April 7, 2018

Digital World, Digital Church, Digital God

Do you read the Bible on your phone? Do you connect with other church members on Facebook? Do you watch church online? Is it possible that, in a networked world, God will somehow look different? Tim Hutchings, Research Fellow in Digital Discipleship at Durham University, in England, looked at these and similar questions in a recent lecture at Newbold College, a Seventh-day Adventist institution in England. His lecture, which was also livestreamed, offered important reflections for believers using technology on their journey of faith.

Hutchings began by looking at the concerns that people had when technology first began to impact the life of the church. “Is it possible,” people asked twenty years ago, “that God in a networked age will look, somehow, different? Would ‘mediatization’ take place —that is to say, the reshaping of ideas to fit the logic of the media?” Alternatively, “would religious communities reinvent and reimagine technology according to their own core values and beliefs? Would our ideas change, or would we change the technology to protect the shape of our ideas?”

Technology vs. Church Life

Some people thought that the Internet was going to compete with religion — that church-going would vanish as people watched church online from the comfort of their armchairs. Religious leaders were very worried about the effects on their authority of the more democratic social media. On the Internet, the church would be unable to impose its rules on the community.

People who saw in the Internet potential for the creation of community were more optimistic. They believed, rightly as it turned out, that the Internet would create new voices, new rituals, and new communities. Small experimental online communities, like The Church of Fools, was developed, said its creators, to follow the example of John Wesley in “taking church to where people are in the 21st century — on the net.” Already, that online community has lasted a lot longer than some people’s affiliation to one more concrete church community.

A New Way of Doing Church

What is really happening, Hutchings said, is that the Internet is now just part of everyday life. Online church is part of religious life, not an alternative. Online church services attract people who were going to church anyway or who wanted to but were prevented by sickness, disability or other limitations. Online religion has just become part of the mix. Some groups are adapting and thriving and some people have discovered a way of using the media that works for them.

What about electronic versions of the Bible, like YouVersion, to which a lot of resources have been devoted? Hutchings quoted Princeton professor Bryan Bibb, who suggests that “electronic Bibles have the effect of reshaping the effective canon, the form and content of the Scriptures as they are experienced in a particular community or by an individual.”

As the Bible stops being a heavy paper book and can be easily accessed on one’s phone, new practices are emerging. The Topverses.com website which lists those texts read most frequently on the Internet suggests people are most likely to access verses that give them hope and encouragement. Technical and theoretical parts of Scripture which seem to have limited everyday application to 21st-century life tend to be sidelined. Electronic reading of the Bible may be enabling the development of a less traditional canon.

A Case Study

Hutchings completed his lecture with a case study of the Scripture Union’s Bible adventure app Guardians of Ancora, developed in the hope that it would be a safe place for children in families and church groups to explore their own faith and reflect on the impact of the Bible stories outside the game. He pointed out that, if it is to be handled with integrity and if the game is to have any credibility, the Bible story it tells cannot be changed. “The game might offer factual Biblical knowledge,” said Hutchings. “I am less certain, though, that it would contribute to the development of personal faith in children.”

The Q&A slot included questions about the limitations of faith mediated through technology, the place of emotions online as opposed to emotion in personal faith, the nature of ‘liquid scripture’ —or electronic versions of the Bible — and the successful use of Twitter by religious leaders.

“The consensus was that there are lots of ideas meriting further thought,” organizers said.