The brave new online world

Mark A. Hadley

We live in extraordinary times - times of astonishing change. Since the launch of the Internet into the public arena in the nineties and the widespread adoption of mobile technology, our society, especially the youngest members of it, has undergone a radical change in the way we gather information, learn, communicate with each other and ultimately the way we relate.

In a few short years these technologies, commonly referred to as the 'New Media', have become an integral part of our everyday lives. We use them for conducting business, for buying everything from groceries to holidays, for keeping up with each other, even finding a partner.

Christians have never been afraid to use new technology to spread the Gospel. It was carried far and wide on the Roman roads of the apostles' world, and still further on the back of the printing press during the Reformation. 

Radio has enabled the Gospel to travel into countries that are closed to foreigners and television has taken it deep into the private spaces of millions of homes.

So what advantage, if any, does the New Media offer Christians today?

Radical Change

There is little doubt that the New Media have changed not only the practical structures of our world but its mindset as well. Many young people cannot comprehend how the worlds of their parents or grandparents could have functioned prior to their existence.

In a longitudinal study of Internet use, the Center for the Digital Future has concluded that more than three quarters of the American population have Internet access and spend an average of 8.9 hours online each week. The majority of these users (80 per cent) perceive it to be a more important source of information for them than any other principal media including television, radio and print.

More importantly the study has shown the increasing impact of the Internet on relationships. On average those surveyed formed friendships with 4.65 new people in 2007 - people they had never met in the flesh. Furthermore, nearly half reported that the Internet had increased the amount of contact they have with friends and family.

For many, these interactions are taking place in online communities, with the number of respondents identifying as 'members' doubling over the last three years. Of that number, just over half log in to their communities on a daily basis, while 70 per cent of them interact with their fellow community members on a regular basis. A large and growing percentage (at present 55 per cent) feel as strongly about their virtual life as they do about their real-world life.

A consideration on just one aspect of the New Media demonstrates a similar trend in the Australian context. Mobile telephone usage reflects a pervasive attachment to technologically mediated communities, particularly with younger generations.

In 2005 mobile telephone penetration of the Australian population had reached a staggering 94 per cent of the population with 19 million subscribers nation wide.  In 2007 alone Australians bought just over ten million new handsets.  The average Australian household now owns two mobiles with growing numbers forsaking land-line services altogether in favour of mobile handsets.  One in two children - the next decade's customers - already use a mobile an average of 19 minutes a day.  The mobile is now an integrated part of our professional and personal communications. To leave home without it is, for most people, as disastrous as leaving home without their wallet. 

The mobile has become much more than a tool for communication, it is increasingly the means by which we stay connected to our most personal communities particularly amongst those under 30. In 2006 Australians spent close to $9 billion dollars on electronically augmenting and personalising their mobile telephones with elements like ringtones, screen images, rich-media products.  For our younger generations they have become a repository for life moments in the form of photos and frequently re-read SMS messages. They are also the music collections, address books, diaries, and entertainments centres that help define their communities. Above all, they are a truly personal means of communication. Other forms of communication open to younger people (computers, landlines and so on) are often shared or maintained by others, fixed in position and so exposed to scrutiny. But the mobile can be carried to a private place or used to send sensitive messages with a few thumb movements. Most importantly, the younger generation may 'share' mobile content, but they don't tend to allow people - especially parents - to click through their mobile telephones at will.

The expansion of the New Media into the more private spheres of life shows little sign of abating. On the contrary there is every reason to believe that relationships will become more mediated by technology as younger generations replace our own. The challenge for Christians is to work out how to utilise these technologies - maximising their advantages while minimising the disadvantages - for the sake of the Gospel. To do this we need first to understand what it is that makes the New Media so influential.

Instant Easy Global Connection

The popularity of the New Media stems from its ability to instantly and easily connect people.

Before the nineties the ability to communicate with other people was restricted by certain concrete realities. If I wanted to contact someone, I could call them on the telephone or write a letter or send a telegram. If I wanted to meet people, I had to pick a place and time that suited everyone. If I had a message to tell the world I could either publish a book or write a paper. Or if I had the resources I could broadcast a radio show or television program.
These choices had their limitations. I was limited by distance - I could only meet with those who lived close to me. I was limited by time - I could only telephone someone who was available at the time. The letter I wrote would take days to deliver and was subject to the vagaries of national and international postage systems. Choices were also limited by cost - the cost of producing books, radio and television meant it was out of reach of the every day person.

