A decade and a half ago, Heidi’s book, Exploring Religious Communities Online, documented how traits of early forms of online religious communities emerging in the late 1990s posed both a potential challenge and opportunity to offline churches. These early “virtual communities,” as they were referred to, grew out of the web 1.0 era of email lists, newsgroups, and bulletin boards, where digital spaces attracted people of shared faith who found connection and friendship over common interests, theological convictions, and religious experiences.
In these early digital days, a wide variety of Christian groups formed networked support groups and even “e-churches,” which varied from Anglicans who loved liturgy, to Baptists who loved baseball, and folks who described themselves as non/inter-denominational types who had a heart for prayer. Through interviews conducted both online and offline, Heidi asked people what drew them to these online groups, what they valued most in their online interactions and why they described the text-based forums as communities or even “online Churches.” From this research a clear list of 5 attributes were identified, defining people’s experiences online:
Many early internet users were surprised to learn how text-based communications could facilitate and build relationships that went past exchanging information to providing a true sense of shared purpose. The internet provided a new space to build connections with like minds that reached beyond individual’s geography, family and traditional community ties.
Technology provided new ways to give and receive support. Individuals felt these were supportive and safe places where they could truly be themselves. These expressions of care were not just text-based encouragement posts, but individuals often reached beyond the screen via phone to offer personal support for those facing illness or even sending gifts to those with financial or material needs.
The Internet allowed people to find their “Virtual Cheers,” referencing the long running TV sitcom about a bar in Boston where, as the theme song proclaimed, “everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came…” Many people committed a lot of time to their online community involvements because of the value other members placed on their involvement and the appreciation they placed on the input and time individuals put into the group. Online forums were often described as a “safe place” where they felt truly accepted.
People appreciated having consistent contact with their community via the ease of online communication, which in many ways erased traditional boundaries of time and space. Many attested that it was through their online community that they first experienced a revelation of what the “body of Christ’ could and should be like, as a 24/7 experience and group they could connect with anytime they needed or wanted to.
A common report was those who connected around religion and spirituality felt it was often easier to “go deeper” more quickly online. The absence of visual cues can lead to miscommunication, but many also feel it helps people set aside their biases of age, race, body type, sex and “see” people as who they truly are in Christ. Being able to connect with people who share their faith and theological convictions and judge them on the transparency of their communication was a freeing experience for many.
Not surprisingly, most of the people interviewed also said the attributes they most valued in their online community experience should also be the hallmarks of an ideal offline religious community. However, surprisingly, many attested the level of transparency, investment, and care they experienced from these online communities felt much more authentic and deeper than those many had experienced in their offline churches.
This initial research on online religious community identified several important lessons, two that are important to reflect on here as we think about the future of an online-offline connected church. This is more than theoretical: as the Operations Director of the interdenominational church Restore Austin, Troy navigates many of the issues Heidi’s initial and continuing research has revealed at the intersection of online and offline religious life.
First, the nature of how community is defined has shifted from institutional to personal driven connections. This is as true online as it is offline, as the social groups most people live in resemble social networks where our faith-based relationships and affiliations are more personally driven, changeable and self-regulated than previous generations.
This means established church structures and traditional patterns of interaction within religious institutions seem increasingly foreign to how we live our lives outside church encounters. So churches should consider these changing views towards institutional membership and investment, and transition to seeing themselves as digital relational networks that likely will have less hierarchical influence in individuals’ lives. Churches must consider what the implications of this are for them, and how digital medial might provide a bridge to address this shift.
Second, online religious communities’ represent an important extension of individual’s offline religious experiences and lifestyle. Initial research showed online church serves as a supplement to, and not a substitute for, offline church for most. People invest in online religious groups to meet very specific interpersonal or informational needs, such as prayer support or in-depth bible study on personal passion topics. Research found those invested in online faith communities also had vibrant offline faith commitments, even if they readily voiced limitations or inadequacies in their offline church. People described their offline faith community or experiences as defining what their understanding of church was to be like.
However, in the past decade there has seen a shift in the relationship between online and offline religious communities. In a world filled with mobile internet access, where our relationships are increasingly moderated on a daily basis by technology, younger generations now often see and treat their digitally mediated relationships as their primary basis for community. That means that while online and offline community experiences are closely integrated, online or mediated communication, where they might first encounter religious community, are shaping their views of their offline faith experiences.
While much has changed in our technological landscape since the early days of email-based religious communities, some important features of these findings have not. As the internet has become increasingly embedded in Americans’ everyday lives, we would argue that the desire and ability to use digital media to help facilitate relationships, enhance our sense of care and value, and enable intimate communication and connection has only increased. This continues to pose opportunities and challenges to the church.
One of those challenges is determining how churches build connections between the online and offline social patterns of their members. Churches must carefully consider what messages they are communicating online and to what extent they are attracting these individuals to the offline faith community. When a religious institution creates a website, there is often plenty of information about the offline venue, such as its location, service times, who the leaders and support staff are, and what they see as their mission. However, providing information online does not necessarily mean a church is providing connection to the offline community.
People who are used to doing research online first about new experiences or groups are looking for personal connections or opportunities to interact with more than just the official message of churches. And they want to do that before they venture through church doors. Increasingly they rely on peer reviews, ratings, and testimonies to discern the social nature and culture of the institution. Many are also looking for the level of social interaction they have grown to value online or through digitally supported communication platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Given the lack of interactivity of most church websites, it can be hard to show people that the face-to-face interaction of the offline church also provides consistent support or that a church offers engagement that is as or more fulfilling than what a person is used to through their online community.
One reason people report leaving an offline faith community is largely a lack of the experience of personal interaction and care. People are often left feeling unwanted, too imperfect, or too different to fit in. The question then becomes, how can churches use digital media to truly help facilitate relationships, enhance people’s sense of care and value, and enable intimate connection within the offline faith community? With “Pastor Google” available 24/7 offering spiritual direction, and religious social media groups ready to offer support and feedback, churches must consider how the features of digital media can provide them new opportunities to engage the digital generation and build an online-offline faith community. Instead of creating information-based web sites pastors could use blogs to providing a “sneak peek” into weekly services or offer member’s personal reflection on how sermon series affect them. Facebook groups or text message lists can provide a personal connection for small groups or bible studies of sharing prayer request or life updates offering an extended connection to one’s church that is often only available within the online communities.
In the 21stcentury, churches need to consider how to bridge and blend the social opportunities of digital media that can enhance community building and investment in order to help its members connect their digital engagement with their offline church experiences. Rather than seeing the internet as a problem for religious communities, it should be seen as a gold mine of resources helping enhance church relationship and investments that could revolutionize faith-based communities worldwide.