The rise of the Internet is without doubt the most revolutionary development of the last 25 years. It has radically changed our lives. But has the internet also influenced the Church?
Recently Heidi Campbell, professor of digital religion at Texas A&M University, came up with a new book: ‘Digital Creatives and the Rethinking of Religious Authority’. It’s about how the rise of the internet is also changing the way we think about the church – the ecclesiology – and how missionary internet pioneers see and shape this.
I’ve known Heidi Campbell from the early years of the internet, so when she approached me in 2013 for an interview to give my perspective on this as a ‘religious digital creative’, it led to a contribution to the book. I’m making this available in a pdf.
The internet has given ordinary people (the ‘laity’) considerably more influence.
In other words: the internet has empowered people. It touches many areas of our lives, but I now limit myself to the impact on faith and the church:
- Everyone who wishes to do so has the opportunity online to nurture and shape their own spirituality, to become a creator or influencer, and to connect with others in communities and on platforms, completely outside the scope of their own church.
- To faith communities and church leaders, the internet provides an infrastructure and tools to make church fully interactive and participatory, and to extend its missionary reach far beyond the physical sphere of the church building.
This is fundamentally revolutionary. For the Church today, the Internet can be what the printing press was for the Church in the Reformation. A game-changer.
The internet encourages the church to function as a relational network. To start thinking decentrally (‘bottom-up’) about the church instead of centrally (‘top-down’), as polyculture instead of monoculture.
The internet helps us to see the church as a network, a decentralized movement and a co-creative project.
I have expressed this idea in my seminars on missionary innovation as follows:
“Tim Berners Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, has done more for the mission of the Church than the entire Church growth movement put together. Because we are now rediscovering the power of decentralized movements”.
The simple church movement, which states that you can be the Body of Christ in all sorts of places, in all kinds of forms, in the middle of everyday life, and that these groups best develop ‘organically’, is an example of this.
At a time when I blogged a lot about ’emerging church’ (2002-2007) there was another digital pioneer, Tim Bednar, who published a paper with the somewhat provocative title ‘We Know More Than Our Pastors. Why Bloggers Are the Vanguard of the Participatory Church’. Although blogging has been partly overtaken by vlogs, podcasts and social media, I consider this work to be a classic if you want to understand how the internet influences ecclesiology. You can simply extend the lines of thought.
A generation that grew up with the internet makes different demands on the church.
Bednar expresses this as follows:
“We expect a co-creative church in which we can not only participate fully, but which we can help to shape in all aspects”.
Say a digital priesthood of all believers.
There’s still a lot to be said about this, but I promised to keep my mails short and concise. To deepen your understanding, I invite you to read the two publications I have linked to.
If you want to discuss in-depth what this means for your congregation or organization, book an innovation consultation.