Faith in our Digital Space
I am well aware of the irony of following up a call to "historic" Christianity with reflections on our new website. However, highlighting our new website may be the perfect way to illustrate the relationship between our historic faith and our contemporary culture. After weeks of frustration and wrestling with the same technology that is supposed to make our lives easier, we have unveiled the new church website (www.historicbakerstownalliance.org). It is our prayer that this digital tool can connect people with an historic faith.
In 1951, H. Richard Niebuhr published one of his most recognized works: Christ and Culture. In this text, he explored five ways in which a Christian--a citizen in the kingdom of God--can relate to a secular world. The first approach, "Christ Against Culture," views our culture as inherently evil, therefore the Christian's job is to separate oneself from it. This approach properly recognizes the difference between God's expectations and the World's, but tends towards separatist communities disengaged with society. Secondly, Niebuhr described a "Christ of Culture" approach. This category views history as the story of God's interaction with culture, not a separation from it. Thirdly, "Christ Above Culture" is an approach that views God as unrelated to culture, something separate from the World. Fourthly, one can view this issue in terms of "Christ and Culture in Paradox." This means there has always been and will always be a tension between God and the World. Lastly, there is "Christ Transforms Culture." This approach views God's purposes in this world with the aim of changing it.
What Niebuhr never did was advocate for one of these approaches over another; each may be an appropriate response in various situations. Yet, some of these responses seem mutually exclusive. It is hard for the Christian to simultaneously separate oneself from culture while maintaining an opportunity to transform it. This was the dilemma of the Puritans. The Pilgrims who emigrated to the New World were called "separatists" because they wanted nothing to do with the Church of England. However, the Puritans earned their name out of a desire to "purify" the Church of England. So they sailed the Atlantic to find a space to develop an exemplary form of religion. They articulated a vision where they would be a "city on a hill" and the eyes of the world would be upon them. They had hoped to simultaneously separate themselves from the Church of England and develop a model that would transform the Anglican church. While their efforts produced a vibrant, robust spirituality, it exerted little influence on the church they hoped to revolutionize.
So how is our investment in a new website compatible with a desire to promote an historic faith? A website is only valuable as a tool, a servant of our faith and not the master of it. Throughout history, the Gospel has moved into the spaces where people gather and listen: Paul preached in the Aeropagus, Medievals built cathedrals with stained glass, Luther published his theological convictions on the new printing press, Victorian Christians made use of popular tunes to praise the glory of God. Yet throughout these generations, Christians have been preaching the message that was passed down to the Apostles: God Himself came to earth to provide a solution for our terminal disease which we cannot cure ourselves. CNN.com reported a Nelson company audience report that claims Americans spend on average 10 hours per day staring at a screen (1) upwards of 6 hour of which involves the internet (2). Over one-third of all church goers report websites are a major factor in choosing a new church (3). The gathering place for the masses in our world is a digital space that the church--our church--needs to occupy.
This does not mean that the interwebs are the only or even primary forum for our historic faith, but God has given us a charge to occupy this digital space. The phrase "in the world but not of it" is bandied about as a canonical bumper sticker without much critical reflection. When one takes the time to read the source of this slogan in John 17, a slightly different picture emerges:
I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified (v. 14-19)
Notice that the condition of being "not of this world" is not presented as something towards which we are to strive. Instead, it is presented as our current condition by virtue of our union with Christ--since He is not of this world, neither are we. Jesus even explicitly states that it is His desire that we may not be taken out of this world but protected within it. Then Jesus takes the logic of our union with Him to the next step. In the same way God sent Him into the world (the incarnation), so Jesus sends us into the world. The idea of being "not of this world" isn't a call to a "Christ Against Culture" model, it is a statement of our citizenship in God's Kingdom. One of the responsibilities within this Kingdom is going out into the world. For our purposes, this includes bringing an historic faith into our digital space.
May God grant us wisdom in using this tool.