COMMENTARY: Connecting online and in person

In my online faith exchanges, we relate by words, not genders, ages or socioeconomic circumstance. That means we connect at the level of life, not surfaces.

July 30, 2013 | Viewpoints
Tom Ehrich | Religion News Service

A tech writer’s obituary for PCWorld’s print magazine — part tongue-in-cheek, part nostalgia riff — reminded me that I once devoured that magazine, now kaput.

It was an early lens into the fascinating world of personal computing. Its ads and articles stoked dreams of power and speed.

I soon became part of PCWorld’s dilemma. I dropped the print mag and began seeking tech news on the Internet. It was faster and fresher, had clickable links to other sites, great art, and brevity. PCWorld itself went online.

Much of my world has switched to the Internet. I do most of my banking and bill paying online, shop online, order lunch online, learn choir music online, teach classes online, use email and text messaging extensively, and read the news online.

Nothing unusual in any of that. Such web-centered behavior has become the new normal. Any enterprise that isn’t considering ways to move its operations online is losing its future.

In my world, more and more churches are going web. Electronic newsletters replace mailed paper. Clergy use email to communicate, as do staff and volunteers. Tweets, Facebook posts, e-blasts and text messages carry word of emergencies. Constituents make donations online.

There’s more. Classes are moving online, as are interviews with job candidates and opinion surveys. Some congregations are experimenting with worship online and small groups. Every Sunday morning, some 600,000 people a minute access Bible verses online using one app.

Some of this Internet use is trendy and will recede. Some is ill-conceived and will be abandoned. But in general, a new age has arrived, and it probably will have as much impact on Christianity as the printed Bible.

People are no longer tethered to the church at the corner, or to the denomination of their parents, or to the fast-fading routines of Sunday morning worship. People can seek God at whatever time or place the urge strikes. No need to save it for Sunday and then take it to a pew where people aren’t nearly as friendly as they think they are, and the worship experience tends to be flat or disputatious.

Some of my deepest spiritual exchanges take place online — with readers, with people far away, with kindred spirits I met at a conference. No need to endure an hourlong meeting in order to have one from-the-heart exchange. No need to survive meeting bullies, waste-of-time agendas, posturing, sandbagging, or bickering.

No need to get lost in stereotypes. In my online faith exchanges, we relate by words, not genders, ages or socioeconomic circumstance. That means we connect at the level of life, not surfaces.

Can everything be done online? Of course not. Hugs matter, eyes and faces matter. Swaying to the gospel beat requires the bumping of hips. The fire of a great preacher, the humble submission of pride, the pain of loss, the lash of injustice — those need incarnation, too.

We need both: physical presence and online presence. That’s what will change the Christian enterprise. In their quest for faith, people will gravitate toward whatever venue offers depth, authenticity and meaning. They will network with people who have something to offer, not with people protecting their worldview or their pew. They will embrace needs larger than institutional survival.

Local congregations will need to do more than open the doors on Sunday. Online venues will need to do more than host clever videos.

--July 29, 2013

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