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Online Church Part 5: Is Genuine Community Possible?

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“The problems of the internet is that there is no real sense of intimacy. Instead of seeing ‘real people as they really are’, you only get to see that which someone is willing to expose.”

That’s part of a comment from an earlier post in this series, and a frequently aired criticism of the Internet.

Community is a critically important part of any church.  At my offline church we define community as a place where you can know and be known, love and be loved, serve and be served, celebrate and be celebrated.

Is that possible in an online church?

Online Anonymity

If I visit an offline church, the moment I step through the doors I reveal my approximate age, height, weight, and ethnicity.  Someone who is paying attention can tell even more about me by looking at my ring finger, my hair (er, lack of), and my clothes.  And someone who is really perceptive may be able to tell quite a bit about my mood and emotional condition by looking at my facial expressions and body language.

One of the peculiarities of the web is that it allows of anonymity.  If I visit an online church, none of those things are visible to anyone there.  People only know what I tell them about myself.

It’s that anonymity that gives the impression that you can never really know someone online.

Offline Anonymity

But the reality of the offline world is people are not particularly genuine with one another.  We wear clothes and a hairstyle to project a certain image.  We smile on the outside when we’re crying on the inside.  We’re quiet about our dark thoughts, cover up our sin, and conceal our bad habits and addictions.

Here’s the rest of the quote from the top of this post…

The problems of the internet is that there is no real sense of intimacy. Instead of seeing “real people as they really are”, you only get to see that which someone is willing to expose (not unlike the “traditional brick and mortar church” come to think of it). Unfortunately all too many people online create an “online persona” that has nothing to do with who they really are. There also is no sense of permanence. When something new intrudes in life, all of a sudden the “virtual church” takes a back seat (hmmm … again not unlike the “traditional brick and mortar church”! Maybe we’re seeing a trend here?).

Authenticity is a Choice

It may be a little easier to hide who you really are online if you want to, but ultimately if you want genuine relationships online or offline you simply have to choose to be authentic with those people.

I met my wife, Jennifer, while I was living in Maryland and she was here in Florida.  I think I saw her 3 times during the next year.  But we emailed each other almost every day and that is how we really got to know each other.

The reality is many people find it easier to be authentic with people online.  This is particularly true for people with physical abnormalities or social awkwardness.  Online churches have the opportunity to help these people develop authentic Christ-centered relationships.

I’ve developed a lot of awesome relationships online.  I still think there is nothing as good as getting together with someone in person – a handshake, a hug, the opportunity to look into someone eyes, the experience of seeing their quirks and mannerisms – but I believe genuine community can be had without that.

What do you think?

What are the hurdles to online churches developing authentic community?  What are the opportunities?


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    About the author

    Paul Steinbrueck

    Paul Steinbrueck is co-founder and CEO of OurChurch.Com, husband, father of 3, blogger. You can follow him on Twitter at @PaulSteinbrueck.


    • Your commentary is right on target – authenticity and transparency are choices, whether online or off.

      As to your ending questions, I can think of a couple of hurdles and a couple of opportunities. The opportunities, of course, are that an online church can reach people with its message that may not be reached offline, and it can give people a safe place to connect, if the site is properly administrated.

      The hurdles are also twofold: first, there's the temptation for the participants to be less than completely genuine with each other, and second, there's the temptation not to be consistent in participating. It's really easy to join up, join in, and then drop out when things get uncomfortable or your offline life gets too busy/complicated/messed up/whatever. I know; I've done it with nonchurch communities online.

      • Thanks for your comment. I think you're right about the opportunities and the two hurdles you mentioned. But don't you think offline churches face the same two hurdles? I know authenticity and consistency are big challenges at my offline church.

        • I would agree. Authenticity is a challenge no matter where we go, whether in cyberspace or in our community. If we're completely open, we risk being rejected or ridiculed at the very least and victimized at worst. And consistency is a challenge offline, too. In our busy world, it's too easy to "go to church" without really being involved in the church, so when you stop attending, it's not always obvious.

          What I have found, though, is that if I miss a service at my offline church, someone invariably will call to check on me. Granted, I'm fairly involved in my church, so people notice if I'm not there. However, if I go missing from an online community, I seldom receive an email asking if everything's okay.

