In The New Media Frontier, I distinguished between being and doing before going on to argue that the only way to signify one’s presence online was through linking, commenting, or some other activity. Otherwise, readers remain ‘depersonalized,’ known only by their locations and IP addresses.
John Dyer, who is a model of constructive, thoughtful, and interesting engagement with technology, developed that distinction in a recent post, which allowed me to return to the subject in light of a recent fascination: online church. He writes:
In the case of my my 8 month old son, he simply doesn’t yet know how to be present. Eventually he’ll learn how and he’ll start to understand that sometimes just being in a room with someone, not saying anything can be incredibly meaningful. When someone hundreds of miles away is hurting, our movement through time and space to be present with them communicates in ways far more profound than any letter, email, tweet, or spoken word.
Where as my son simply doesn’t know how to be present, in the online world there is no way to be present. Sure, there is a little green dot next to our name in a chat room indicating we are present, but for me it doesn’t feel the same as actually being with someone.
This inability to perform something so basic to being human reshapes what we value in the online world. Instead of presence, we tend to value words in posts, links, and replies. Being present in the real world doesn’t require anything new or novel, but posting online always requires something new or interesting. While being present is a selfless act for another, posting and linking is often more about ourselves than the other.
It is no wonder, then, that those engaging in online church have chats for parishoners(?) during the worship service and the sermon. There may be ways to reformulate this to avoid the problem, but functionally it seems like online church is constituted primarily by its speaking to each other, rather than its collective hearing of the Word of God. While its internal conversation might be shaped by Scripture, the necessity of speaking online–even during a sermon and worship–points to the hollow nature of the means of communication. If we cannot be still with our whole being, how shall we be arrested by the Word of God to us?
As I said, there may be other ecclesiastical formulations that would allow online churches to avoid this dilemma. But as a means of overcoming the gap between being and doing, I would suggest that chats during church are deeply problematic.
Yes, this suggests that I am (with John Piper) opposed to using Twitter in church. The church is formed in its response to the hearing of the word of God, a speaking that demands nothing less than everything.