The following post is the eighth in a series that is excerpted from my upcoming book Return to Our Senses, which will be available in mid November. It is already available through Mustard Seed Associates at a pre-publication discounted price of $15.
Twitter, blogging, Facebook and other social media have all become popular tools for prayer and the formation of spiritual community in the last few years. Virtual churches abound and a growing number of people are turning to the internet as their primary spiritual community.
Neal Lock, one of the organizers of First Presbyterian Church of Second Life believes that technology is a part of God’s creation and a gift that we can use for good, twist to evil or ignore. He explains: Gutenberg’s printing press changed the world, paving the way for the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution. Because it made possible the Reformation, it also brought drastic changes to the church, changing almost every visible aspect of Christian worship and theology in just a few generations. In our generation, the internet and digital communication have already brought about drastic changes, and will continue to transform the church in sweeping and dramatic ways in a short span of time.
He goes on to remind us that, church participation in the past few decades has been in steep decline. Yet, as millions of people leave behind their communities of faith, millions more are finding community online, in places that a few years ago wouldn’t have even qualified as places. Worshiping communities of Christians are also beginning to appear online, especially taking root in 3-dimensional synthetic interfaces known as Virtual Realities, or Virtual Worlds.
As I think about this and try to get my head around the possibility of attending a virtual church, I am reminded of what Erik Qualman author of best selling Socialnomics says. He challenges us to consider that we don’t have a choice as to whether we do social media or not. The question, he believes, is how well we do it.
Its true. The internet is here to stay and in the last few years it has become more portable, social, fast paced, and ever present. If Facebook were a country it would be the third largest in the world. Snail mail and long distance phone calling have given way to texting, Skype and online chats. Tablets and smart phones keep us connected 24/7.
Even our everyday spirituality is effected by social media. We post our prayer requests, events, photos and our spiritual struggles on Facebook and other social media sites. We can “like” Mother Theresa, Wendell Berry, St Francis of Assisi and many others for daily prayers and inspiration. We can listen to daily prayers like http://prayasyougo.org and download them onto our phones or tablets. We can follow those who post prayers or Bible verses on Twitter. Or we can read reflections from bloggers like ChristianDroid who seeks to combine Christianity and technology to enhance our lives. We can even use social media feeds to keep us in touch with breaking news, our favorite missions and the needs of our world. The options seem to be limitless and sometimes overwhelming. How we interact with social media and incorporate it into our faith is an important question for all of us to grapple with as we seek to shape our prayer life.
There is no denying that many of us benefit daily from these technologies but there are definite downsides too. They speed life up so that we often don’t have sufficient time to think about and act on what is really important for our ongoing salvation and walk with God. Our minds become cluttered with too much information that further fragments our sense of reality. We can become like robots moving through a web of activities deprived of time for what is essential to nourish our soul and to cultivate our spiritual growth. In this mad rush we forget that our aim above all else in this life, is to seek union with our loving God.
According to Tony Dokoupil, a senior writer at Newsweek and The Daily Beast, the current incarnation of the Internet—portable, social, accelerated, and all-pervasive—may be making us not just dumber or lonelier but more depressed and anxious, prone to obsessive-compulsive and attention-deficit disorders, even outright psychotic. Our digitized minds can scan like those of drug addicts, and normal people are breaking down in sad and seemingly new ways. One recent research project suggest that social media may be more addictive than cigarettes or alcohol. When 200 University of Maryland students agreed to go without social media for 24 hours–no cell phones or computers–their reaction was akin to drug withdrawal.
The most concerning drawback to internet community is this ability to distract us from work, family and face to face interactions sometimes to an addictive extent. Avoiding people we don’t want to talk to is much easier when we can “talk” to friends around the world without even needed to getting out of our chairs. The temptation to check, what our friends and acquaintances are doing, how many likes and visits our blog posts get, or even just to pass on prayers and breaking news we enjoy can at the least soak up our time and energy. At the worst we become obsessed with the kudus, criticisms and hopes that our posts will go viral.
Maintaining the disciplines that balance time spent on line with other aspects of life is not always easy. Some of us blurt out all our thoughts and intimate struggles to strangers with few if any inhibitions. How often do you take your struggles and concerns to Jesus before sharing them on Facebook or Twitter?