          From that standpoint, I think it's easier (for me at least) to be consistent offline than on. I know someone's missing me and concerned if I'm absent offline; online, it often seems my absence isn't noticed. And let's face it; a big part of community is that sense that we matter to someone.

          • I know there are a lot of offline churches that actually take attendance in one way or another so that they can check in with people who haven't been in a service for a some period of time. Seems like that could be even more easily done by an online church if there's an option to login. It could be even completely automated, though that doesn't seem like a very good way to show genuine concern for someone's absence.

            • The only link to an online church is likely to be a throwaway e-mail address. If you want to disassociate, you can easily, and nobody will know the difference. Some people are looking for just that sort of anonymous zero to low commitment attachment.

              People can put down arbitrary random addresses and phone numbers when offline churches take attendance as well and thus make it easy to check out. If they stay any length of time however, someone at the offline church should get to know where they live and enough about them to actually show up and find out what is wrong. If that isn't happening, the offline church has a problem.

              Probably when an on-line or off-line church gets big enough that they're relying on automated or clerical methods to keep track of who is present or absent, they have grown too big.

              You can have community in an on-line church just like an off-line church. I don't disagree with that at all. But I do think the character of the community is different. I'm not saying it is better or worse. It is different.

            • William, you raised my curiosity with that last statement. How do you think the character of online community is different than offline community?

            • In any church setting (on-line or off-line) you have a group of people who are passionate about that particular church. You're passionate about because you have a great deal of time and resources dedicated to it. I'm not. If I find a topic in the e-mails you send to be of interest, I may choose to respond or at least look. It's never my top priority. If not, your e-mail is deleted and I never bother to visit to see what else is going on. I doubt that an on-line church would be much different than your website. It is very easy to pick and choose what you wish to expose yourself to in the on-line world.

              While people can come and sample off-line churches in the same way, once you are attending, you are hopefully exposed to a wider range of information than you will ever get at an on-line church. Please let me be clear. An on-line church can provide sermons on every verse of the Bible – I'm not talking about quantity – I'm talking about what people actually access on-line versus being exposed to off-line.

              It is not unheard of, certainly, to have people get up and walk out of an off-line church service. Most don't, even if they don't totally agree with what is being preached. So they are exposed to a greater variety of information than they would on-line. Everyone present is exposed to the same information. My website has a long series of lectures on Daniel and Revelation. If someone was interested in eschatology, they could read up on it and would know it is there from the wonderful search engines of the world. If they stumble upon my site by accident, and don't want to read about it, they can just as easily skip over it. If the pastor at the off-line church decides to dedicate a month or two to these topics, the people will in all likelihood hear them whether they really thought they needed to or not.

              A similar situation exists for familiar topics. You may have some great insights on a particular passage and post them on-line. Many will click right by because they think they know all about that topic, thus missing the insight God has given you to share. They won't be as able to do that in an off-line setting. You may potentially reach more total people over enough time with that particular insight on-line, but a particular body of people that are "associated" with you may well miss it because the first couple of paragraphs didn't hook them (much like this long response).

            • If it was a time critical message, it may have less impact on-line than off-line. On the other hand – would God give a time critical message on-line or does he deal with people or groups of people via the gifts of the Holy Spirit in off-line settings better?

              Finally, on-line communities (IMHO) can be much more selective in what they want to be taught. If there are 500,000 on-line churches versus 3 local brick and mortar churches, people in a town can pick and choose among the on-line churches and move about from one to another till they find one that never offends them or makes them uncomfortable. They can do the seeking till they find something that consistently makes them feel good and never convicts them at all. If there are enough local choices, they can probably do that in an off-line setting as well (sigh). But it is easier on-line.

              For example, I just mentioned the gifts of the Holy Spirit above. A large group of potential readers out there will never look at my Daniel and Revelation notes regardless of their content simply because they think the Holy Spirit's manifestations ended with the early church and He's just responsible for leading people to Christ now.

            • In your statement of faith, you've explicitly chosen to omit any doctrinal statement that is controversial and stick solely to the basics for salvation. While I think that is a bad decision, it reflects the reality on-line. You don't want to drive anybody away from your site or make anybody uncomfortable because you make a statement that you can back up with the Bible. There are too many churches (both on-line and off-line) that take that approach today.

