Designer Friends, Designer God

and the kind of church that will thrive online

This first section is paraphrased from a sermon given by Stuart Crawshaw at Gymea Anglican Church, 2nd April 2000.

My grandfather used to tell me about what life was like when he was young which was around the 1920's in England, in a place called Attacliff. It was a fairly poor place, and he remembers when the first car came down the street - he'd heard about them but never seen one—and it came chugging down the street driven by a little Yorkshireman with a peaked cap.

I asked my grandfather, “What impact did the car have on your life-style?” He told me that everyone started getting them because they were fairly accessible and not all that expensive, and the next thing that started happening was that everyone started to move away. Before the car came along, everyone needed to live near their place of work and live near their family because travel was difficult and expensive. But when the car came along it brought independence.

In Australia this had a profound effect—by the 1950's there had been a massive migration from the city centres out to the suburbs. But the car not only allowed people to move to the suburbs because they could now drive to work, to church and to see their family, it actually caused people's world's to shrink a little. Because there was no longer the need to live so close to the rest of one's family, extended families shrunk down into nuclear families.

Now, in the 60's a new invention came along—the transistor radio—and this also changed the way people related to each other. The radio was a vehicle for culture and particularly for the new youth culture that had emerged after the war and could now be spread faster than ever before. All of a sudden, young people everywhere were getting into the same kind of music, but at the same time the older generations had the opposite reaction to the new music—they heard the new lyrics and saw Elvis shaking his pelvis—and while the kids became more excited about it all, the parents hated it. We now call this division the generation gap.

As time went on, these differences became more dramatic as youth stood up and protested about such things as the Vietnam war and technology continued to grow and change people's lives more and more. I remember when the walkman first came out—I was one of the first of my mates to have one—and I'd seen Cliff Richards on his rollerskates, wired for sound. But the walkman was symbolic because instead of coming out of the surf and everyone gathering around the trannie on top of the car to listen to the same music, now when you got out of the surf everyone could put on their own walkman with their own music. So instead of getting together with my mates to listen to Cliff Richard (this is early 80's remember...), I'm wired for sound, and they're wired for sound and youth culture becomes more and more diverse because we can all listen to our own style of music. There are more choices, and I can listen to whatever music I like, I don't have to put up with what my friends like. If someone likes heavy metal they can listen to that; if someone likes pop they can listen to that; if someone likes punk they can listen to that.

So now, not only is there a generation gap, but within a generation there are groups that don't hang out with each other. Teenagers are finding excuses not to hang out with each other because they have a different culture. People who are over 30 don't want to hang out with people who are under 30 any more. Children and teenagers stop hanging out with each other. People started to become more and more separate from each other as culture became more diverse.

Here's the point: when the internet comes along in the 90's it accelerates the differences between us. There are even more choices that are open to us.

I'm a soccer fan and I support a team called Sheffield Wednesday. Fifty years ago, if I'd have wanted to see Sheffield Wednesday play, I would have had to get on a boat and go to England. Then in the 70's the television started showing Match of the Day, and I could watch just a little of them. But now I can get online and subscribe to a server that lets me listen to the match live. Once upon a time I might have got together with my soccer mates and we all would have watched the soccer together. But I don't have to do that any more because I can sit by myself and listen on the internet. I'm able to enjoy my interests almost exclusively and I don't have to share it with anyone else.

Ben continues on from Stu's thoughts...

The internet is certainly attractive enough to isolate people from each other as they pursue their unique interests and seek out exactly the right piece of entertainment for that moment. But the internet has also changed the way we relate by doing the opposite and bringing people together.

From the early days of the internet, people who are interested in increasingly specific things have been able to "meet" other people with the same interests in newsgroups, chatrooms, mailing lists and, more recently, with programs like ICQ. On ICQ, searching for a person according to what they are interested in is easy. The first choice to make is from the following:

  • Art
  • Cars
  • Celebrity Fans
  • Collections
  • Computers
  • Culture
  • Fitness
  • Games
  • Hobbies
  • Internet
  • Lifestyle
  • Movies and TV
  • Music
  • Outdoors
  • Parenting
  • Pets and Animals
  • Religion
  • Science
  • Skills
  • Sports
  • Web Design
  • Ecology
  • News and Media
  • Government
  • Business
  • Mystics
  • Travel
  • Astronomy
  • Space
  • Clothing
  • Parties
  • Women
  • Social Science
  • 60's
  • 70's
  • 80's
  • 50's
  • Finance and Corporate
  • Entertainment
  • Consumer Electronics
  • Retail Stores
  • Health and Beauty
  • Media
  • Household Products
  • Mail Order Catalog
  • Business Services
  • Audio and Visual
  • Sporting and Athletic
  • Publishing
  • Home Automation

But these categories are far too broad. Suppose I want to talk about celebrities. I then have the following options:

  • Computer Celebrities
  • Dead Celebrities
  • Famous Speeches
  • Fan Clubs
  • Models
  • Movie Celebrities
  • Music Celebrities
  • Paparazzi
  • Politicians
  • Sport Celebrities
  • TV Series Celebrities

I kinda feel like talking about Dead Celebrities, so now I have to either choose one to talk about or search under “General Dead Celebrities”. Let's say I want to talk about Gianni Versace. I can narrow my search a little more. Tonight, I feel like talking to a Danish, 18-22 year old female who is a college student in Uzbekistan and interested in Gianni Versace. To my surprise, no one matches this description, but you get the idea.

Customising yourself a friend may seem a little strange, but this is the way of the web. Choice. Options. MyThis and MyThat. Customisable sites. Sites that say hello to you and remember how many times you've visited. A virtual church must at least do that, surely?

Andrew Careaga, author of E-vangelism: Sharing the Gospel in Cyperspace, writes that to be successful, the Cyberchurch must be: Interactive, not passive; Networked, not hierarchical; Postmodern, not modern; Questioning, not accepting; Collaborative, not isolationist; Asynchronous, not time bound. His short article is worth reading in full because he identifies many of the things that are attractive about the internet and argues that the church should adopt those elements if it is going to reach the online community. He notes that “choice has become the supreme virtue in a society of shoppers” and that the internet is “a great leveler, putting all religions, regardless of their credibility, on equal footing.” The browser-window shopper searching for a religion will most likely be looking for one that will give significance to life but not require any drastic life changes. A god who I can customise—I'll decide what he likes and what he doesn't like—and a church comprised of people whom I have chosen.

How should we react to our culture's desire to design themselves a church and design themselves a god? How can we claim that the Bible has any authority in this level playing field? We claim that there is absolute truth and that there are serious consequences if you are not reconciled with Yahweh, the God of the Bible. We can explain our beliefs online, we can invite and answer questions, we can make our websites attractive so that reading and understanding is made easy, but should we encourage people to have their spiritual life online? That is the subject of the next article.

Ben

Should the church embrace the cyberculture and go underground?

Find out in The Invisible Church.

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