When the Internet destroys the peace and unity of the church
I have now been blogging for close to five weeks. I have learned a number of things during that period of time but there is no doubt that my most disappointing discovery has been the negativity and contentiousness that online discourse seems to breed. I have no particular person or website in mind. Look at the comment thread on virtually any website and you will be dismayed to see how Christians speak to (or past) one another. Track the posts and comments of virtually any writer (including myself) and you will inevitably find that they have written something they later regret. On the Internet we are not face to face with our conversation partners and we react to one another hastily. To make things worse, our conversations are there for all the world to see. We are aware that reputations are at stake. The dangers of misunderstanding, cynicism, and one-upmanship multiply exponentially.
All of this is well understood by most thoughtful people today. What is perhaps less thought about is the way in which the Internet fractures the church by enabling us to flee the overwhelming and distasteful by finding refuge in the familiar and the tantalizing. In a recent article in the Wilson Quarterly Ethan Zuckerman explains some of the implications of the Internet for the way in which people encounter the world:
A central paradox of this connected age is that while it’s easier than ever to share information and perspectives from different parts of the world, we may be encountering a narrower picture of the world than we did in less connected days.
Zuckerman points out that “today’s American television news features less than half as many international stories as were broadcast in the 1970s.”
The pace of print media reporting has accelerated sharply, with newspapers moving to a “digital first” strategy, publishing fresh information online as news breaks. While papers publish many more stories than they did 40 years ago (online and offline), Britain’s four major dailies publish on average 45 percent fewer international stories than they did in 1979.
Why worry about what’s covered in newspapers and television when it’s possible to read firsthand accounts from Syria or Sierra Leone? Research suggests that we rarely read such accounts. My studies of online news consumption show that 95 percent of the news consumed by American Internet users is published in the United States. By this metric, the United States is less parochial than many other nations, which consume even less news published in other countries. This locality effect crosses into social media as well. A recent study of Twitter, a tool used by 400 million people around the world, showed that we’re far more likely to follow people who are physically close to us than to follow someone outside our home country’s borders, or even a few states or provinces away. Thirty-nine percent of the relationships on Twitter involve someone following the tweets of a person in the same metropolitan area. In the Twitter hotbed of São Paulo, Brazil, more than 78 percent of the relationships are local. So much for the death of distance.
Never has there been a medium that makes it easier to hide from what (or who) is unpleasant by finding escape somewhere less threatening. In reality, of course, none of this is unique to the Internet. Other forms of technology – the telegraph, the radio, the automobile, the telephone, and television – have all exacerbated the same tendencies.
How does this affect the church? There was a time when a confessionally Reformed Christian living in Atlanta, Georgia would have likely had one church within walking or riding distance of his home that he could profitably attend. That Presbyterian church was likely made up of people who were not always pleasant or ideal fellow church members, but one nevertheless had to make the fellowship work. You could move, but the Presbyterian church in the next town was probably not all that different. In any case, it was probably part of the same denomination, and all major issues of doctrine, worship, or discipline would be addressed on a regional basis. If you dissented, you pretty much had to leave the country (i.e., the South) to get away.
Today things are quite different. There are at least ten different confessionally Reformed denominations represented within driving distance of my home in the Metro Atlanta area. Many of these churches have perhaps one or two other congregations of their own denomination nearby. The rest are scattered across the continent or perhaps even across the world. Most of the denominations represented number less than 25,000 people, and the largest has no more than 350,000 members.
How do we function under these circumstances? When a major moral or theological issue arises that the church needs to address, the pastors and elders of denomination XPC (acronym made up) eagerly look to the Internet or some other form of technology to discuss it with pastors and elders in Scotland, Pennsylvania, or California. They call for meetings and committees to be established in St. Louis or Grand Rapids. And then they hop on airplanes and fly thousands of miles to discuss these important matters with other pastors and elders. Meanwhile, they have probably never met the pastors and elders of the church ten miles away, let alone the 75 other confessionally Reformed churches in their own backyard.
The result is that there is no local, community-based voice of the church. We are not forced to deal with our fellow Reformed believers who live all around us, which is convenient because they have some slight theological and cultural differences anyway. If I don’t like my church’s new pastor, or if I resent the way the elders are practicing church discipline, I can simply move somewhere else. Few of the people in the neighboring churches know or care about one another anyway. It’s easy to start over from scratch.
The Internet exacerbates these problems even within denominations and churches. It enables me to focus my energies and communication on people who either agree with me or who have precisely the same interests as me, no matter where they are in the world. There is no shortage of people to converse with no matter how small is my denomination or how idiosyncratic is my interest.
Again, compare all of this to the state of affairs 200 years ago. Then I had to know my fellow Reformed believers who lived near me, and I had to make our relationships work. We depended on one another both spiritually and materially (i.e., to provide for a pastor and for one another – there was no welfare state). We had to find a way to express the unity of the church amid all of its diversity.
I am not suggesting that technology and the Internet are all bad. Otherwise why would I have started this blog? My point is that we have to strive extra hard to use this technology profitably, and we have to make enormous work of ensuring that we promote unity in addition to truth, and local and regional solidarity in addition to virtual community.
The Apostle Paul told us that no part of the body can tell another part “I have no need of you.” Yet we do this all the time, whether as churches or as individuals, in our denominational allegiances or on the Internet. Presbyterian ecclesiology aside, we all act like Evangelicals in practice. Yet we need one another in all of our diversity, because each one of us has received gifts of the Spirit that the others need. Calvin believed this meant it was always wrong to separate ourselves from a church that preached the gospel faithfully and administered the sacraments rightly. He would have been horrified at the plethora of micro-denominations with marginal distinctions that abound in the Reformed world today. He would have been just as horrified at the lack of peace, charity, and unity displayed in public Internet discussions.
The great temptation of the Internet is to take our focus off reality and deceive us into thinking we don’t need one another. It need not be this way. Even here we need to express the unity of the body in Christ.