If you’re someone who believes life was better before Google and that “face-to-face interaction” is the gold standard of human relationships then read no further: You’ll only shake your head and be vaguely depressed to learn that people are now “going to church” through their computers and creating virtual faith communities online. Surely this is further evidence that digital technology is eating away at cherished institutions and degrading human interaction?

For those who are devoted to exploring digital society, however, this moment in history feels unique, super-charged, almost exploding with possibility. At the elite end of the technology world, of course, “Web 2.0” — applications of the idea that the web is all about interactivity now — is almost passé already (talk has now turned to Web 3.0,) but for the religious world, Web 2.0 technology is still pretty cutting edge. And who’s out in front? Not surprisingly, it’s evangelicals, the same dynamic, energetic people who brought you megachurches, multi-site churches and even the “emergent” church.

The Dallas-based Leadership Network — a lead think-tank for evangelical innovation — has a new, 11-page concept paper on Web 2.0 applications: Online Social Networking Tools for the Church (available for free download) by Stephen Shields (photo at left.) The paper puts Web 2.0 in a historical context, reports on who is taking the lead in this field and offers some points for reflection. While the paper is written for fellow evangelicals, it can easily be applied to other faith groups.

Here’s what you need to know — and do — to think about using Web 2.0 applications to expand your faith community.

1. LifeChurch.tv is wiping the floor with everyone else when it comes to digitizing the divine. The church, whose tag line is “One Church, Multiple Locations” has an Internet Campus where about 700 people worship each Sunday while sitting at home in front of their computers. An additional 18,000 people attend 11 real-life LifeChurch locations around the country each Sunday. But the concept paper reports that the online worship service is the most successful in evangelical terms:

Lifechurch.tv’s Senior Pastor Craig Groeschel says the Internet Campus site reports more decisions for Christ per capita than any of their eleven other bricks and mortar sites.

Lifechurch.tv now also has a 16-acre “island” in the virtual world of of Second Life, where it held an Easter Sunday service this year. If you’ve never been on Second Life, just take half an hour some day to download the free software and roam around this online world.

2. Whether you like it or not, many people have what the concept paper calls a “rich online life:”

In a way older generations might have difficulty imagining or even believing, new generations today engage in relationships and community mediated by digital technologies. In fact, they become so used to these technologies that even the awareness of them can fall away as they focus on the individuals with whom they are communicating.

In other words, as the telephone is to you, so online interaction is for others: a normal way of communicating.

3. Beware, say religion 2.0 leaders in the concept paper: Online virtual worlds like Second Life or social networking sites like MySpace are, by nature, open to anyone. Threats come in the form of easily accessed pornography, “griefers” (online denizens who destroy virtual property or harass others,) or even simply addiction to online interaction. Writes Sheilds:

With the ‘gee whiz’ aspect of new technologies, the faithful evangelist and discipler must always remember that in the final analysis they are only tools and contexts. No amount of technological sophistication or online savvy replaces the critical importance of walking with the Holy Spirit.

4. Religious-minded folks have responded to the unvetted nature of social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook by creating popular faith-based networking sites like MyChurch.org, or, MuslimSpace.com for Muslims, Schmooze.com for Jews, Sikhpal.com for Sikhs, LDSLinkup.com for Mormons, etc. etc., you get the idea.

While these Web 2.0 innovations remain on the fringes of faith life for the moment, they are likely to continue to gain ground, particularly as the digital natives grow older and take charge.

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