              You get extra points for taking a stand on some social problems that are in the church today. But you do that with the knowledge that many sites won't choose to use your services because you've taken a stand that offends some. The Word of God is supposed to be offensive to the natural man. If our message isn't (at least on occasion), we've become too much like the world.

              So to try to get back on-topic, I guess I feel the people attending on-line are less likely to become involved, are more interested in finding something perfect instead of helping make something perfect, are less likely to stick around through thick and thin, are very unreliable when it comes to funding the whole process since they feel there is no real cost to putting up something virtual (and you can always sell advertising that they can adblock), and that they are more likely to pick and choose what they want to be exposed to than an off-line church community of believers. You can still form one-on-one relationships, but they suffer the same as any other on-line experience. They are easily terminated with no feeling of loss.

              How about putting a limit on your textarea length if there is an effective posting limit?

            • I would agree that people looking for an online church have more options and therefore probably can be more picky. But most people who live in an urban or suburban area have 100 or more Christian churches within a 10 mile radius to choose from.

              I think for the most part it's relationships that keep people at a offline church when things get tough or the church does something they don't agree with. If they have good friends in the church they stick it out, if they don't they leave. I would suspect it's not much different with an online church.

              Sounds like you doubt that people can form relationships online which are deep enough that terminating them would be a real emotional loss.

            • The debate got too intense and I got a posting too quickly error. Sigh. That doesn't happen off-line either.

              Relationships can be real whether on or off-line. When any relationship is severed, there is real loss. I do think that it is easier to have misunderstandings on-line than off-line. It is also easier to reach out to people you would never otherwise see. So there are advantages and disadvantages.

              Relationships are what hold any body of people together through the good times and bad. I do feel that there is less commitment in an on-line setting than off. It is easier to check out.

              There are other aspects of community to consider. We just enjoyed an adult and kid's Christmas program. We went to several weddings this summer. On the flip side, how does an on-line community handle funerals? You can broadcast them on-line, but there is still the need for a real facility.

              Let's see if I waited long enough.

            • William, thanks for answering my question. For what it's worth, most online churches have a scheduled weekly worship service similar to what you might find in an offline church. So, a person who regularly participates in an online church gets whatever message the pastor feels led to each that week just like an offline church.

    • We can be just as emotionally distanced sitting in a pew as we are sitting in front of a computer screen. And I think you're right, many people are able to feel more authentic online. It becomes less about appearance and physical image and more about what the individual is saying and thinking.

      But a lot of the challenges are similar for both online and "face-to-face" churches — ministering to people, encouraging people to serve, helping people grow in their faith, and fully participating in worship.

      Thought-provoking post.

    • Interesting topic. I haven't thought too much on it before so I don't really feel qualified to offer any opinions yet. Definitely something I'll think on though!

    • Authenticity is a choice… this is so true!

      Great post, Paul. I have tons of thoughts running through my mind… you've got my wheels spinning… thanks for posting!

    • Tonight in the young adult class I lead we discussed intimacy and the truth is we don't open up. We talked about how Adam and Eve were naked but not ashamed (of course I said nekkid but whatever). Then sin entered and they sought to cover themselves and hide from God and each other. That trend carries on and is learned at a very early age.

      My kids are 6, 5, 3, and 1.5. Even the youngest seeks to hide his wrong doing. We will tell him "no" and he'll pitch a fit but then go back to it when he thinks we don't see him.

      Somehow, online or offline, we have to get over our fear and inhibitions and actually open up to people. When we say "hi how are you?" we need to listen and interact not just walk on by.

    • This a very interesting topic.In an African setup we still are behind even on how an online church is conducted because there are just but a few who are on internet and can afford be labeled absent from their offline church.

      I want to agree that authenticity and genuiness comes not by age or by status but by choice and the amount of grace bestowned on the person by Jesus.In my community we believe that we should also budget our time to include God that is physical attendence to a church service,praise and worship,tithes and offer to the Lord.I don't to disagree with online church because I am learning and with intent to open one in a near future in the African context.