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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?

[image by doodlemonger]


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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.

    35 Comments

    • hi paul,

      i like relationship on-line and other ways as well. there are many different ways of communication for sure. there are also many ways to think of what church is or what we think it should be.

      i find that, relationship in the Love of God, seems to be the main idea that i try to start with.

      as bob said on his post . " … , here's my simple working definition: Church is a network of Christian relationships.

      thanks for your offering to this one word.
      your thoughts and questions are good ones.

    • Those are great questions I don't have an answer for. I share your concern about distractions though & wrote about that in the post about worship and presence.

    • I have had the actual experience of saving two lives while online, so I do not think that the internet lacks intimacy. I belong to churches in my community as well as being a member of virtual groups and do not feel any less loving of my internet connections as I do my internet relatives. The secret is being Christ centered yourself and radiating His love whenever your format.

    • I realize that this is potentially true. Have any accurate studies been done about the percentages of on-line church members

      a) that attend regularly?

      b) that read through (or listen to/watch depending on the delivery format) a complete on-line sermon regularly?

      c) that are paying attention solely to what is going on in the service?

      This is the key thing.

      If you get bored off-line, you're still sitting in the service till it's done. You may be fidgeting and if enough people are, the service may be shorter, but you're still there. The distraction and short attention span factor of on-line crowds would be difficult to overcome.

      Now that cell phones and other interactive devices or games are so prevalent, distractions are beginning to be a factor in off-line churches as well. There is still social pressure to someone playing a cell phone game or sending text messages in the pew beside you versus bringing up a game or splitting the browser window and researching another topic while an on-line sermon is on – even if you stick around for the entire presentation.