Long ago and far away (22 years ago and 9,000 miles away) back before the Internet was called the Internet, I used to hang out on the Religion Forum of Compuserve (especially the Christian Sub-forum). It was a strange place. Although, proselytism was strictly forbidden and language was fairly strongly controlled, I felt that it was a nice place for religious dialogue and even acting as a Christian witness of sorts. There was a guy there who described himself as a Technopagan (he now writes for PCWorld). There were several atheists, one was a rather ignorant blowhard, while another was much more clever and entertaining. There was a Strangite Mormon. Another was Bahai… a lot of very surreal conversations there. One described himself as a Satanist. However, he believed in neither God nor Satan. Rather, he felt that Satan, on some level, encapsulated his own personal philosophy. Another wrote his own translation of Genesis, really heavy and hyper-literal stuff, in support of some rather curious beliefs he had about cosmogeny. Many more, but no point dragging things on.
I am not so sure that I was a super witness. Some things I said back then I would no longer ascribe to. But I think I did better than some. Periodically, a new Evangelical Christian would join the forum. They would be nice at first. But pretty soon it was obvious that they “couldn’t play nice with others.” He (usually a he… could be a she) would demonstrate ignorance of (and lack of interest in) the beliefs of others, use arguments for Christianity that really only work for those who are already nominal Christians. He would soon say things that were (intentionally or unintentionally) insulting to those who disagree with himself, get flamed by the cybercommunity, and eventually would drift away.
It occurred to me even 22 years ago that the Net had some characteristics that are condusive and destructive to ministry.
- The Web gives a voice to those who would not otherwise have a voice. Back in 1990, a Strangite Mormon had a regular voice on the Religion Forum, and so was heard by people from around the country, if not the world. Today, the Strangites have their own website. It is a pretty impressive advertisement to the world for a group that is only about 300 members strong.
- The Web gives power to people that are ill-prepared for that power. A lot of the Christians who got onto the Religion Forum back then lacked the Biblical (and non-Biblical) training to talk to others. Many drifted into “flaming” or denigrating others when a conversation wasn’t going their way.
- The Web provides a great place (potentially) for interfaith dialogue.
On the Religion forum 20 years ago, they had sysops (forum system operators) who were like the Pre-school teachers at the playground. They would jump in when the children didn’t play by the rules or did not play nice. It seems like we need a Divine sysop (system operator) today now that the Web has gone rather “Wild West.” Christians (to say nothing of other groups) have demonstrated an inability to express their faith wisely and respectfully on the Web. Christians on Christian Broadcasting on TV are embarrassing enough, but at least non-Christians know how to skip those channels. However, out-of-control Christians are all over the place on the Web. Back 20 years ago, I was actually censured by a sysop for saying something on the Web that would not be a problem on Nickelodeon Channel today. But everyone, including myself, needs a little guidance.
Case in point. I was downloading a song from Youtube for a non-denominational service we were doing here in the Philippines. It is an ecumenical song but more commonly used by Roman Catholics. The Philippines is primarily Roman Catholic, so it seemed like a good choice. I was looking at the comments in Youtube and there was one by a “Christian” who put a note in there that Catholicism is an “abomination” and went onto some stuff about mary worshippers and idolaters and such. It was really impossible for me to read it without it coming out as shouting. A different person, a Catholic, responded very kindly to this person. But it occurs to me. There are close to one billion Roman Catholics in the world. So I doubt that this person flaming Catholics on the Web really goes around town finding Catholics and yelling at them. This leads to a fourth point.
- The anonymity and physical separation provided by the Web sometimes brings out the worst in Christians.
Again, we as Christians need to think of our work on the Web as being under the oversight of our Divine Sysop. We are accountable for our words, and need to recognize this accountability.
A day ago, I wondered whether all of those conversations from the Religion Forum were still available in some archive somewhere. According to my research, Compuserve destroyed all of the forum conversations. It seems as if they are gone forever. Part of me is sad. There were some really awesome conversations on those forums at times. But part of me is happy. Sometimes our old foolishness has to be lost and forgotten.