The advent of the New Media, however, have freed up communication in several significant ways.

1. The New Media give me greater choice in the way I connect with others.

Rather than write a letter I can write an email that is instantly delivered, easily stored, referred to and forwarded to limitless recipients. Rather than talk on a telephone fixed to a wall, I can talk to someone who is anywhere via a mobile telephone. If talking isn't convenient, I can text them or send a variety of electronic documents. I can interact with anyone in the world using instant messaging programs (in text, audio or video), bulletin boards, chat rooms, forums and 'Web 2' style social networking sites. I can even dance and have a drink with someone in virtual worlds like Second Life or pursue shared fantasy existence as a Elvish Mage in places like WoW.

The possibilities for communication are growing every year, and with them the number of people I can maintain a personal relationship with. It has single-handedly revolutionised the way that Mission organisations and their supporters communicate with their workers, drawing the borders of the Third World into the lounge rooms of the First.

With the New Media I am never far from anyone. The "global village" that was a source of great postulation in the seventies has finally arrived.

2. The New Media are instantaneous.

Emails arrive half way round the world within seconds of being sent. Information put up on a web site is available immediately to the whole world. I can "google"  the Internet and expect thousands of results within seconds. People and information are at my fingertips and it is being updated constantly.

A friend once told me about his first experience with the Internet at home. "What do I do now?" he asked a friend once his computer had been connected. "Just type something into the search engine and surf around," his replied. So my friend typed in 'news' and watched the results spool down. The top story read, 'Princess Diana killed in car crash' and he snorted, certain he had discovered the fundamental unreliability of the Internet that many suspect. In fact, he was reading information that would only become available through conventional news sources some six hours later.

The instantaneous nature of the New Media has bred in the modern user the expectation that they will be able to find out all they need to know about the world around them with a few clicks of the mouse. I am part of this "instantaneous generation". If I cannot find out what I want to know when I want to know it, I get frustrated!

3. The New Media have no boundaries.

No one person or organisation controls the New Media. The technology that makes it possible is owned by various organisations but they are unable to control the use that the technology is put to. The most successful business models that have led to its implementation and spread are focussed on the individual consumer rather than the corporate structure. The Internet is now constantly shaped, expanded and 'owned' at an personal level.

Possibly one of the better examples of this phenomena is the creation of Wikipedia , the free online, collaborative encyclopedia that is being developed, page by page, by users all over the world. At the time of writing this article the project included 75,000 active contributors working on more than 10 million articles in more than 250 languages.  It currently boasts more than 684 million visitors each year, with the number predicted to climb by 29 per cent over the next 12 months. 

The Internet's emphasis on personal access has resulted in a pervasive 'freedom of information' culture. The proliferation of New Media technologies at the individual level mean it is impossible to effectively censor and, short of turning it off, it is very difficult to limit what a person can access. The proliferation of third generation telephony makes even a denial of access scenario increasingly unlikely. I can cross geographical and political boundaries at will.

The communist government of China has gone to extraordinary lengths to limit the contact between its citizens and the outside world through the Internet. They have signed agreements with resource providers like Yahoo and Google to limit content but failed to comprehend the creativity of countless web users who have used the same technology to circumvent these limits.

It means I am free to talk to whomever I like and publish whatever I like. I can speak with a person in a country I would not be able to visit. I can say things that would have me arrested if I were there. I can publish content that they can look at which is not available to them in any other form. And all this from the comfort of my own study.

4. The New Media is cheap.

The cost of getting involved in with the New Media is comparatively cheap, and getting more so every day.  The advent, this year, of the One Laptop Per Child project has spurred the development of a range of sub-$500 'super cheap computers' that are Internet ready and aware. The goal is to spur development and decrease inequalities by making sure Internet access is available to every child in the world. In Australia a connection to the Internet or ownership of a mobile telephone is well within the budget of most people. And even where finances fail, community organisations like libraries step in to provide free access.

