The Web and the Church

April 24th, 2014

One Day With the Web

It’s snowing in Philadelphia this morning. Will the kids have school? I boot up our PC to check a local news website. No snow day for them, but can I get to work? The transit system’s homepage reports my train is on schedule, but the bus to the terminal is delayed. As I wait at the stop, I send my wife a text message warning her of an especially icy patch of sidewalk. I then try focusing on the daily prayer app I downloaded yesterday—though, truthfully, I’m distracted by the notification chimes of Words With Friends (a word game I enjoy playing).

At the office, I snap a picture of snow-covered Philly from my window and post it to Facebook. Friends from Massachusetts to Texas instantly start “liking” it. At lunch, I scan news headlines, schedule a doctor’s appointment, pay a bill, and post comments on a favorite blog.

At home that night, I find my son completing homework assignments on his teachers’ homepages. Once he logs off, I log on, checking his grades. Printed report cards are sooo 20th century.

We order a pizza online, paying in advance—the only cash I’ll need is the tip. Before the food arrives, I click on tomorrow’s forecast. No more snow expected . . . for now!

How We’ve Welcomed the Web

No two people’s daily experiences with the World Wide Web are identical, but you may recognize some aspects of mine. In its 25 years, the Web has become a recognizable, seemingly indispensable aspect of many peoples’ lives—two out of every five, in fact, according to The New York Times: “Every minute, billions of connected people send each other hundreds of millions of messages, share 20 million photos and exchange at least $15 million in goods and services.”

Pew Research reports that 87 percent of adults in the United States use the Internet. Over half (53 percent) say it would be “very hard” to give it up. Of this group, 61 percent say that “being online [is] essential for job-related or other reasons.” Pew Research also reports that almost four out of ten adults—39 percent—feel they “absolutely need” Internet access.

Do Americans regard the Web as a good thing? Ninety percent say it has benefitted them personally. Seventy-six percent say it has benefitted society.

“The Web,” says Sir Tim Berners-Lee, “has without doubt transformed our lives in the US.” He should know. After all, he invented it.

The Web, Then and Now

As Pew Research notes, the terms Web and Internet have become synonymous for most Americans; but in reality they are distinct. The Web uses the Internet—protocols that allow computer networks to communicate—to let individual computers access files and pages hosted on others. The online magazine Motherboard recently declared the World Wide Web to be the Internet’s “killer app,” the breakthrough application that galvanizes public awareness and adoption of a technology.

In late 1989, however, Tim Berners-Lee wasn’t necessarily seeking a new way for the world to communicate, only a select group. Particle physicists who conducted experiments at the CERN particle physics laboratory in Switzerland wanted to continue collaborating after returning home. Berners-Lee proposed to CERN management a set of technologies that would enable Internet computer connections. Despite the rejection of his first proposal, he eventually developed “the three fundamental technologies that remain the foundation of today’s Web”: Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), for Web publishing; Uniform Resource Identifier (URI), for Web “addresses”; and Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP), for retrieving Web resources. In 1993, CERN made the “W3” software Berners-Lee developed available royalty-free.

That same year, the University of Illinois released Mosaic, the first Web browser capable of displaying text and images together. “Mosaic made the web come to life with color and images,” explains Wired magazine’s Michael Calore, “something that, for many people, finally provided the online experience they were missing. It made the web a pleasure to use.”

Since then, the Web has provided much pleasure—and pain, perplexity, and everything in between. Its pervasiveness surprises even its inventor. “It was really important that [the Web] could have anything on it,” says Berners-Lee, “but the idea that it would end up with almost everything on it—that seemed like a crazy idea at the time.”

Quality Connections?

Increasingly, the Web has become as much about personal expression and interaction as the dissemination of information. As Kevin Kelly of Wired recalls, “We all kind of expected this to be like television, but better, like TV 2.0 . . . [with] five million channels of specialty information . . . produced by experts. . . . We missed all the stuff that was going to be produced by the audience, by the users, by a gazillion small time people producing YouTube videos or blogs or twittering.”

The shift to what’s often called “Web 2.0”—a broad concept generally emphasizing the “personal and dynamic” Web experience (World Wide Web Foundation)—led to Time magazine’s choice of “you” as its Person of the Year in 2006. Surveying the webscape, Time saw “the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes. . . . This is an opportunity to build a new kind of international 3 understanding . . . citizen to citizen, person to person. It’s a chance for people to look at a computer screen and really, genuinely wonder who’s out there looking back at them.”

Undeniably, the Web can connect people—or, at least, the online “faces” people present to the virtual world. But do these connections enhance life? Pew Research asked and found that “70% of internet users say they had been treated kindly or generously by others online,” and that “56% . . . have seen an online group come together to help a person or a community solve a problem.” This positive experience extends to the people users know offline as well as on: “67% . . . say their online communication with family and friends has generally strengthened those relationships.”

The Web does not automatically foster quality connections. As recent cases of cyberbullying demonstrate, users can express themselves in hurtful ways. Twenty percent of teens told Pew Research that their peers are “mostly unkind” online, while only five percent of adults said the same. Other users spend more time with “friends” in cyberspace than friends in the same room. Dr. Alex Lickerman, a University of Chicago psychologist, explains, “We may feel we’re connecting effectively with others via the Internet, but too much electronic-relating paradoxically engenders a sense of social isolation. . . . For transferring information efficiently, the Internet is excellent. For transacting emotionally sensitive or satisfying connections, it’s not.”

The Church and the Web

No technology as transformative as the Web can avoid affecting the Christian church. Presumably, few Christians would argue that the substance of the gospel should change in response to a world on the Web; however, many Christians recognize that the ways the church communicates in that world must change.

The open and interactive nature of the Web presents great opportunity and great challenge. Author Jennifer Fulwiler, for example, whose own conversion to Roman Catholicism involved reading online religious debates, points to these attributes of Web culture as reasons “the internet age will be an age of our culture’s rediscovery of Christianity.” Yet Christian apologist Josh McDowell points to those same attributes as threats: “The Internet has given atheists, agnostics, skeptics, the people who like to destroy everything that you and I believe, the almost equal access to your kids as your youth pastor and you have . . . whether you like it or not.”

Other Christians are doing more than talking about Christianity online. In early 2012, the Reverend Bruce Reyes-Chow, former moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA), announced an intent to establish a new church “that worships, serves, studies and prays together . . . [which] will just happen to gather online.” Countering initial skepticism about “an online church,” Reyes-Chow emphasized, “We’re even flipping it and calling it ‘a church online.’ . . . We don’t want people to assume that the only thing about us is that we’re online, when really the thing about us is that we’re just a church.”

This particular project’s future remains uncertain. What is certain is that more Christians are exploring how the church can do more than simply use the Web. How can we follow Christ on the Web, which is now spread so wide, for good or for ill, across the world that God so loves?

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs.

comments powered by Disqus