- Creating Church Online:A Case-Study Approach to Religious Experience
Over the last three years the practice of online churchgoing has grown rapidly through the arrival of a number of large, well-ﬁnanced projects supported by well-known real-world Christian groups. Initial Christian responses to online religion lacked systematic observational grounding and drew heavily on assumptions regarding the importance of face-to-face meeting, the nature of online community, the efﬁcacy of the Internet as a medium for proselytism and the effects of the Internet on authority and accountability. There is urgent need for new theological appraisals of these important issues, based on sound sociological understanding of the nature of online behaviour and on detailed ethnography of speciﬁc online groups, and my current research seeks to contribute to this project. In this article, I will ﬁrst outline the origins of the online church. Second, I brieﬂy describe some of the earliest Christian responses to the Internet. On these foundations, I then consider three case studies based on my own participant observation and interviewing conducted over the past two years. In relation to these examples I conclude by discussing sacred space online, in particular, a sense of immersion in sacred presence which online churches have long sought to create. The ability of the Internet to act as a site for religious experience and the kinds of experience fostered are central questions for those interested in the development of the online church, and empirically-based study in these areas may be expected to contribute greatly to a more nuanced, balanced understanding.
Both denominational and grass-roots involvement in the new media of computer-mediated communication is recorded from the mid-1980s. [End Page 243] According to David Lochhead's brief book Shifting Realities,1 the Presbyterian Church (USA) was among the pioneers in this medium, seeking along with other denominations to establish networks for ministersand leaders to share sermon advice and discussions. By the mid-1980s evangelicals in particular were using the local bulletin board systems (BBSs) to create 'not only a discussion forum for local evangelicals but also an outreach to non-Christians who might happen to call'.2 Howard Rheingold's 1993 classic The Virtual Community also notes the existence of such groups:
It didn't take me long to discover there isn't enough time in the day to keep up with what is happening in religious BBSs of the San Francisco Bay area. Some are connected with real-life congregations, others are free-form and come in sixteen shades of unorthodox … coreligionists can ﬁnd each other, stay in touch between services, and even commune in traditional ways via nontraditional media.3
Neither Lochhead nor Rheingold identify the ﬁrst online group to adopt the title of 'church', but the Church of England document Cybernauts Awake! refers to an 'online church' launched in 1985 which 'claimed that for the ﬁrst time people could worship in spirit and in truth and not be distracted by others who might be "fat, short, beautiful or ugly. People are pared down to pure spirit"'.4
The ﬁrst online Christian service mentioned by Lochhead took place a year later in the aftermath of the Challenger space shuttle disaster. The owners of the Unison service hosting the Presbyterian discussion network Presbynet 'approached the church groups to ask if they could organise something online';5 in response, the groups organised 'a memorial liturgy with prayers, scripture, meditation and a section in which readers could add their own prayers', followed by a time of open discussion. The service, Lochhead writes, 'demonstrated the power of the computer medium to unite a community in a time of crisis beyond the limits of geography or denomination'.
These early experiments were interesting and suggestive, but potential uses of computer-mediated communication expanded dramatically with the invention of the World Wide Web. Where BBSs had been largely text-based and limited by telephone charges to local areas, the Web allowed the creation of user-friendly, globally-accessible multimedia websites, with graphics and hyperlinks, and enabled online communities – including online churches – to take on far more complex and technologically sophisticated forms. Many online churches claim...