Investigation of the nature of the church through an analysis of selected email-based Christian online communities
Campbell, Heidi A.
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This thesis investigates Christian online communities, with special emphasis on studying the nature of community and cyberspace. The purpose is to identify characteristics of community that individuals are seeking to cultivate in the online setting, showing possible implications for individuals in the "real world" church and offline communities. The key research question is: "What does online communication offer individual Christians and groups of Christians? How is the Internet changing Christians' interaction with the real world Christian Church?" The literature review on the topics of community, the Internet and online religion begins with theological definitions of community being combined with Social Network Analysis. Community is defined as a network of relationships between individuals connecting to a common purpose, whose bonds are created and sustained through shared traits and beliefs. The Internet, the "network of all connected networks" and cyberspace, a metaphorical space laden with distinct interpretations of what is real and what is virtual in a technological world, are explored as a space utilising new ways of communicating and being. Online community combines traditional traits of community with a new technological setting and is defined as individuals assembling through Internet technology to form a network of interdependent relationships based on a common vision, care and communication. These explorations provide groundwork for studying online Christian communities, online groups who share a common Christian commitment and unite through a specific faith-based discussion topic. Case study methodology is used to explore three Christian-email communities. They were selected on the basis of common online practices, yet represented diverse theological groups. The Community of Prophecy is a Charismatic-Renewal group focused around the gift of prophecy. The Online Church is an evangelical group of sensory impaired individuals. The Anglican Communion Online is a group with links to the Anglican Church. A three-phase research strategy is employed. Phase one involves participant-observation in selected online communities. Phase two involves distribution and analysis of online questionnaires to online community members. Phase three involves face-to-face interviews. These discussions tested out online observations and investigated how individuals link their online and "real world" communities. Each case study is analysed with data presented under four themes. First, The Online Community and the Online Context examined how each community used Internet technology and adapted to the online environment. Secondly, The Online Community and the Real World investigated how each community links online experiences with real world activities. Thirdly, The Online Community as a Community considered how each online group develops unique patterns of behaviour and a common identity. Finally, The Online Community Reflects on the Church demonstrated how members critique the real world Church community through the positive characteristics of online community they experienced. Through this study three conclusions are drawn. First, online involvement is not causing people to leave their local church or shy away from real world participation. Secondly, people join online communities primarily for relationships not information; relationships often noted as lacking in the offline Church. Thirdly, members' descriptions of online community and reasons they give for online involvement provide a critique of the real world Church. Also the attributes of online community highlighted (relationship, care, value, consistent communication and in-depth/intimate communications) offer a picture of what individuals hope a Christian community of the Church to be like.