But more than that, the cost of publishing in this New Media is cheap compared to the more traditional forms of publishing. Rather than spend thousands of dollars publishing a book or producing a TV program, I can for hundreds of dollars publish the same content online and reach a much larger potential audience instantaneously.

Because of this there has been an explosion of content on the Internet. At present there are over 100 million web sites and this is growing every day. I have at my fingertips a library of 100 million books!

This has changed the way I access and consume information. Rather than accept what the traditional media present, I can do the research myself, find alternative points of view and decide what I want to believe. I am no longer constrained by the information "gatekeepers" such as editors, publishers and producers.

This "democratisation of information" suits post modern world no longer willing to simply accept what the previous generation says, but willing to investigate, interact and discover for itself what 'works'.

5. The New Media are changing.

The rapidly changing nature of technology has meant that the New Media are rapidly changing as well.

Faster, smaller, cheaper technology has been the backbone on which innovations in the New Media have grown. These innovations aim to pack more into less, integrate several devices into one and make them easier to use.

Just in the last few years mobile telephones have become Personal Digital Assistants with Global Positioning Services that tell you not only when you have to be somewhere but how to get there as well.

These themes of innovation and change pervade the New Media. New technologies, tools and sites are being launched each day. Consequently the nature of and the way we use the New Media is changing all the time.

The most recent advances in web technology have revolved around the emergence of Web 2.0. This is not a new technology but a new way of integrating and using existing technology to create web sites and utilities whose focus are almost exclusively on the personal rather than the factual.

Blogs, wikis, forums, comments, podcasts and vodcasts are all tools web users have been developing to share parts of themselves online. The web is steadily becoming less about googling for information and more about logging on to share. MySpace, Facebook, Wikipedia, Flickr, WoW and Second Life have become the biggest names on the web today simply because they have proved best at capitalising on this desire to interact. They are the virtual meeting places for people forming communities online. This 'version 2' of the web is, in short, the transference of our social lives online.

Community not just Content

It is this ability to expand the way we interact with each other that has had the most influence on our society to date. Real friendships and communities are forming that are truly global.

As of July 2007, Facebook had over 31 million registered users with one in two logging on daily to interact with their virtual friends.  Half a million people are joining its virtual communities weekly - every week   - meaning that a population greater than South Korea's will be developing their relationships through Facebook.  A staggering one per cent of all time spent on the entire Internet is being spent on Facebook   - and this is only one of the methods being used to interact socially online. Three of the top five Internet sites visited by Australians are social networking sites.

What makes these sites unique is the way they allow members to articulate and make visible the social networks they have with other members of the site, and then invite them to interact with each other. Members meet by exploring the extended social networks their friends. These interactions are made easier because they are not "stranger" to "stranger" but are facilitated by the "introduction" implied by being on the same friend list.  Hence the term "social networking".

These sites thrive because they provide an easy and convenient way for people to make and maintain community. Becoming a member is easy, making friends involves none of the offline issues of finding suitable venues and getting introductions. Yet members can interact as if they lived next door.

And since they have no boundaries, the breadth of these networks is truly global, offering an almost unlimited source of friends and a window into other worlds. In 2002 one of the most popular sources of information for the invasion of Iraq was a site published by young man living in Baghdad. It gave a much more intimate perspective because it was a personal report that had not been edited and sanctioned by the powers that be. Web users felt connected to that young man.

The evidence suggests, however, that while social networking sites can open up an opportunity to meet new people, many members are using it primarily to support existing social relationships. These relationships may be weak ties (such as a shared friend or class at school), but typically there is some common offline element among individuals who befriend each other online. 

More importantly in our busy, "time poor" society these sites are being used as an alternative to meeting face to face. It's not that people are rejecting the more traditional ways of maintaining friendship for something new and exciting but rather, given the choice of meeting online or not meeting at all, they are choosing to meet online.

It is not surprising then that social networking sites have become deeply embedded in user’s lives. In Korea, Cyworld has become an integral part of everyday life, with 85 per cent of those surveyed listing, ".the maintenance and reinforcement of pre-existing social networks as their main motive for use." Social networking sites have become the modern form of the billiards hall or shopping centre for people to just 'hang out'.

