‘Cyber church’ has bats in belfry

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From my Irreverent column in Rev. magazine, May/June 2008

Ten years ago (eons in Internet time), I wrote a snarky critique of the emerging “cyber church.” That was in 1998 when George Barna, the wet-finger-in-the-wind church expert, was predicting that, and I quote, “a majority of Americans . . . completely isolated from the traditional church format . . . will roam the Internet in search of meaningful spiritual experiences. Those people will never set foot on a church campus because their religious and spiritual needs will be met through other means—including the Internet.”

I speculated that if ‘net heads were leaving spouses due to chat room affairs and stealing millions with Internet fraud, perhaps, they should have their sins forgiven at the St. Microsoft site.

“Father Bill, I have sinned.”

“Say 100 ‘Hail Windows’ and thy sins will be forgiven, my child.”

Today, when you google “cyber church,” you get 334,000 listings including the 3-D ChurchOfFools.com, sponsored by the United Kingdom’s Methodist church. There you can, and again I quote, “choose a cartoon character, enter the church, walk around, sit in a pew, explore the sanctuary and crypt, key in some prayers, and even ring the church bells.”

And there are some great online resources. At BibleGateway.com you can search hundreds of translations. You can get the latest Christian-oriented news at ChristianPost.com. And, of course, online sermons at SermonCentral.com—the savior of those coming up to Saturday night with absolutely nothing for Sunday morning’s message! I’m even on a couple list serves for prayers requests.

But ten years later, I still believe there are the two very big bats in the cyber church belfry.

Virtual identities

An “avatar” is a computer-generated mask a user wears. You never know for sure who you’re talking to. That buff-looking 20-something guy may be an overweight 78-year-old perv. And the woman who sounds like Mother Teresa could be the anti-Christ himself. It’s hard to have authentic and intimate relationship with brothers and sisters in Christ online. At best, it’s virtual authenticity and intimacy.

Virtual reality

That’s an oxymoron as much as bitter-sweet, jumbo-shrimp, and part-time pastor. Real churches don’t hide behind glitzy graphics and ghost-written copy—all perfectly packaged by some over-paid computer genius. Real churches feature imperfect pastors and parishioners. And sometimes the music is dated, the doughnuts are stale and the sermon is boring. But it’s real.

Real is messy. Real is sometimes boring. Real doesn’t have all the answers. But real is a Sunday school teacher who still loves you after you throw up in the sandbox. Real is a pastor who gets out of bed at 3 a.m. to meet you at the emergency room. Real is tears of joy when a member celebrates another year of sobriety.

The Google guys aren’t going hold your hand at the funeral home or hospital room. Yahoo! doesn’t serve communion. And Bill Gates won’t let you borrow folding chairs for your graduation open house. Get real.

© Copyright James N. Watkins

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