By Jared Henderson, PhD
Whether they be new converts looking for a place to discuss first steps into Christianity or lifelong Christians searching for people to engage in conversation, young Christians are increasingly turning to Internet platforms to learn about their faith. The Church should celebrate the fact that so many people want to talk and learn about Christianity — but we should also be aware of the dangers of this kind of do-it-yourself, virtual catechesis. Once we’ve finished celebrating and become aware of these dangers, we can start making the most of this opportunity. We can meet the people where they are and engage in intentional, thoughtful evangelism and religious instruction online.
Of course, the ideal is that the new and young Christians who take to the Internet in search of theological education will be catechized and formed in the context of a local sacramental community, and that online discussions of Christianity will supplement this formation. But so many young Christians lack this community, or the communities to which they belong do not emphasize catechesis. So, eager to grow in their faith, they turn to the Internet, where they encounter a vast number of people, positions, and dialogues. Online, there is almost no way for the uninformed to discover who is worth listening to — when you’re on the Internet, everyone is a stranger and there are no trusted experts. Confusion can quickly ensue.
I have been an active user of Reddit for almost a decade, and I am very familiar with the Christian presence on the site. There is a general subreddit for Christianity, /r/Christianity, which has nearly 200,000 subscribers. /r/Anglicanism has roughly 4,600 subscribers, though it is quite active for its size. /r/Reformed, a more conservative subreddit in the Reformed tradition, has almost 24,000 subscribers. There are subreddits for Lutherans, gay Christians, fundamentalists, Roman Catholics, the Orthodox, and so on. Virtually every niche is filled.
Subscribers tend to overlap on many Christian subreddits, but from this we can infer that there are at least 200,000 people on one website interested enough in Jesus to subscribe to a community dedicated to discussion of Christianity. And when they get to Reddit, they are immediately exposed to a number of conflicting viewpoints about Christian doctrine and practice, and they almost immediately see that Christians on the Internet can be cruel to one another in the face of disagreement.
While popular, Reddit is just one site. The top search result on YouTube for the term “apologetics” has over 1 million views. Many more have view counts in the hundreds of thousands. There are videos from Evangelicals, Catholics, Orthodox, and even Episcopalians and other Anglicans!
There is also Discord, a free online messaging app which is divided into servers, resembling early Internet chatrooms. Originally Discord served as a place for gamers to meet and chat, but the service has been utilized by many other enthusiast communities, and there is a significant Christian presence. One can join a server by invitation only, and they are usually divided based on topics or ideologies. Discord has something like 250 million users, though it would be almost impossible to calculate the number of Christian servers and users based on its structure. There are, at the very least, thousands.
Anyone familiar with any of these platforms knows that the communities that exist there are often idiosyncratic, and odd views can quickly take root. It is all too easy to find radicals and extremists of all kinds, and the Christian parts of these platforms are no different. These extreme users usually have a remarkably narrow definition of Christian orthodoxy, taking it to be roughly equal to the views they happen to hold at any given time. They often promote idiosyncratic opinions on theology, the Bible, or church history to serve their ideological interests. Anyone who disagrees can be labeled a heretic. The battle lines are often drawn around some of the most controversial issues in Western Christianity, and in particular human sexuality. Anyone on the Internet can find themselves drawn deeper and deeper into radicalism, whether that be radical religion or radical politics. In the depths of radicalism we lose nuance and, all too often, our capacity to love.
The good news is that some find themselves genuinely nurtured by these online community, as I myself can attest. I was raised in a conservative Baptist church, fell away from the faith in my teens, and found my love of God rekindled in graduate school. Some of my first steps back into the Christian faith were through discussions online. In fact, I discovered the Episcopal Church through Reddit! So it would be alarmist and misleading of me to claim that these online experiences and communities only pose a risk to inquirers. In fact, they can be tremendous resources.
The question is: how are we going to help those people who are seeking Christ online? How can the Church make the most of this opportunity?
We might insist that our young people get off the Internet and go to church. Many parishes are moderate, loving communities who can help form a new Christian and aid them in their walk with Christ. Plenty of these parishes offer classes of some kind, either during the evening or on Sunday mornings. In these contexts a trusted expert such as a priest or lay leader can engage them with prayer and dialogue, pointing them towards needed resources. This is the ideal model of catechesis, and part of our goal in online ministry should be to help connect inquirers to these physical, sacramental communities. But we cannot fool ourselves: some amount of virtual catechesis is here to stay. Our task is to figure out a strategy for molding people in more loving, mature Christians online, either before or after they have been connected to a parish community.
