Spreading the word in cyberspace

The anticipation of chocolate eggs and rabbits, the promise of a long weekend and arguments over Easter trading tend to overshadow Easter remembrance and celebration as the most significant event within the wider Christian community.

It is an event marked by weeks of preparation by some, and one of the few times when others on the fringe of the Christian community for most of the year turn up for a church service.

Yet while numbers might seem higher than usual in church on Easter Sunday, an increasing number of the faithful are now looking to the online world for spiritual connection and nourishment, either to supplement their regular church life or to replace it all altogether.

This Easter we see all sorts of Easter-related online spiritual content being created. You can take a pub quiz about Jesus at sites like rejesus.org.uk, take part in online meditations on the Stations of the Cross and post a prayer to a virtual prayer space.

Or post and read articles on networks of blog exploring the seasons of Lent and Easter, and attend a virtual reality service in the Anglican Cathedral of Second Life. It's a really eclectic mixture of institutional and individual efforts.

This pursuit of a virtual Christianity through email, blogs, podcasts, and online social networking is somewhat ironic. Christianity is, after all, oriented around the assertion that God became flesh and blood in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and moved into our neighbourhood - a move towards the material from the purely spiritual or virtual.

Nevertheless, both institutional Christianity and individual believers are progressively spending more time and resources in online environments.

That institutional Christianity has taken an interest in the online world should not be a surprise, given the way it has historically used books, magazines, radio and television to further its mission. So we see a huge number of websites being developed for individual congregations, denominations and para-church organisations complete with multimedia resources, virtual ministers and online stores.

Whether it is vatican.va or the local church down the road there often seems to be frenzied activity along the lines of "if we build it, they will come". And it's not just static websites being created, with the Catholic church in Australia creating a social networking site for last year's World Youth Day and GodTube recently rebranding itself as it moves from being a Christian YouTube to becoming more like Facebook or Bebo.

What might be more surprising to some though is the extent individuals have developed their spiritual lives online. One of the main thrusts of the Protestant Reformation was its assertion that individuals could relate directly with God without having a priest acting as mediator.

This idea of a "priesthood of all believers" is echoed in today's new media environment with consumers now less dependent on third parties mediating information for them. Blogs and other forms of content-creation allow consumers to become producers of information and become, as one person has put it, part of the "mediahood of all receivers".

Spiritual and religious resources and ideas can now be created and propagated by individuals and small groups cheaply and freely, supplementing those produced through traditional channels.

One of the side effects of this is the development of networks of individuals across geographic and denominational boundaries in ways not seen in the past and transcending traditional structures of religious authority and organisation. For example, where the content of faith was shaped by the physical community one belonged to, those with questions about faith and life can now investigate and discuss those instantly with others in the online networks they've joined.

Just as access to the printing press changed the face of Christianity in Western Europe, so too the internet has the potential to change organisational dynamics within those parts of the Christian community that enjoy access to it. The very real spiritual needs being met online for some believers, and the claims they make about the nature of community they find, raise some interesting questions as to just what an authentic religious community looks like.

Can it be found online, or does it need to have a face-to-face flesh and blood element to it?

In this world it might be hard to see where the figure of Jesus of Nazareth might fit in. What might a first century Palestinian Jew have to do with the internet?

Perhaps he'd have accounts on the social networking sites of this world, Twitter, as he journeyed around, and maybe even run a blog at VerilyISayUntoThee.com.

The author is a lecturer at the School of Theology, University of Auckland. This article was originally published in the New Zealand Herald.