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Treading Online An Act Of Faith

Treading Online An Act Of Faith Lilly Foundation Funding Grants Insights into Religion News

Promise or peril? An online guidebook gives religious congregations insights into navigating Web 2.0 technologies.

The Web presents church leaders with all kinds of mixed emotions. On the one hand, they want to embrace its promise of increased connection among members. On the other, they fear the Web may lead members astray or diminish their investment in the local congregation.

Andrea Useem, a freelance writer who has written a guide to the Web for churches, says such fears are real but probably misplaced.

“There are things they’re worried about, they probably shouldn’t be worried about, and there are things they’re not worried about that they probably should worry about,” says Useem, author of "The Networked Congregation: Embracing the Spirit of Experimentation."

The 50-page guide, written with a grant from the Lilly Endowment, is designed to give clergy and lay leaders an introduction to Web 2.0 technologies so they can make informed decisions about their use in faith communities.

Useem starts off by explaining the difference between the older generation’s use of the Web, and Web 2.0. She likens the difference to that between Britannica Online and Wikipedia. The one encyclopedia is static and written by experts; the other is interactive and is constantly being updated and revised by users.

She then explores some of the issues related to the use of the Web in congregational life. Among them is the question of whether the multifaceted religious venues on the Web — including digital communities, inspirational podcasts and online ritual — may ultimately obviate the need for brick-and-mortar congregations.

Research suggests otherwise. Heidi Campbell, who has studied faith communities’ use of the Web, says religious activity online often leads people to become more invested in their offline local congregations.

“If anything, once people build significant relationships online or experience new forms of community, they often desire to take them offline or replicate them in their faith community,” says Campbell, assistant professor of communications at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas.

Another concern among religious leaders is that online religion loses something intrinsic when it has no physical or communal manifestation. And indeed, Useem cites several examples of religious experimentation on the Web, including JerusalemWesternWall.com, which allows people to send an electronic prayer that will be handwritten on paper and stuffed into the crevices of those iconic stones, and another Web site that offers a “virtual hajj,” or Muslim pilgrimage experience.

Campbell says some of those concerns about disembodied online faith are valid, especially for Christians who view the Eucharist as central to worship.

But, she adds, people’s experience of worship online — despite its obvious limitations — can still be genuine.

“It is the chocolate chip cookie factor,” Campbell says. “You can pray, encourage and debate online but you can't give someone a real hug, or bring them a plate of chocolate chip cookies if they are hurting or had a bad day.”

And while congregations may encourage or discourage use of the Web, it’s the membership that ultimately will make it happen. Useem’s guide recommends that clergy ask what online features congregants are using. Do they share photos on Flickr, keep up with friends on Facebook, or post pithy comments on Twitter?

If so, churches may want to take advantage of those tools to better share in the life of the congregation. Many leaders may find members are one step ahead of the game. They’re blogging about their spiritual lives or “friending” their co-religionists on social networking sites.

Whatever forms of Web communication a congregation may wish to engage in, it must serve a larger purpose, the guidebook’s experts agree.

“One of the main things a congregation needs to consider when looking to develop an online presence is its mission and theology,” Campbell says. “In other words, what do they want to accomplish and does their online presence enhance or distract from this mission?”

The mission should drive the technology; not the other way around.

Or, as one expert quoted in "The Networked Congregation" summed up his attitude toward the Web: “Yes, there’s all kinds of junk on the Internet. That doesn’t mean it can’t be used for positive, valid reasons.”

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