Saturday, July 25, 2009

Can Internet Communities Foster Spiritual Formation?

My next post will focus on Facebook, but before there was Facebook, I spent a lot of time wondering whether or not Internet communities could foster spiritual formation. During the times that I was most frustrated with my home church, I would wonder more specifically whether or not Internet communities could take the place of a church.

Can we be the body of Christ if we don't meet in the same geographical place?

One of the functions of the institutional church has been teaching, and the Internet can do that very well. I don't have time to read all the books that are published, and book reviews that I find help point the way to the books that are most worth my reading time. I particularly like the book blog of Hearts and Minds Books. Sadly, I've almost always found that books do a better job of spiritual formation than most adult classes offered in a church setting. I've always found myself with such different questions and concerns than most of my churchmates, and it's a comfort to have books to help me. Many websites offer a similar level of intellect and depth of writing as the books that are most helpful to me. The downside, of course, is that one must wade through a lot of useless websites before finding the ones that have some heft.

I've also liked seeing the discussions on various blogsites, which I think can be useful in spiritual formation. Unfortunately, one can't always be sure of one's compatriots on a blogsite, at least not at first. Do these people have any training at all? However, this fact is also true of on-ground churches, and sadly, of a good many pastors. Most of our pastors got their theological training decades ago and haven't done much since.

Of course, the one thing the Internet can't provide is the sacraments. We can't easily commune online. Internet bread is no bread at all. We can't baptize our children online. I'm a Lutheran, so those are the two sacraments that we recognize. Those of you with more sacraments can continue in this vein. We can't anoint the dead with oil online. We can't have a marriage that exists solely online (can we? with no physical contact? surely that's not a marriage).

I would also think that we need an onground community. We need arms around us as we grieve. We need people who will look us in the eye and ask us how our week has been. We need people to hold us accountable. It's easy to fool Internet communities. It's not as easy (but certainly not impossible) to fool our onground communities.

I'd say that the Internet can certainly help foster spiritual formation, but it can't take the place of our local church. I know that many of us are in churches that leave us hungering for something deeper and for whatever reason, we have to stay with those churches (go here for a post that might offer comfort to people in those positions). We're lucky to have so many online resources to fill in the gaps and holes left by institutional religion.


Kyle Strobel said...

Thanks for your thoughts here. I've struggled with a lot of your same sentiments (mainly because I've helped to start an online community in spiritual formation!). What we hoped to do with, and now with was to have a very specific understanding of what it could do and what it couldn't (and shouldn't). I think the internet can serve to be really fruitful, but we've all seen how much absolute rubbish is on here as well (under the name of spiritual formation no less). I imagine that the more time we focus on clarifying what it could be, as well as moving towards developing a more community oriented ecclesiology, we could draw helpful lines of demarcation so that they mutually benefit one another. Does this seem right? This is a great idea for a post, so I'll have to follow it up with one of my own soon! Thanks!

Kristin said...

Thanks for dropping by--I look forward to reading your thoughts on the subject too!