Early visions of online religion pictured cyberspace as distinct from “brick and mortar” houses of worship, just as Amazon is different from a local bookstore. These online spaces allowed the germination of online spiritualities as independent movements, set apart from the jurisdiction of the local church. Internet spirituality was seen by some to be disruptive of religious practice, identity, and community.
Today, however, what’s interesting for religious communities is how faith leaders and devoted believers are actively constructing online religious platforms. They are powerfully shaping virtual culture and anchoring cyberfaith back to local parishes.
There are a growing number of social networking sites that have been constructed to incorporate religious themes, and that regulate online behaviors to specifically comply with interpretations of God’s word.
These “faith-based MySpaces” allow users to exchange prayer requests, share favorite praise music, faith-related videos and photographs, and to find potential significant others. But users must agree to abide by multiple terms of conduct in line with principles of “Christian fellowship.” On Xianz.com, users cannot “post foul, vulgar, obscene or sexually explicit language, racial epithets, hateful or derogatory words or phrases” as “using such content or language undermines the goals of a Christian community-oriented service.”
YourChristianSpace.com, is an online community promoted as “a better place for Christians” encourages users to “meet new saints” and “let their light so shine” online. All over the internet people masquerade as people they are not, take on new roles, assume ‘avatars’, but here users are instructed to “not lie or misrepresent age, gender or e-mail addresses using YourChristianSpace.com Services… Because of the sensitive nature of the subjects discussed in Blogs, Message Boards, and Chat rooms, it is necessary to ensure that individuals do not assume identities other than their own.”
Besides the enforcement of strict terms of conduct that could lead to account termination, faith believers are often explicitly reminded of scripture to shape their netiquette. For example, FaithFreaks.com, billed as “the premier Christian social network”, filters obscene pictures and language, citing a Bible verse in Ephesians that says “there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.”
Social network users are also reminded to live a holy and righteous life rooted in another scriptural verse in Romans which states that they are “not to engage in the sinful activities the world promotes,” but rather to “conform themselves and their minds to Jesus Christ.”
Spiritual shaping of the internet is also evident in guidelines that have been published by religious organizations like the Evangelical Alliance to “give bloggers a moral edge in a virtual age.”
Ten cyberspace commandments, based on the Ten commandments of the Old Testament, include “You shall not misuse your screen name by using your anonymity to sin,” “You shall not give false testimony against your fellow-blogger,” and “You shall not covet your neighbor’s blog ranking. Be content with your own content.”
Furthermore, the lines between religious clicks and bricks are blurring as one commandment instructs faith believers to “Remember the Sabbath day by taking one day off a week from your blog.” As it turns out, faith believers are reminded to log off to preserve an electronic-free day of worship. The Internet is to be viewed as a supplement, not a replacement, for physical religious practices.
Notably, a popular social networking site MyChurch.org aims to complement local church services by being “the best place to build your church’s online community,” using tools like a sermon library, bulletin board for prayer requests and announcements, events calendar, and spaces for members to share their blogs, pictures, and videos. So far, many churches have logged on. 30,000 churches have created a social network on MyChurch.org for their congregation to “extend their communities between Sundays.”
As we witness the growth of these social networking sites, we are seeing a surprising contrast to earlier waves of digital communication as autonomous, even critical of established religious practices within local parishes and causing sedition. Instead of subversion of religious authority, users of FaithFreaks.com are reminded of the Web site’s value to “urge all members to find a local church” and its “desire to provide opportunities to assist them in that search.” In this way, fellow sites’ users are linked back to the cathedrals of worship, and into the governing arms of their pastors and preachers.
And some of these arms are feverishly writing as well. Several pastors have become prominent and influential “A-list” bloggers. Many of the leaders of large Christian organizations, including megachurches like Lakewood Church and The Potter’s House regularly author their own blogs and “e-votionals,” or spiritual devotionals, that are on or linked from their Web sites.
To understand the motivations of clergy bloggers, I recently interviewed a pastor of a large church in California whose blog registered about 400,000 hits since last year. She emphasized the faith imperative for her blogging and said,
If Jesus Christ was alive today, he will not be preaching his parables by the lakeside, he will have a blog. In the past, we had the Gutenberg revolution and the invention of the printing press and that changed religion in the middle ages, now we have a new communications revolution in this new era, so those of us who are committed to the good news of the gospel, need to use the internet for evangelism.
Online evangelism. Communication revolution. Is this faith computer-mediated colonization?
Remarkably, some names and tags of social networking sites point clearly to the significance of cyber-missionary work and building God’s kingdom here on earth and online. The site ChristianNation.com is advertised as the “alternative to Myspace and Facebook,” while 5loaves.net is named to remind believers of the story of Christ feeding the thousands with five loaves and two fishes, and to represent the exponential multiplication of relationships and resources via online social networking.
As competition in the religious marketplace heats up, branding of online sites with theological labels and reasons may be ever more important to ensure that faith publications and parishes survive.
But let’s remember that fierce religious devotion is also in competition with e-commerce profiteering. God or Mammon? On some sites promoting a “family-friendly, safe, protected environment” we are seeing both.
Flash advertising banners frame some social networking sites, publicizing new online theological degrees, gospel concerts, movie releases, and dating services. In a hyperlink analysis of more than 200 blogs with mentions of Christianity, I also found that many religious bloggers link to mainstream news media sites, other non-religious blogs, and online collaborative knowledge networks like Wikipedia on their blogroll.
And so it turns out that God blogs provide a window to view the melding of the personal and communal, the sacred and profane. Amazingly, with the clarion call of faith and undertow of commercialization, social networking sites are emerging as new battlegrounds for eyeballs and souls.
E-vangelism is here to stay.