As the recent viral video of Stephen Fry shows, the Internet can be a powerful tool for anyone with a point to prove or a message to share. Whether it’s through Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, blogging, memes or whatever, there are ways to get your point of view seen. Take my response to Fry’s video, for example (I’ll use my example because I actually know the stats), that blog post got about 2000 views, way more than any other post I’ve ever done, and the best thing is that so many more people read that post than I would ever be able to share my views with in real life. The reach that the internet gives ordinary people is astonishing, but, with so many competing things out there, it can be hard to get yourself heard.
When it comes to the relationship between Christianity (or Christians) and the internet, I know that there are people who have covered this in far more depth than I can here, I mean, whole PhDs have been written on the subject! But it’s an important issue to look into, even if a definitive view on this is impossible to achieve outside of the mind of God. I guess that, like anyone else using the internet, Christians should be considering what people actually use the internet for, and if that purpose lines up with what they want to achieve.
For now, I’m going to talk purely about evangelism (Christians sharing their faith) because without a clear focus this post will go nowhere. There are plenty of examples of Christians using the online world to share their faith, whether that’s to convince people that what we believe is right, or simply to inform. The vast majority of Western Churches now have some form of website, or are affiliated with an organisation that does, in order to increase the chances of people finding them. There are whole websites dedicated to questions about faith, and plenty of videos on YouTube, as well as evangelical Twitter accounts and posts that fly around Facebook.
By and large, I think that this is all good stuff. People can be introduced to the Christian message just by scrolling down their newsfeeds in a lazy five minutes when there’s no one else around, and that’s a pretty awesome thing. Plus, if I didn’t think there was a lot of benefit to using the internet to share views about Christianity, then I wouldn’t have been maintaining a blog for two years! Perhaps the single greatest thing about the internet is that it makes a wealth of information readily available, and if Christians remove themselves from that then they’re missing out on a fantastic opportunity to make their voices heard.
However, it’s not all fun and games. The internet is, for the most part, an unmediated environment. I can say pretty much whatever I like on this blog and publish it for the whole world to see without anyone stopping me. I could say things about Christianity that are way, way wide of the mark and people could read my posts thinking that what I’m saying is what all Christians believe. That’s the danger of something like the internet: there is no way of knowing what people will be reading.
For that reason, I would pretty much never tell a non-Christian friend to go and look up answers to their questions online. I might send them a link to an article that I have read and agree with, but I would never ask them to find one themselves. If a friend comes to me with questions then I will do my best to answer them, and if I don’t know the answer then I’ll just be honest about that. And yes, maybe after that I’ll try and look up the answer on the internet, but as I am a Christian already I should theoretically be able to sort the good responses from the bad.
Furthermore, I believe that face-to-face interaction should be retained as far as possible in evangelism, particularly when it’s our friends we’re thinking about. The internet can do many things, but it cannot replicate face-to-face interaction. Even over something like Skype, there will be visual cues accompanying our language that can be missed, and when reading text, there is no additional information whatsoever. This does not mean that the internet is worse as a medium than face-to-face interaction. What I’m trying to say is that if a friend has questions that they want answers to, I want to be talking to them, not directing them to a website.
I can communicate so much more information face-to-face than I can online. I can modify my answers depending on their reactions as I’m speaking, and I can respond instantly to follow up questions. Furthermore, the other person will be responding to me. If they’re just browsing the web for answers they can get bored and walk away, or not take something in; the chances of that happening are far lower face-to-face.
I suppose that what I’m getting at is that the internet is an incredible tool for spreading information and raising awareness about faith that Christians should not be ignorant or afraid of. If we miss out on the internet then we miss out on reaching so many people. However, I don’t think that the internet can be a substitute for face-to-face interactions when the opportunity for those arises. Yes, they won’t happen all the time, but when a friend comes along with questions our first response, I think, should be to share what we believe with them in person, because in doing so, what we say can have a much more personal impact on their lives.
All that said, this might all change in a couple of years as the internet continues to develop and evolve. As Christians, we can just do our best to keep up with it, and to ensure that in all our interactions, face-to-face and online, we consciously work to reflect Jesus in every way possible.