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The Rise of Social Media

project 2010 logoEditor’s Note: The Baptist Messenger is taking a look back at the first decade of the 21st Century in a monthly series titled “Project 2010.” This first installment examines the rise of social media and how it has affected the local church.

Back when on-line message boards were the rage among those fortunate to possess access to the Internet, discussions across continents and perspectives were commonplace among people who did not know each other personally, but who debated issues in such a way that the clarity gleaned from conversation gave way to both an invention and a trend.

The blog (a contraction of the words “web log”) was originally the personal thoughts of Swathmore College student Justin Hall as he chronicled the events and opinions of his personal life as well as shared news and information. Beginning in 1994, he successfully transformed what was little more than a personal on-line diary into a cottage industry. Ten years later, the New York Times Magazine called him “the founding father of personal blogging.”

Blogging, however, did not remain a personal hobby for long. Bloggers soon began to scoop newspapers and transformed themselves into legitimate news outlets. Humiliating for long-standing news organizations, blogs rearranged the entire news industry. No longer were journalists “in the know” solely capable of “reporting news.” Ordinary people who were clever enough to investigate the issues behind everything from their local city council meetings to national security issues could break news faster than traditional “journalists” and rendered many long-standing reporters obsolete overnight.

The fourth estate is no longer confined to a professional group of good writers working for an established newspaper. Journalism’s borders have been compromised, resulting in thousands of approaches in a brutal market where the mainstream media is forced to compete with cheaper, more nimble, start-ups that expose the fault-line in modern media. Appealing to younger audiences accustomed to digital communication, this rapid technological transformation is unparalleled in history. In three decades, the invention of digital technologies have reached more than 1 billion people and created a new demographic class—the “digital native.”

First made popular by authors John Palfrey and Urs Gasser in their book, Born Digital: Understanding The First Generation of Digital Natives, these new children of the digital age face tremendous opportunities and great peril simultaneously. Before them lies a vast new frontier of non-stop information which could easily lead to information overload. Internet addiction is no longer considered a laughable condition. News, information, and images are constantly available, causing former Pitzer College professor Barry Sanders to speculate that the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) might be right when he said in his 1888 work, Ecce Homo, “Nothing avails, one must go forward— step by step further into decadence (that is my definition of modern progress.”

The Church of Facebook
Facebook first began as nothing more than a hobby for Harvard University student Mark Zuckerberg (whose current net worth from Facebook is estimated to be approximately $2 billion). To date, Facebook has registered more than 350 million members worldwide, and the latest research reveals that Facebook users cumulatively spend 10 billion minutes on the Web Site every day. By 2009, Facebook had reached 54.7 percent of all Americans ages 12 to 17—up from just 28.3 percent in 2008.

This worldwide phenomenon caused sociologists and theologians alike to study the reasons why Facebook has become so wildly popular. In Jesse Rice’s new book, The Church of Facebook, the concept of connection is introduced as the powerful accomplishment and cultural commodity of the on-line community of Facebook. Rice, a former worship arts director from California, borrows from noted psychologists the perspective that “authentic connection” brings about life change for the better.

Rice believes “connection is the key to happiness,” and those who place themselves into relational networks will be “breaking out of isolation” and becoming “more human.” Through Facebook, opportunities to link with those in one’s past and network with new “friends” provide just the backdrop for the church to learn how to spiritually engage the modern culture of cyber-connection. Yet, though Facebook (and now Twitter) provide a means whereby news and information can be transmitted through a personal network absent the middleman of a newspaper or other media outlet, some have sought to theologically orient an on-line community as a substitute for membership in a local congregation.

On-line churches have become a reality in ways which were not possible just two years ago. A leader in the on-line church movement is LifeChurch in Oklahoma City. In a national report detailing the reasons and methods of new cyber-congregations, senior pastor Craig Groeschel stated, “We were blown away at how people could actually worship along (online).”

He was amazed at how “the whole family will gather around the computer, and they’ll sing and they’ll worship together. Instead of trying to get people to come to a church, we feel like we can take a church to them.”

Yet, location seemed not to be the only issue at hand for the cyber-community. The ordinances of the church— baptism and the Lord’s Supper—were now able to be self-administered simply by joining with those assembled with the local congregation via a computer. Groeschel defended the practice as a way to reach people in a non-threatening manner through the anonymity possible through cyberspace.

A Virtual Christian Community?

Life Church, however, isn’t the first to embark into cyber-church. David Jenkins serves as the pastor of what is thought to be the world’s first virtual church, the Church of Fools. According to a London Times article, this virtual venture is a “serious religious exercise, despite its name” that offers members the opportunity to do things one can do in any real church service. By simply selecting a computer character, individuals click their way through the halls of a cyber church, sit where they desire and can even offer an affirming “Amen!” to the pastor’s sermon.

Like most churches, The Church of Fools was open to anyone in cyberspace who had interest in attending. During the formal worship time, however, shouts of profanity were made along with coarse gestures which distracted more serious worshipers. Wardens were in place to press their “smite buttons” which would oust all those persons causing disruption in the services. Eventually, the trouble-makers were too difficult to handle, and after just one week, the church closed its doors to visitors.

Visitors to the virtual church enjoyed the anonymity that often accompanies cyber-identity. Life within the Internet, however, often lends itself to a pretend world where little is what it seems. Emerging from anonymity is the issue of accountability. Computers can all too easily divorce physical reality and the real-life network of relations the real presence of another human being entails into a cyber-fantasy.

