, experiment with digital expressions of Church.
The pandemic has forced Christians to reevaluate their ecclesiology. Congregations that have spent millions over decades on church buildings are gathering in backyards and parking lots. The squirting of the hand sanitizer has replaced the Passing of the Peace. Oh, and singing together, unmasked, is one of the most dangerous things you can do.
We are realizing that there isn’t so much a “right way” or a “wrong way” to do church. There are only expressions of church. Our expressions of church developed in a certain context, such as the Catholic expressions of medieval Europe, the Lutheran expressions of Renaissance Germany, the Reformed expressions of Puritan England or the Wesleyan expressions of Revivalist America. Closer to home, we have the expression of Church experienced on Sunday morning as a family, the expression of Church experienced as a home group around the dinner table, the expressions of Church experienced by youth group teenagers or college-age young adults.
No one expression captures the fullness of the body of Christ. And that’s okay.
People are looking for community. They’re looking for truth and purpose. They are looking for it online.
The question is, will they find your church when they go looking?
What exactly is a digital expression of Church? It can be many things: a gathering around a live-streamed sermon, a Zoom room where people pray for each other, gatherings within video games. There are even deep, discipling conversations that are taking place in well-moderated Facebook groups willing to discuss hot-button issues from a Christian perspective.
Are these things “Church”?
People are gathering together and before Jesus, with a willingness to grow closer to each other and God. At the very least, they are an expression of the Body of Christ. And they take place online, where people are looking.
Time to Stop Ignoring the Dragons
The internet and social media are here to stay. It turns out the internet was full of dragons, ready to steal, kill and destroy God’s people. Most churches weren’t ready for it.
But it’s not too late.
It’s actually kind of exciting.
Dragon-slayers are the thing of legend.
Chris works across the organization to help get new projects off the ground and into the world. He also helps to manage our email, social media and other digital communications. He helped plant Austin Mustard Seed, where he served for five years as Community Developer. He also works with several other non-profits and businesses to tell their story with content and social media. In 2012, he graduated from Fuller Theological Seminary with a M.A. in Global Leadership. He lives in Austin, Texas with his wife Laura.