Scholar’s Top 5: Tim Hutchings on Online Christian Churches

I’m currently working on my first monograph, an ethnographic study of five online Christian churches. I published early findings in Information, Communication & Society 14(8). In “Contemporary Religious Community and the Online Church”, I argued that the distinction between online and offline is flexible and open to negotiation. Many online congregants welcome their family and friends into their online and offline gatherings, but this decision isn’t consistent or universal. Others worship online to find a secure space away from the surveillance of family and local church. Scholars shouldn’t lose sight of this double reality: religious media, like religion itself, is both part of and separate from everyday reality.

If you’re interested in finding out more about online churches and the debates they provoke, here are the five resources I’d recommend.

1) J. Hadden and D. Cowan (eds), 2000, Religion on the Internet: Research Prospects and Promises, New York: JAI Press. Chris Helland’s classic distinction of “religion online” from “online religion” never really worked for online churches, but working out why not is a good way to start thinking about issues of authority, change and what counts as “religious practice”.

2) The Barna Group, 1998, The Cyberchurch is Coming. This report (and a 2001 update) interpreted terribly flimsy survey data to predict massive migration from local to online churches. That didn’t happen, but these studies have cast a long shadow over Christian discussion.

3) Online: The Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet 03.1, 2008. Online published a series of great articles about online churches, including 5 in this issue. Simon Jenkins’ contribution is an excellent account of Church of Fools, written by one of its founders.

4) D. Estes, 2010, SimChurch, Grand Rapids: Zondervan. This is still the only book-length discussion of online churches. Estes’ enthusiastic study isn’t perfect, but you need to read it – and it sparked some very interesting debates among hostile Christian bloggers.

5) K. Sporre and G. Svedburg (eds), 2009, Changing Societies: Values, Religions and Education: Working Papers in Teacher Education 7. Two of the articles in this collection discuss churches in Second Life. Jim Barrett sees a “rhetoric of the holy” at work in online church design – a very useful approach to the limits of religious innovation.


Link updated for the fifth resource (Working Papers in Teacher Education 7).