But the New Media do more than simply connect people, they also mobilises people to action.  Web based organisations such as MoveOn.org and Avaaz.org have sprung up to rally the online world to speak out about all sorts of issues. MoveOn.org, for example, organised a 'Virtual Town Hall Meeting' for their online community to meet and ask questions of the US Presidential candidates.  And an ordinary Chinese couple used the rallying power of the New Media to successfully defy the ".rapacious developers and complicit local authorities," who were trying to demolish their house. 

Christianity in the Brave New World

So where does Christianity and the church fit into this 'Brave New Online World'? Like all new developments, the New Media offer the church both an opportunity and a challenge as it seeks to present Christ to the world. The mission ought to be two fold, encapsulated in the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20:

"Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” 

Evangelism

First we are to proclaim the Gospel to the nations. This proclamation can take many forms but essentially falls into one of two groups. We can "broadcast" the Gospel using mass media such as TV, radio, books and even large meetings. Or we can interact with individuals over the Gospel, either one to one or in small groups.

Broadcasting is efficient because it reaches many people but is not necessarily effective because those people cannot interact with the broadcaster - there is no relationship. Individual evangelism is far more effective because it is done in the context of relationship. Those contacted can observe my life as well as my words, ask me questions and discover for themselves the truth of the Gospel over a period of time. But it is not necessarily efficient as I am limited by time, resources and location.

The real challenge is moving between the two. I want to broadcast the Gospel and then draw interested individuals into a relationship where they can be involved in ongoing one to one evangelism. I want to be both efficient and effective, but traditional methods of marrying the two have had qualified success. For example, we may ask an audience at a Christian event where the Gospel is 'broadcast' to fill out cards or come down the front or identify themselves publicly in some way so as to engage them in a personal relationship. But the social factors involved make this a daunting and difficult prospect.

The New Media, however, offer us an alternative. For a fraction of the cost of a book I can proclaim the Gospel on a web site that has the potential to reach millions and then invite any reader to enter into a personal conversation with me at the click of a button. And because the New Media knows no boundaries, this reader could come from any country, religion or social group in the world.

Recently the evangelistic web site Christianity.net.au received a question from a young Muslim man living in the Arab Emirates. He had read the presentation of the Gospel and wanted to become a Christian. Pause and consider the implications of this single incident - a Muslim man, in an Islamic country, asking me about Christianity without fear of sanction, in the comfort of my study half way round the world. We have never been able to do this before.

The New Media also remove the barriers that have traditionally stopped people from finding out about Christ. For some people finding out about Christ is very difficult. Simply buying a Bible or having a Christian friend can cause them significant persecution, let alone walking into a Church. In the latter part of last century at New South Wales University, the Muslim students from Malaysia were accommodated in their own college under the care of Muslim leaders. It would have been extremely difficult for them to own a Bible or attend a study group let alone go to church. But the New Media can now give them access to all of that. In the privacy of their own room or quietly in a public library they can engage with Christians and find Christ.

The anonymity of the Internet is also important for evangelism. I can have a Christian conversation with some one I may never meet and this anonymity can put them at ease and help them to be more open and honest. I don't know them and they don't know me, so we have nothing at stake in the relationship. We can both say things that under different circumstances we may feel constrained not to say. Over time this may change as we develop a relationship but initially it is of great advantage.

Edification

However, if we only saw the Internet as a fantastic means of evangelising the outside, we would be missing fully half of its potential. For the church's mission is not only to grow numerically but also to grow spiritually and here the New Media have something more to offer.

The essence of church is community. We are a community that shares a common purpose and fellowship in Christ. It is not a passive community but an active one, one in which everyone has a part to play. It is not a static, closed community but a dynamic, open community that seeks to invite people to come and grow in Christ. This is the thrust of "the body of Christ" imagery Paul uses in Ephesians.

The most effective way we maintain this community is by meeting together in large groups, small groups and one to one. But such meetings are, by their nature, limited to the local area. It is difficult to maintain a sense of community amongst people who are geographically dispersed.

Our modern 'time poor' lifestyle also limits this communal aspect of church. Many of us are too busy to meet more than once a week, too busy to stay after church for morning tea, too busy and distracted to simply 'hang out' with each other. As a result the sense of community in our churches is breaking down. Parishioners routinely express to the authors of this paper that they do not feel a part of the church that they have been attending for years.

