Friday, July 16, 2010

The Church in a Mass-Media World

Personally, I think cyberspace means the end of our species...because it means the end of innovation. This idea that the whole world is wired together is mass death. Every biologist knows that small groups in isolation evolve fastest. You put a thousand birds on an ocean island and they'll evolve very fast. You put ten thousand on a big continent, and their evolution slows down. Now, for our own species, evolution occurs mostly through our behavior. We innovate new behavior to adapt. And everybody on earth knows that innovation only occurs in small groups. Put three people on a committee and they may get something done. Ten people, and it gets harder. Thirty people, and nothing happens. Thirty million, it becomes impossible. That's the effect of mass media - it keeps anything from happening. Mass media swamps diversity. It makes every place the same. Bangkok or Tokyo or London: there's a McDonald's on one corner, a Benneton on another, a Gap across the street. Regional differences vanish. All differences vanish. In a mass-media world, there's less of everything except the top ten books, records, movies, ideas. People worry about losing species diversity in the rain forest. But what about intellectual diversity - our most necessary resource? That's disappearing faster than trees. But we haven't figured that out, so now we're planning to put five billion people together in cyberspace. And it'll freeze the entire species. Everything will stop dead in it's tracks. Everyone will think the same thing at the same time. Global uniformity.

-Michael Crichton in The Lost World (1995)

Although Crichton's words from 15 years ago seem quite prescient, our concerns lie in different directions. What I wonder about is not necessarily the evolution of species or whether innovation will continue at a stunning space. What concerns me is what the constantly interconnected online community will mean for the church. In the short term, if it is used in a healthy way by the church, then it means sharing of resources, the spreading of preaching, knowledge, and information. It means having an online community (Puritanbard for example) where men can help each other pursue truth and a love of the gospel. On the downside, I think Crichton is right that society will continue to break into smaller communities within the cyberspace domain in ways that are theologically unhealthy, and therefore genuinely unhealthy.

I think, for example, of a group that a friend invited me to on Facebook (I declined) called "Facebook Church." Many may look at FB Church as an innocent enough of a group, and it probably is, but it reflects a shifting understanding of community away from physical, organic, and personal interaction towards impersonal, inorganic, and purely platonic categories of what defines a community - and especially a community of Christ's people. We're only 15 years or so into the widespread acceptance of the internet as a part of everyday life, and now we're seeing entire churches which appear online, and which webcast their messages - often live - for their audiences to "participate" in.

Taken on their own these developments have their undeniably positive aspects. I love going to Puritanboard to get my tough questions answered. I love downloading podcasts of The Narrow Mind, Christ the Center, the Heidelcast, the Dividing Line, etc. I love podcasting in the latest sermons from Tim Keller, Ligon Duncan, John Piper, Sinclair Ferguson, and the rest of the team.

However, Christianity becomes anemic if disconnected from our real community at our local church, where we contribute our gifts, where we take communion together, where we hear the same word preached from the same pulpit, and where we know and pray for one another. Online communities can only present a faint shadow of the true Christian community as God intended it. Christianity is a physical religion. In contrast to the platonists the neo-platonists, and the gnostics, Christianity taught that the physical world is good and blessed by God, and that physical interaction is good. This is part and parcel of why Christians do not simply hide themselves in a monastic cloister and practice their private religious ceremonies (such as communion) alone.

So here comes the real irony of when the internet is used in an unhealthy way by Christians. While all Christian online communities start as a way of connecting the church, if abused (like all of God's gifts) its purpose is perverted and people end up being disconnected in meaningful ways from one another. The internet is so young that we are all the pioneers in a sense of how to balance our lives on it and with the church.

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