The Internet and today’s young adults
Have you ever gone online to check the facts about something your pastor said in a sermon—or to explore spiritual questions that you didn’t feel comfortable discussing face-to-face? If you’re a young adult, then you probably have.
But, beyond revamped church websites and papal Twitter feeds, are we as the church prepared to meet those young adults online? I’m not just talking about having a Facebook account; I’m talking about knowing how to wisely and faithfully engage online. The Internet has brought unique cultural tendencies. Yet we Christians seem to overlook the Internet’s subtly powerful impact in our rush to adopts its obvious hallmarks.
The Internet levels the playing field of discussion by decentralizing authority and allowing previously unheard voices to gain an audience. The implications are both positive and negative, and with the right approach, the Internet can be a powerful tool for our church.
How we use the Internet
When it comes to online spirituality, personal questions and interests tend to overrule tradition. Worship surveys by the United Church of Christ found that people who responded online were more critical than pen-and-paper responders. A Pew Research Center study showed that online religious seekers used the Internet more for private spiritual matters than communal ones.
And then there’s fact-checking: 38 percent of practicing Christian millennials go online to check their pastors’ sermons, according to a Barna Group report. As the report’s author observes, “Millennials aren’t taking the teaching of faith leaders for granted. . . . Millennials, who already exhibit institutional distrust, have heightened sensitivity for artificiality and false promotion.”
This is not to say that the Internet is inherently liberalizing. A 2001 report published in the Annual Review of Sociology suggests that the Internet primarily “supplements and complements” people’s existing views, catering to what they are already curious about or believe. Nor is the Internet replacing the value of physical community. The Pew Research Center has found that people who are more involved in real-world congregations tend to be more interested in exploring faith online. The Internet simply speeds up and spreads out the exchanges we already have off-line. One young Jewish student summarized the situation nicely: “The Internet allows for greater freedom of speech and [for] voices that would otherwise be drowned out to be heard and, most importantly, gain followers.”
No longer are pastors and theologians alone in publicly interpreting God’s Word. Anyone with a keyboard can proclaim ideas online. Church leaders and scholars remain authoritative in many circles, but an online thought network is checking references and investigating traditions. Previously, such exploration occurred slowly and sporadically; now it’s fast and frequent.
The Internet’s unfettered discussion allows people to question norms and buck tradition with less fear of reprisal. Grant, a 21-year-old agnostic, said his experience on Reddit, a popular user-generated news and entertainment website, “has taught [him] that millions are able to anonymously post their opinions . . . without fear of legitimate consequences. . . . Since the fear of persecution is lessened, authority figures lose a lot of power on the Internet.” This is true for politicians, as the Arab Spring demonstrates, but it also is true for authorities such as pastors, scientists, and theologians.
But the Internet of courses raises just as many, if not more, concerns about reliability and accuracy. “On the Internet, no one knows you’re a cat,” jokes a young agnostic man to illustrate the unreliability of some online sources. A 25-year-old Protestant woman who reports using the web to research religious questions notes also, “I want to make sure that I trust the speaker or website before I accept what they are saying.”
Implications for Christians
This disempowering of traditional authorities could be a blessing if it lifts disenfranchised voices within the church—voices that have been silenced by tradition. But it also could galvanize voices within the church that do not truly belong to it, whether it be the resurfacing of ancient heresies or the muddying of the gospel message. The Internet’s pros and cons will be determined in large part by how the church responds.
This article’s title, “Reformation 2.0,” is a fusion of our Presbyterian historical origins and today’s web 2.0 environment (referring to the advent of interactivity and user-generated content on the web), and it offers a potential way forward. A classic Presbyterian motto (found in the Book of Order) is “The church reformed, always to be reformed according to the Word of God.” The church may be an authoritative witness to God, but we still stand subject under God and are in constant need of reformation through the power of God’s Word and Holy Spirit. As Reformed Christians, we are called to be open to critique, reflection, and even change as we unchangingly worship the God whom we know through Jesus Christ. This is one of our core values.
Modern Christians should use the Internet as a springboard for ideas much as the original Reformation used the printing press. Protestants and Catholics alike wrote books during the Reformation, but the Protestants succeeded largely because of their effective use of the new technology, which opened the conversation and weakened traditional authorities. To say that the Christian response to the Internet should be new church websites is to miss the point, much as Pope Leo X responded to Luther’s Reformation by penning a book and calling it a day.
As the Internet gives greater voice to those outside traditional spheres of influence, we need to empower and guide these voices within the church. We have seminars on sharing the good news with neighbors, but do we have classes on how Christians speak about God online? We have town-hall meetings to stir up thought, but are there church-sanctioned online forums for us to exchange ideas? Fantasy football is better at this than the church.
If we connect young adults’ online questioning of tradition to our Reformed heritage, everything becomes an outgrowth of their own process of reformation. The church can show young adults how their digital culture of critique and exploration is really our Presbyterian heritage in a new format. The Internet is a powerful tool for reformation; let us Reformed believers use it.
Graphic charts courtesy of the Barna Group, providing research and training for churches, non-profits, and businesses.