The New Media, being unbounded by geography or time, can help overcome these limitations and enhance our Christian communities. I can help people feel more informed and part of the church by making information available on web sites or in emails. I can send thought provoking questions or encouraging biblical insights to my Bible study group during the week. I can encourage ongoing Bible discussion through a blog or online forum. I can SMS friends to remind them of meetings or see how they are going.

These are simple ideas but they can have a profound effect. At one particular medium sized Anglican Church in Sydney's western region members belong to an email-based prayer group. They regularly receive requests for prayer and when they arrive via computer, PDA or mobile telephone, they can stop where they are and pray for the matters mentioned. At that point they are being an active member of their local church, without having to be anywhere near its locality.

But the communal effect of the New Media goes beyond the local church. It can be used to connect congregations together and give us a sense of the wider Christian community. As an example, Your.sydneyanglicans.net exists to encourage the individuals and ministries of the Sydney Diocese of the Anglican Church to remain focused and connected. But more than that any person who finds themselves in circumstances where they cannot find locally the spiritual support and encouragement they need, now has a means of joining an online community where they are available. In practice, this has resulted in a significant proportion of the traffic to the Your.sydneyanglicans.net site originating from outside of the Diocese' geographical boundaries, pointing to a sizeable number of people who are 'virtual' Sydney Anglicans, if not 'actual' ones.


But we do have to be careful. For example, the mainstream public interest in the appointment of David Horne as the first paid e-vangelist for the Sydney Anglican Diocese centred on whether or not he could achieve something generally referred to as 'e-church' - an online version of the local Anglican congregation. David Kock from the Seven Network's Sunrise program cheekily suggested that the Diocese could have online communion with BYO bread and wine. Indeed there already are online churches in existence on the Internet. But is this going too far?

While it is possible to have an online church and give those who come a virtual sense of community and belonging, it is unlikely to replace altogether the local physical gatherings. The New Media should not be seen as offering an alternative to the local Church but rather a way of extending its outreach and effectiveness. It should complement rather than compete. After all, we are created as physical beings who crave physical contact. God created Adam and Eve and walked with them in the garden and while we may only perceive God spiritually now, we long for the day when we can see him face to face. Consequently, though it is probable that we will see increasing amounts of our lives transferred online, the physicality of our existence is related to our spiritual well-being in a way that is hard to deny. In short, the conducting of our whole lives online in some Matrix-style network is a prospect best left to the movies. A balance between the online and the offline worlds needs to be struck. The integrity of our Christian lives is not only seen in what we say but also observed in the way we live - a witness that is presently difficult to replicate in anything but a limited way in the online world.

Christianity in the Brave New World - The Opportunity and the Challenge

However we should not let this deter us from taking advantage of the opportunities the New Media offer. We would be poor stewards of the Gospel if we ignored it. Imagine the outcry if a new country were to be discovered on the verges of our own that had never heard of Christ, but our missionary societies decided not to send someone to bring the Gospel to it. Yet a new country has been discovered with a population of hundreds of millions and it is just on the other side of the screen.

So lets get on with it.

Anyone with an Internet connection can be involved. We are bounded only by our imagination. Maybe you can start an online discussion with your Bible study group. Maybe you can share what you have been reading in the Bible in an email to your family and friends. Why not put your favourite Bible verse on the bottom of every email? As individual churches, perhaps we can look at ways of using the New Media to reach out into the local community. The skills that exist within our own congregations will for most provide all the resources needed. So set up a group within your church to plan and implement a presence on the Internet that reaches out into your community. And if you cannot find the people within church, why not partner with other local churches?

There is no proven model for exploiting the New Media for the Gospel. It is virgin ground that is changing all the time. We need to think outside the square, be prepared to try anything, be willing to make mistakes and learn from them, much like the Internet industry itself. It is a Brave New Online World out there but with God's help, together, we can reach it. Each new advance in technology brings its own possibilities. The real tragedy would be to consider that the methods of spreading the Gospel had solidified with the Gospel itself.

About the Authors

David Horne is the editor of Christianity.net.au and a professional web consultant and developer.

Mark Hadley is the editor of Your.Sydneyanglicans.net, the manager of Anglican Media Sydney's New Media Division and a writer and speaker on modern communication.