Online Church Part 5: Is Genuine Community Possible?

“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]

Paul Steinbrueck is co-founder and CEO of OurChurch.Com, husband, father of 3, blogger. You can follow him on Twitter at @PaulSteinbrueck and add him to your circles at Google+ as +Paul Steinbrueck.

35 Responses to “Online Church Part 5: Is Genuine Community Possible?”

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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!

  4. Came across this article earlier today. A perfect fit for this conversation:

    Where two or more are gathered …on Facebook
    http://www.faithandleadership.com/content/where-t

  5. Came across this article earlier today. A perfect fit for this conversation:

    Where two or more are gathered …on Facebook
    http://www.faithandleadership.com/content/where-t

  6. 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!

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

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