Church and Web 2.0 God is in Heaven – and on the Web

If Jesus were alive now, he would be on Facebook.
If Jesus were alive now, he would be on Facebook. | Photo (detail): Rafal Ulicki © iStockphoto

Modern Christians find spiritual support in online heaven. They pray interactively, confess online, and attend Facebook church services or a midday devotional on Twitter. God reveals himself to modern Christians on the Internet.

The church is one of the world’s largest and oldest social networks, but it does not exactly have the reputation of being modern and its members are leaving in droves. In 2010 alone, 181,193 Catholic and 145,250 Protestant church members turned their backs on the church. Meanwhile, church services are attended mainly by children and old people. So it is not surprising that in early 2012 on the occasion of the annual feast day of St. Francis of Sales, the patron saint of journalists, Pope Benedict XVI called on priests around the world to use modern means of communication based on the Internet to establish a dialogue with believers.

Facebook church service in Cologne

Dietmar Heeg, a Catholic priest in Cologne, chose a particularly progressive form: Mass 2.0. On 1 April 2012, Palm Sunday, he celebrated his first service on Facebook. The sermon from the Maternus House Chapel in Cologne was available to watch on livestream on three Facebook pages simultaneously. Church members were asked to post questions and intercessions, suggestions and concerns on Twitter and Facebook. The community’s commentaries were received by online editor Sarah on her iPad and she read them out so that the priest could deal with them right away. “What has God got to do with football, then?” asked one Facebook user, because Heeg had made an analogy in his sermon between Jesus and Manuel Neuer, the goalkeeper of the German national team, who had been “verbally crucified”. Someone else tried to explain in the chatroom: “The priest uses contemporary examples”. “Exactly”, confirmed Heeg on livestream. He is sure that “if Jesus were alive now, he would be on Facebook.”

Not only the Catholic, but also the Evangelical Church is stepping up its efforts to speak to its flock on Web 2.0. In early May 2012, an Evangelical church linked its church service to the microblogging service Twitter for the first time. Several people attending the services in the Versöhnungskirche (Reconciliation Church) in Frankfurt told the world what they were experiencing using the 140 characters on their laptops. “We are singing hymn number 432”, was one of the tweets, followed by a link to the words of the hymn. Shortly afterwards, another tweeter made the recording of the hymn from the church accessible on SoundCloud, a music data exchange website. All the tweets were projected on a screen next to the altar with the hashtag #rctg12.

From blogocese to relicamps

No enterprise, no political party, no famous person and no community of faith can get by without a website or Facebook and Twitter accounts. For Christians who are digital natives, the range of websites has becoming almost overwhelming. Many churches and dioceses have a Facebook or Twitter account as well as their own website. There is an active blogger scene that the Catholics self-ironically call the blogocese. At conferences with open workshops on the subject of the church and social media, so-called relicamps, discussion are held on new forms of religious practice. A search for the word “Internetseelsorge” (online counselling) gets more than 45,000 Google hits.

Christian communities such as Jesus.de, firstlife, Authentic Friends or Christbook.com offer blogs and news, chats and job and travel companion agencies, and dating agencies for single people such as FunkyFish, Christ sucht Christ (Christian seeks Christian) and Himmlisch Plaudern (Heavenly Chats) promise to find a partner with the right faith. There are websites for children, prayer portals, church search machines, evaluation portals for priests, pastors and even the Pope, a dozen or so sermon portals where priests can compile their words from the pulpit and even special apps for the German Catholic Convention. Among the many official and many more private websites, some bizarre ones are to be found. On beichte.de (confess), for example, believers can obtain absolution online to the alarming sound of ringing bells. After clicking “I am sorry that I have sinned”, a pop-up window opens with the question “Will you try to do better from now on? If yes, activate your intention”. All this is also available as an iPhone or iPad app.

Twigo – “A most extreme form of Protestantism”

There were mixed reactions from people following the so-called Twigo (Twitter-Gottesdienst – church service on Twitter) in Frankfurt from the comfort of their armchairs. “If I can join in services like that, I know why I am a Christian,” was one of the tweets. “The atmosphere that many people go to church to experience is lacking. Just words => an extreme form of Protestantism,” was the view of another tweeter.

Not all Christian websites are equally attractive and not everyone is equally receptive. “People who are distant from the church will not be converted simply because the church has a Facebook account,” says theologian Christian Wode, who has been involved with the subject of The Church and Web 2.0. To date, Facebook has been mainly used to exchange information critical of the church. Online editor Sarah, for her part, has positive remarks to make about users’ reactions to the Facebook service: “Many people were very impressed,” is her interpretation. And Heeg is optimistic: “The Holy Spirit moves in mysterious ways and I am firmly convinced that today, he moves on the Internet.”