Where might technology take us?

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“We will be competent in the use of new technologies to effectively further the aims of the Gospel”

by Clarence White –
Territorial Information Technology Secretary

Christmas shopping statistics suggest that traditional shops are losing ground to Internet shopping. Many people now prefer the convenience of browsing, comparing prices and purchasing from the comfort of their own homes.

I still think there is something seasonal about lovingly choosing a Christmas gift for that special someone, with the assistance of an attentive salesperson, but this year, even I, a nostalgic romantic, bought my wife’s Christmas gift over the Internet. Maybe today’s shoppers actually like the impersonalness of Internet shopping. So, whatever happened to customer service, greeters, and “have a nice day” sales people? Have we entered a whole new paradigm where that is now longer important in attracting and maintaining customers?

You know, operating a church is much like running a store. Certainly our product is quite well defined, and generally a successful church will even target a particular congregational demographic. We are careful to greet new “customers” and have a number of soft and hard-sell methods of “pitching” them. So, does the shift in real buying patterns give us a hint that a different kind of church will be attractive to today’s congregation prospects as well?

Perhaps its time for a virtual church, a corps without walls, meeting over the Internet. For those who seek anonymity, or those who fear that churchgoers are all fanatics, the Internet would allow them to check out a church, and still remain detached from it. But let’s not neglect just how close people can actually get over the Internet. I know a Salvationist who met a young woman on the net, whom he eventually married. I personally lost a fellow worker to a man in Belgium whom she met in an Internet chat room. It seems that it is possible to create a level of intimacy that would be necessary to sustain a real virtual congregation.

I’m convinced that we’ve reached an era when it could work. There is enough Internet chemistry and sincere spiritual searching that a virtual corps could be viable. It would take hard work, though. It would be much like planting any other church. It would probably even cost as much in human and financial resources as opening a new corps. Having said that, I do not think a long-term permanent congregation would develop. Internet intimacy always seems to lead to a personal, face-to-face relationship. The truth is, that people crave the companionship and fellowship of other people. In the case of my Salvationist friend, it was not enough to talk in a chat room. Eventually there was personal connection and marriage. It was not enough for my former colleague to exchange e-mail with her Belgian boyfriend. Eventually she moved to Europe so they could experience a “genuine” relationship.

So what would be the point of a virtual congregation? I think it has great potential to “sell” the Gospel to people who would never otherwise walk through the doors of our corps. There they would have an opportunity to get comfortable with us, to learn about the Good News, and perhaps even accept Christ. But the ultimate objective would be to link them with a “real” congregation where they could experience the fellowship and interaction that only occurs in person.

The writer to the Hebrews understood that need, when he wrote in Hebrews 10:25, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another–and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Establishing a viable virtual congregation may just be the best opportunity in history to encourage one another to meet together. All the more since whatever “the Day” is, we are closer to it now then when the verse was written!

So as we enter a new millennium, let’s identify where people are congregating, and wherever it is, make sure we are there to share the Good News, even if it is in an Internet shopping mall.

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