Is authentic Christianity possible online? #digidisciple (@ailsawright)

I’ve been wondering recently, is it possible to genuinely do as Paul told us and ‘Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn’ (Romans 12:15 NIV) in the digital world? Can we show the empathy Jesus showed in weeping with Martha and Mary? If we can’t do this, is an authentic Christianity possible in the digital spaces?

In my relatively short time as a digidisciple (about seven and a half years) I’ve enjoyed conversations with many people online. Some of our talk has been purely fun – chat about all sorts of topics, often rather silly chat. Other conversations have been of a more pastoral nature, ‘listening’ in voice, textchat or by forum posts to the deep needs and hurts of one another. Yet further interaction has been the experience of shared prayer and worship in text and/or voice.

I’ve noticed that when people share their concerns or prayer requests, these are remembered. The person who shared is followed up and asked how things are going; the prayer request is offered regularly, often by several different people. This suggests to me that the online world is not simply a shallow place of playing games, but a place where substantial connections are made between real people, albeit mediated in some way.

At the Anglican Cathedral in Second Life in the first half of the year we prayed regularly for one of our members who was looking for a job. When news of a possible job was shared there was excitement and interest in the group. Even when the process dragged on for months, prayers and solicitous questions continued and words of encouragement offered. When we received news that the job was actually secured, joyful and congratulatory words were typed and spoken. It seems that we genuinely rejoiced; that the journey to a job had been shared by us all.

My father died recently and during the few weeks before his death and since I’ve experienced something of what Anna Blanch noted in July – worlds colliding, the coalescence of parts of my life. Before my father’s death the Prayer Ministry Team of Anglicans of SL (AoSL), one of my online communities, was praying for him and for all the family. When I heard he had only a couple of days to live, I was part of the team leading a Cursillo weekend. Prayers began there also, in one of my offline communities. The AoSL community was also told and prayers were offered in the services.

When my father had died, I informed the AoSL group, my Facebook friends, the Wakefield Anglican Cursillo Googlegroup and my RL priest. The resulting Skype messages, emails, SMS messages, Facebook comments, IMs in SL, posts on a forum, cards – both ecards and the old-fashioned paper variety – came from offline and online church friends, from work colleagues past and present, from recent friends and those from the past, many of whom I shall never meet offline. I would not have rung, written to or even emailed most of them and that would have meant missing out on so many wonderful messages of sympathy which really carried me through the first days of bereavement.

The digidisciple theme this month is serendipity. A very valuable God-incidence reminded me of the limitations of online friendships. A friend from Second Life was staying at my home when my father died. I felt sad that his visit was being overshadowed by this bad news although obviously there was nothing I could do to change things. Actually, far from being the wrong time to have a friend with me, it was the perfect time. We have developed a deep and honest friendship online which translated seamlessly into an offline friendship. Freed of the limitation of conveying everything in words or smileys, it was enough to make eye contact or to share a hug to say what needed to be said. Would I have received support from this friend it we were only online? Certainly! But offline was so much better.

Some years ago the limitations of online friendships became glaringly apparent. A friend shared in a chat-room some very difficult news with two of us. After those words appeared on the screen I was stunned. Wanting to say the right thing, I didn’t type anything for some time, nor did the other person there. Had we been face to face our expressions and a hug would have said all we needed to say. As it was, we were frustrated and hampered by the limitations of the medium, trying to put into words something that nearly defeated our ability to express ourselves.

A bonus of online friendships at this time is the opportunity for ‘bumping into’ people, some I haven’t chatted to for a long time, and having really helpful conversations. I know offline friends would offer the same but there are not many chances to have impromptu conversations with them. God seems to guide me to chat to the person with the right words just when I need them.

My experience suggests it really is possible to show the signs of authentic Christianity online, including rejoicing with those who rejoice and mourning with those who mourn. Have I just been lucky? Does John Donne’s assessment still hold online: “No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; ..Any Mans deathe diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde”?

Editor’s Note: Apologies. Due to human error this was posted later in the day than planned. 

About Ailsa Wright

Lay Pastor of Anglicans of Second Life, teacher, counsellor. Living in Wakefield in West Yorkshire, England.