Can online communities like Jesus Daily take the place of offline religious life, like what happens at synagogues and churches?
That’s the question The New York Times asked in one of their most recent opinion topics in their popular segment Room For Debate where six prominent academic scholars and relevant media figureheads write in related topics.
Times debaters discussed technology's influence on church. The topic came about last week when Pope Benedict XVI issued a warning on online interaction after the sudden rise in popularity of Jesus Daily Facebook page, where fans are highly active in engaging in religious discourse. In his warning, the Pope said: "It is important to remember that virtual contact cannot and must not take the place of direct human contact with people at every level of our lives."
But how does this virtual spiritual behavior reflect physical spiritual behavior? What are church leaders saying about online communities like Jesus Daily?
St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Colleen Carroll Campbell, one of the debaters in the Times discussion, wrote in her piece "Beware of Convenient Fellowship" that digital faith communities seem to require less effort than in-the-flesh communities.
“(In online faith communities) you can confide in them (a friend) your deepest fears, hopes and dreams, then unfriend them instantly if they prove annoying. In a real-world faith community, unyoking from fellow churchgoers is rarely so neat or clean," said Campbell, author of The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy.
But how are online religious communities offering alternatives to believers?
Diane Winston, the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the University of Southern California, also weighed in the debate in favor of online church communities.
“Instead of reducing offline attendance, participation and financial support - as some religious leaders initially feared - online communities allow congregants to augment their weekend encounters between Monday and Friday. People use online resources, but they still attend a real-world church," wrote Winston in her post "Spreading the Good Word, Online."
The Reverend Cheryl J Sanders, senior pastor of Third Street Church of God in Washington, doesn't believe social networking can replace human contact, but says that online religious communities can help provide opportunities for interaction among "members who cannot attend church because of work, illness, or relocation and by students who are away at college."
She added in her post, "Moreover, it is a tool for reaching a generation whose personal priorities do not include church attendance but who spend hours each day online."
The Times reported that while Facebook officials believe "It’s too early to say that social media has transformed the way people practice religion," they have observed that "the number of people discussing faith on Facebook has significantly increased in the last year."