The internet is still extremely young. It was first developed in the 1960’s and 70’s as a method of computers passing information to each other. But before then, information was passed from person to person by writing letters, or by going to a library and reading a book (ah the good old days). Most of the books written about religion were done so by scholars, as they were usually the only ones who could get published on the subject. These scholars usually studied at such a high level that many could not grasp the concept of their practices. Many people got their questions answered by their local vicar; they’d turn up, sit in a pew and accept what they were being told. The sermons they heard were just be focused on what can be taken from scripture and how they should apply such lessons to their lives. Each church and denomination could control what their congregation was exposed to, not always deliberately, but I’ll come back to that. It was much harder to hear (and express) different views in those days.
The internet changed everything. Information was suddenly freely available and freely exchanged; it connected the world in a way that had never been seen before. Suddenly, people were faced with a multitude of views that not only differed from their own, but they were hearing opinions that they never knew existed. Information that was reserved for scholars flooded in at an approachable level and really changed the entire landscape of theological discussion; and many were not prepared for it. It got people thinking and threw up questions of what were their churches not telling them. It has caused people to turn away from the Christian faith, it has caused others to re-evaluate everything they thought they knew about the Bible. Questions of history, inerrancy, what it means to have faith, even what it means to be part of a church, all came under scrutiny. This is before we even get into the unleashing of atheistic views, which brings about its own set of challenges.
Like many things, the internet has its good and bad points. It really has opened up the discussion of religion, and allowed people to engage with other viewpoints to help understanding. It’s also helped people to understand where their faith lies and indeed strengthened it. However, there is a lot of misinformation on the internet regarding many things; the internet is largely unregulated and the only knowledge you need to publish something is to know how to turn on your computer. It is very difficult pulling out the correct information – due to the anonymity that the internet provides, people can write/promote what they want without worrying about the consequences and are not slow to do so (especially if they think you’re wrong) Sadly, many Christians think this gives them a free pass to say what they want as well; I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been branded a heretic or not a true Christian for speaking my mind, and more than once I’ve been told I’m going to burn in hell for my theological views; and this is nothing compared to what some are subjected to. It’s a very challenging place to be.
Beyond just allowing information, the internet has questioned and changed what it means to be a community. People are spending more time online than ever before and it’s changing how we interact with each other. Many Christians are now members of online churches rather than walking into a church building. The internet is also a bit of a paradox; whilst it promotes itself as a place of free speech, it doesn’t always allow the space and time needed for people to wrestle freely with their issues. People have taken the “circle the wagons” mentality, where only their viewpoint is valid and should not be questioned by others on the internet. This is not restricted to Christian sites either. It puts the focus on where we differ as people rather than sharing what we have in common; this is something that’s probably permeating my blogs a bit of late.
You can’t escape the information and critiques now and churches need to do more to interact with what people are asking, if they don’t, someone else will. There is now an atheist hotline, and it’s things like this that Christians now have no choice but to acknowledge that we must truly engage with the questions and not just trot about our doctrinal mantra. We also need to be encouraged to ask questions – we can’t answer a question before we’ve asked it ourselves.
The internet has changed the world, it’s here to stay and yes, it is rather apt to use a website to comment on the internet, this has not escaped me.