Is the Internet Killing Christianity?

 cyber eden

No one reasonably disputes that attendance in Christian churches is in sharp decline. The real lingering question is “why?”. Who needs a church or a priest when spiritual seekers believe they can access God directly?

Though it’s not solely responsible, the internet – along with the way it changes the way we interrelate, communicate, seek and consume information – is certainly doing its part to contribute to the decline. And it’s not just Church that is feeling the pinch; any hierarchic system in which the institution traditionally has played the role of guard, gatekeeper or mediator is finding their authority challenged.

As for why now, the answer is more complex than any single factor. On the one hand, changing domestic, social and economic systems have caused us to spread out and move around far more than before. The churches, as a result, are no longer social hubs of neighborhoods any more. And along with being social hubs, churches also served as economic engines, as businesspeople networked after worship or over a potluck meal. Now we just use LinkedIn.

There’s also been a substantial shift in cultural perception, such that not going to church no longer holds the same stigma that it used to. Even atheists are coming out of the proverbial closet in greater numbers. And as I suggest in postChristian, lower church attendance doesn’t necessarily correlate to fewer people believing in God. Plenty of skeptics have filled church pews out of a sense of familial or other social obligation.

But beyond these factors, there’s the dramatic shift in how we access and consume ideas and information. As Michael Grunwald points out in his TIME Magazine article, “The Second Age of Reason,” we are living today in the midst of a “Golden Age of answers.” This is important on a couple of levels as it relates to church, and actually, it’s been a long time coming.

Prior to the development of movable typeface and the printing press, few people of average means owned a bible. But once printing was accessible, the information once relegated to libraries and collections of the rich was distributed far and wide. Of course, more people had to learn how to read first in order to enjoy the books, but the availability of literature such as the Gutenberg Bible provided an incentive.

Fast forward a few hundred years, and we see the Internet having much the same effect. Aside from the ease and immediacy of access to information, it also offers an unprecedented variety of perspectives. Before, we might have had one newspaper – or one priest or pastor – to tell us what the facts were in any given situation, and we’d take it more or less on faith. But now we dissect everything from the presidential actions in the middle east to Biblical interpretation, and even the price of our favorite coffee.

Perhaps most important, though, as Grunwald notes, is that we have direct access to the information. It’s always “out there,” waiting to be retrieved, rather than being parsed out to us by some other mediating body. “The democratization of information,” he writes, “is particularly threatening to middlemen and gatekeepers. Who needs a travel agent when there’s Kayak and Priceline? How long can real estate agents and stockbrokers survive when buyers and sellers are linking up online?

Stated another way: who needs a church or a priest when spiritual seekers believe they can access God directly?

Granted, this is a bit of an oversimplification for the purpose of illustration, postmodern thought – a reaction to modernist, post-enlightenment liberal though and Platonic dualism – reached a sort of tipping point with the advent of the Internet in every corner of our lives. Even before the World Wide Web invasion, we were becoming increasingly suspicious of all institutions, and of anyone who claimed to possess absolute truth about anything. The mid-century upheavals caused by events like Watergate and Vietnam hardened us, but they also gave us pause. We started asking questions, doubting and pushing back against systems of authority, rather than taking their sovereignty as a given.

So we were, in a sense, primed for what the Internet afforded us. Not sure if you like your doctor’s diagnosis? Go on Web MD and diagnose yourself, or find six other doctors to offer alternate opinions. Skeptical about the story you read in your local paper? Look into it on Snopes, PantsOnFire or Politifact. Disagree with the sermon your pastor preached on Sunday? Download a slew of podcasts, thousands of ebooks or hundreds upon hundreds of blogs with a focus on theology. Or watch a sermon online, while in your robe and sipping coffee on your couch.

After all, if the Church is primarily a purveyor of information you can get on your own, and if their assertions about being the mediators for your own personal salvation – or at least your spiritual wellbeing – begin to ring hollow, then why go at all?


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