We have nothing like a Diocese of the Internet, and while there are Anglican efforts to reach out to Internet users, such as the Way of Love podcast with Presiding Bishop Curry, their impact is relatively small compared to the sheer number of people who go on the Internet asking questions about Jesus Christ and the number of people who claim to have the answers to those questions. Our ministerial efforts must recognize the fact that our virtual lives are integral parts of our organic lives, and thus our outreach must extend to as much of the Internet as is possible. So, how can we proclaim the gospel online?
Consider, for the sake of comparison, Christian radio in the 20th century. Evangelical Christians made a concerted effort to use radio to spread their message. How many of us who were raised within evangelicalism remember radio preachers and episodes of Adventures in Odyssey even as adults? That media formed us. What media will form the young today? Of course, the mode is different, as are the theologies, but the principle is the same. While we cannot simply copy what worked for evangelical radio, we are obligated to do something. So how can we as Anglicans evangelize and catechize online in a distinctively Anglican way?
As a lay member of the Episcopal Church, I am called to ministry, for, as our catechism states, lay persons are called “to bear witness to Christ wherever they may be.” This includes our online presence. To that end I serve as a moderator of one fairly large Christian online community, and I see my primary goal in that role to point people in the direction of reliable sources. When someone comes asking about Christianity, I send them links to an online denominational church finder or to books by respected authors. I offer to pray for them. I answer their questions to the best of my ability, and I aim to provide sources for my claims. I know of priests and pastors across denominational lines who do similar work.
I cannot claim expertise; I’m simply someone who wants to help in this ministry, and I often fail in my attempts. But I do believe my experience has taught me a few things. For one, these efforts cannot be undertaken exclusive by the laity, nor can they only be the responsibility of the clergy. Inquirers want to hear from both lay people and clergy as they explore the faith, because they want to share their journeys with as many kinds of people as possible. Lay people and clergy can bear witness to and represent Christ, respectively, online. Working in tandem, dedicated lay people and clergy can provide a kind of digital community for the inquirer, a community that does not replace, but rather points to, the physical, sacramental community that is the Church.
Indeed, we must bear witness to Christ online. We cannot ignore these people, who are crying out for religious instruction, even if they do not know what “catechesis” means. I talk to people who are aching to learn about Jesus and his Church every single day. They want to learn and to grow in Christ, and often they feel confused and lost. If we do not attempt to help them grow in Christ, other people will. Some of these people will do so in good faith, with a genuine love of God guiding them. Others will not be guided by this love. We owe it to these inquirers online to help them, to offer a genuine Christian witness online. As members of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church we believe that we possess the faith that was once given to the apostles by Christ himself. We owe it to all of humanity to offer this gift to the world, whether through physical or virtual presence.
We can offer this gift in many ways. In addition to podcasts, priests and laity can also offer respectful, loving discussion and guidance on online forums like Reddit and Discord. We can create digital content that can be easily shared and distributed. Imagine what a treasure a series of YouTube videos walking through the catechism could be — a digital repository of the outline of the faith, accessible to anyone who can access the Internet. Imagine a series of explainer articles detailing our Eucharistic liturgy, inviting those who were not raised in a liturgical church into the richness of our worship. These are all real possibilities for the Church; we have the means to carry out this mission, and many have already begun.
Finally, we must always keep an eye toward the physical, embodied, sacramental community that is the local church. We must encourage all those who seek Christ online to also seek Christ in person. There will always be things a local community can offer that a digital community cannot. We need real water, real bread, and real wine for the Church to carry out her sacramental ministry. We also need to be available — in person — when anyone needs food, shelter, or simply a shoulder to cry on.
As the Book of Common Prayer’s thanksgiving for the mission of the church puts it:
Almighty God, you sent your Son Jesus Christ to reconcile the world to yourself: We praise and bless you for those whom you have sent in the power of the Spirit to preach the Gospel to all nations. We thank you that in all parts of the earth a community of love has been gathered together by their prayers and labors, and that in every place your servants call upon your Name; for the kingdom and the power and the glory are yours for ever. Amen.
In this prayer, we thank God for the gift of Jesus Christ and for the community of love that is the Church. I pray that we continue to extend this community of love to those seeking Christ online.
Jared Henderson received his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Connecticut in 2019. He and his wife Mengyu attend St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Austin, TX.