The problem of accountability is also grounded in the ease with which one attends such churches. If, as one member of recently proclaimed in The Oklahoman, church is “just a mouse click away,” then church can become little more than another entertainment option as individuals participate in what could amount to little more than another video game.

Ed Stetzer, President of Lifeway Research, is no stranger to blogging, Facebook, Twitter or any other of the myriad of communication tools employed in his work. Yet, Stetzer believes “there is no such thing as an internet church.” Those who regard the church in this manner and participate only by the live streaming of the worship service and “conversing on message boards are short circuiting the fellowship of the saints and their own spiritual growth.”

The classic text which Stetzer uses to underscore the required gathering of Christians together in worship is Hebrews 10:25—“not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” He states “gathering together requires feet and faces, not just electrons and avatars.”

While many believe social media can help in both proclamation of the Gospel and in follow-up to those seeking Christ or a new church home, Stetzer believes social media might provide the “common language for the masses to hear the Gospel.”

Next week: Cory Miller discusses how to harness technology for the Great Commission.

Author: Douglas Baker

View more articles by Douglas Baker.

Author: Casey Shutt

View more articles by Casey Shutt.

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  • In addition to the “Church of Facebook”, another read can be “Facebook Addiction: The Life & Times of Social Networking Addicts.”

    There is an interactive blog, were users have been inputting their own Facebook Addiction stories.


  • I presented the paper: “Social Ethics For A Social Network: An UnApologetic Presence On Facebook” at the Evangelical Philosophical Society’s Annual Meeting November 2009. If you are interested in my thoughts on Social Media as how it pertains to ministry, here is the Google Doc link:

    Roger Sharp
    Confident Christianity Apologetics Ministry

  • No hate mail here, but couldn’t disagree more. One, to limit “gathering together” as being able to physically touch one another is narrow and simply wrong. Two, I think most who are affiliated with Lifechurch’s Church Online know that from the top down they’re interested in seeing participants in Church Online get involved in ‘in person’ communities whenever possible.
    I think one time not too in the distant past people were very troubled over individuals having a personal printed Bible translated into their native tongue. While admittedly not a perfect parallel, can’t help but think the obsurdity of such sentiment will soon be shared by the vast majority regarding online communities of faith. I at least certainly hope so.

    • DJ Yun

      Brian, how does LifeChurch remove barriers for those who don’t have internet connections or computers? Do they have mission teams that take the internet and Lifechurch to the ‘least of these’? If not, there would be an innovative idea, wouldn’t it? You’re probably already doing this, but you could take the virtual church bus and pick up your senior believers in the living assisted apartments!

      There should only be one common denominator in your community of faith.

      • DJ –
        Your comment touches upon something I often see in these types of conversations about online churches. There’s often a sense that no matter what an online church is doing, it’s just not good enough. So, the fact that Life Church (or any online church) reaches thousands of people that aren’t interested in going to a bricks and mortar church isn’t good enough.
        They also now have to buy a bus, go to senior believers, have missional teams etc before they are considered “legit”. Yet, I don’t see that type of requirement being placed on bricks and mortar church plants before they are “legit” in our eyes.

        Online churches, whether they are large like Life Church, or a small house church that livestreams their services, do meet needs of people that bricks and mortar churches don’t.

    • Agreed. But in my opinion it’s going to take quite a while for that change of mentality to occur.

  • DJ Yun


    I was being arrogant. I’m sorry. My own church isn’t perfect and I shouldn’t expect any other church to be that way too. One thing I know to be true is that many bricks and mortar churches are not legitimate. I hope you can agree with me on that.

  • DJ, LC does in fact have several bricks & motar buildings in which up to 40k people a week enter & worship together. I know there ate several in OK, 1 in Albany NY, TN, FTW, FL, etc. Can’t speak to the extent (or lack thereof) of the bus ministry to seniors w/out Internet access at each campus though. I think Laura makes a good point that the leadership of LC does not merely focus on Online ministry and neither do they claim to be effectively ministering through all the ways & means available to us today.

    For the record, I’ve attended a LC campus in OKC and volunteer at Church Online since moving to the States in June. I’m not on staff, nor am I speaking officially for them. They may appreciate me clarifying that :). Blessings.

  • Virgil Richardson

    I find it ironic and hilarious that at the bottom of this article with a mostly-negative slant towards social media’s implications on the church, there are mutiple one-click links to re-post the article on the social network of our choice.

    Thank God for Ed Stetzer and the like who have a voice and understand that the gospel and culture are not mutually exclusive.

  • “less than 25 percent of the world’s total population has access to the Internet. In many parts of the world, computers are scarce, and connectivity is even rarer. Indeed, some of these third-world nations have barely any online ingress at all. For example, only one percent of the people of Rwanda can connect to the Internet, and no more than 5 percent of all Africans have access.”

  • georges boujakly

    Just like there is a physicality to the incarnation of our Lord, so there must be a physicality to the gathering of his bride. He didn’t save us by means of Facebook (tongue in cheek!). Jesus chose his disciplies to be “with him” to learn how to “be like him”. Discipleship is an imitative, relational learning endeavor. It is most effective when it is enfleshed.

    The value of technology is unquestioned. But it is a categorical mistake, methink, to posit that social media, and technology in general, are capable of deep relationality, as enfleshment and corporeal, presence are. Our relationality is trinitarian derived. That is, it is modeled on the realtionship that exists in the community of the Godhead. In large part, this is what it means to be made in the image of God.

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