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Online Christian Community: Healthy or Harmful

the following is a guest post by Bobby Herrington. Bobby is pursuing his PhD in theology at SEBTS and has already done what I believe to be some important research and work in the area of media ecology and it’s relationship to the church.

Online Christian Community: Healthy or Harmful?

Because of the digital age we live in people in our culture are more connected to each other online than ever. Social networking sites like Facebook have played a huge role in this; with more than 1 billion users worldwide. But does connection equal community?

As Christians who have been called into community with God and one another, it is important to evaluate whether or not authentic Christian community can be rightly practiced online. As churches are moving in the direction of “online small groups” as well as “online campuses” I think we need to be hesitant about such forms of community.

From a practical standpoint, no medium is neutral. When we use different forms of media to communicate to one another (face to face, phone, online, etc.) the experience changes. Let me give you an example from marriage. Who in their right mind, if they could help it, would choose to propose to their future spouse over text message or through a Facebook message? There’s a triviality about these forms that wouldn’t go well with such an important message.

In addition, every medium form has a certain bias. For example, Twitter has a bias towards short, efficient messages, because of the 140 character restriction. Much of the digital world has a bias towards efficiency, while face to face communication has more of a bias towards authenticity (it’s harder to hide what’s going on in your life when you are face to face with someone). For these reasons alone, I believe that online community can never offer what face to face community offers.

And theologically, I do not think online community does justice to how the Bible tells Christians to express the community they have in the gospel. For example, can online community sustain the commitment level the the two most prominent biblical metaphors for the church require? The New Testament describes the church as the body of Christ and as a spiritual family.

For example, after Paul explains that we are the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12:13, he then goes on to command this in 1 Corinthians 12:26: “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” Authentically being the body of Christ requires something of us. It’s hard to imagine Christians living as the body of Christ, which is a very serious metaphor, without being in one another’s physical presence.
In addition, the apostle Paul was particularly fond of using family imagery to describe believer’s relationships, with at least 274 references. Can the internet alone sustain such deep familial relationships the Bible calls us to? The answer seems obvious. Who would be content solely communicating and relating to their dearest family members through the internet and nothing else? No one would. All people intuitively believe, at least based on their practice, that familial relationships require physical presence, at least for them to be healthy. And as Christians we are family.
If tomorrow a terrible tragedy strikes in your life, would you want someone to Facebook message you that they are praying for you, or show up to your house, tears in their eyes, give you a hug, and pray for you in person? Online community can be a supplement, but never a substitute.

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