The web is spilling out into the real world

July 9, 2011

culture / spirituality / theology

Recently, the fine folks at Homebrewed Christianity started asking guests, and also listeners, to talk about the biggest challenge facing American religion. I decided to call in and tell them what I thought.

I said something to the effect that I think one of the biggest challenges (because I don’t think there is one biggest challenge) is how we as the church will, and should, engage the web. As more of life moves into digital spaces, there will be areas we need to challenge and offer alternatives to, and there will also be areas where the web, and its effects on us, can improve our theology and spirituality. This will happen in ways at least as profound as it did in the aftermath of the printing press.

Now, I don’t know if you’re like me, but whenever I say something that might be heard by a number of folks, whether it is teaching a group of people, or calling into a podcast hotline, I tend to go over what I said later. For a little while after, I think about the words that I used, how they might be taken, how they might be mistaken, and what I could have said differently.

With this, I thought about it for a little while, but then a couple of days later I started to think about it again when I saw a completely unrelated tweet about how the web is “seeping into other places.”1 That took my mind back a bit further to a quote from Jeffrey Veen, one of the web’s masterminds, who was speaking at a conference:

This is one of those statements that won’t leave my mind, even though the tweet that quotes it was posted in March, far longer than the lifespan of most tweets. So in light of that, I want to continue my thoughts on how the web is one of the biggest challenges facing us.

The web is spilling into religion at least as much as religion is spilling onto the web, and we have barely begun the theological, spiritual, and overall cultural reflection that is necessary to understand those implications.2 I want us to think about what this means, when we need to respond (because certainly we don’t always need to say something) and what our response should be when we do.

Specific issues for examination

From my perspective, there are a number of specific issues we can think about – and there will continue to be more – but I want to mention some of these.

Theological work

The leading folks in web and user experience design are working on many of the ways the web is spilling out into the real world. Some of them are now designing the experiences of physical spaces as often as they are the experiences of web spaces. Others are working to design web experiences that reach into physical space to make it better, or to help us retrieve valuable cultural modes we have lost in the modern age that again are viable for us.

Still others are working to design web experiences that bring physical things onto the web, or that blur the boundaries so that the web is more an extension than it is a distraction. These things, as far as I can tell, are some of the things Mr. Veen was thinking about. We can do these things well, or we can do them badly.

Theology itself can be affected by, and can affect, the web in these same ways. It will be a beautiful thing to start to see how this works, and I’m hoping to be one of the folks involved in this. It will give us new ways to think about God, and I don’t think we’ve even begun to see how much. But again, we could do it well or we could do it badly. We will probably do both in different areas, and we will need to be aware of which is happening.

More dramatically, maybe, are the ways the web will affect the church and the ways we think theologically about it. We’ve seen people start to observe these shifts in small ways, I think, but too often these observations look specifically at Facebook, for example, (I don’t fault the church or theologians for this, as the business world is the same way) instead of looking at a broader perspective of what the internet actually means.3 The ways we create new faith communities are already being affected by the web, and the more we observe and think critically about this, the more this will be able to happen in positive ways.

We’ll be able to (as we were before) create faith communities where we can avoid nuance, as this often happens on the web. But this is not the nature of the web, and we don’t have to design things that way. We can instead learn from the real, beautiful networks that are created as we design communities.

Life in the Spirit

I’m also increasingly convinced that the very ways we interact with the Spirit of God will be affected by the web, in good and bad ways.

The web is a place of “maybe.” There are few ideas that, if they can exist online, have no chance of success. In a negative sense, this is why it becomes easy for folks to put online communities on pedestals they don’t deserve, but in a positive sense it gives us unique ways to learn, connect, and exercise hope. This is always a good thing, but on a deeper level I think it can give us metaphors for thinking about the possibilities of God’s activity in the world and our relation to it. Not perfect metaphors, but valuable metaphors.

Justice work

Maybe the hardest thing for us to think about is how the web will affect the poor and oppressed among us, and what the church needs to know and do about this. The reason it’s so hard is because when we’re online, doing this kind of thinking, at this point the poor and oppressed are often not with us.

One beautiful exception to this is the relationships that are being built with the LGBT brothers and sisters that are among us, and taking part in our conversations online. They are helping us understand their struggles and advocate for them when we can, and this is powerful. To an extent, there are also exceptions as we can hear the voices of people of color, whether they are discussing racism in America or freedom in Egypt, and this is an equally powerful thing.

But as a rule, those who are poor and oppressed too often do not have access to our conversations and our relationships online because they are not online. Internet access is still prohibitive in many parts of America, and in many parts of the world.

Make no mistake – this is changing at a rapid rate, and it will continue to change. As it does, I’m hopeful that we will build the same kind of powerful relationships with these brothers and sisters, and that we will walk together toward our mutual liberation.

But this is also a place where the web could spill out in bad ways. It brings to mind yet another old tweet that I saved:

It’s somewhat possible that the web will become integrated into our lives enough, economically especially, without reaching into the real world in the positive ways that we can hope for. If it does, it may be that we’ll be spending our leisure time looking for ways to disconnect. Pilgrimages to offline places, and times of re-integrating with the physical world.

If that happens, it will again be the poor and oppressed who are affected most by this, as they will be the ones without the resources to make that disconnection happen.

This will be a space where the church must respond. We must provide space for people that, regardless of whether our optimistic dreams for the web’s engagement with the physical world come to pass and regardless of whether they have the luxuries to sequester themselves in the physical world from time to time, allow them to meet the embodied God, and live in embodied, mutual liberation.

What’s next?

This is only an initial set of thoughts, sparked by a question on a podcast and a tweet from a conference that I didn’t attend, and another tweet from a man across the world. But I hope you can see the importance of this conversation. The web is spilling out into the real world, and I think we in Emergent, specifically, have a lot of opportunities to shape the way we do things in light of this. I’m hopeful that we can be led to do it well.

  1. The article it referenced is about how the web is expanding beyond the browser into mobile apps, tablets, and dedicated reading services like Readability, among other things. []
  2. Too many folks are running around telling us about how Google Makes Us Stupid, on one side, or The Internet Is My Religion on another side, and there isn’t much nuance. It is important to note that John Dyer, a web developer in Dallas, is releasing a book called From the Garden to the City that, to me, shows promise for doing that. I also think The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture from Shane Hipps, released in 2006, was a good effort as well. But again, we have barely begun. []
  3. A great start, I thought, was Thy Kingdom Connected from Dwight Friesen. From my own perspective, I recently reflected on user experience design and ecclesiology, as I think this is a fascinating place where we can learn a lot of things. []