Today, more than ever before, the world is seeing the need for some sort of cyberspirituality. It is always important to monitor and guide the spiritual growth of our youth in a fast-changing world. Lippman and McIntosh (2010, p. 1) says that,
“Spiritual beliefs and practices among youth are important to monitor since research from developmental science, sociology, and character education has found they are positively related to identity and moral development; purpose and goal attainment; educational achievement and attainment; emotion and attention regulation; positive physical and mental health; life satisfaction and happiness; conflict resolution and social skills; prosocial behaviours, and a successful transition to adulthood.”
Vogt (2011, p. 190) notes that Marshall McLuhan was one of the first ‘media prophets’ to observe the profound ways that technology shapes culture. Long before the Internet became so popular, McLuhan had warned that new communication tools were capable of engendering unintended effects. His thoughts are summed up in his popular aphorism “the medium is the message”. For him, therefore, the medium of a message shapes it more than the content of that message itself. The Internet as a medium of communication can and does shape the spirituality of young people in our world, either for better or worse.
Vogt further observes that too much online activity can bring about shallower relationships (where people become too individualistic and unwilling to foster face-to-face relationships), cause information overload, encourage a rise in narcissism and pride (where everyone becomes interested in pontificating in an attempt to see who gets more likes, followers, or view counts), breed online relativism (where objective truth becomes the majority opinion, and whoever is loudest becomes authority), instigate difficulty in prayer and contemplation (because of the constant temptation to multitask), etc.
Furthermore, Zukowski (2010, p. 77) makes a subtle allusion to the question of identity. She observes that more than ever before, young people are faced with identity questions as they lapse into ‘lukewarmness’ in the practice of their faith. A gradual loss of identity leads to what White (2014, p. 9) calls ‘the non-practicing Catholic phenomenon’. White goes on to point out some of the most prevailing challenges of faith formation of young people in Africa. He says:
Young people in Africa are living in a more secularizing world, saturated by a largely secular media and secular culture. Often our teen-aged young people, especially those coming from poorer families, are not strongly involved in parish youth programmes. Many parishes have very weak youth catechetical programmes and inspirational activities. As young people out of more rural areas or away from their families of origin, they do not voluntarily go to the nearest family Church. They are often jobless and have postponed formal marriage. Most are just desperately trying to find enough income to feed themselves.
White recommends the use of lay evangelizing teams such as the Small Christian Communities (SCCs) like the Legion of Mary and the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. He suggests that these groups must be friendly in order to be able to grow and nurture cooperative relationships; it is about building a network of friends and of mutual support. White was right to posit that laypeople in Africa are our main apostles. In conclusion, he notes that we must bring the lay people together in teams if we hope to inspire them. They need to be challenged to respond to the gospel so as to be able to reach out to people in their neighbourhoods with friendship, problem-solving, and community leadership.
However, Egere (2015, p. 621), citing Werthman (1999) says that “the spiritual appeal of cyberspace lies precisely in this paradox: it is a repackaging of the old idea of Heaven, but in a secular, technologically sanctioned format. The perfect realm awaits us; we are told, not behind the pearly gates but the electronic gateways labelled.com and.net and.edu”. This notion is related to that of Campbell and Teusner (2011, p. 61), who argue that “the Internet empowers people to reconnect with religious beliefs in postmodern society by providing them opportunities to explore spiritual time and space in electronic environments… [It] in some respects models the experience of pilgrimage through unknown lands to find and experience God or the sacred”.
The idea of a cyber-church, therefore, breaks the barriers raised by physical or psychological walls. It does not have to be distinct from the physical Church; it is more like an extension of it. It becomes a virtual space that congregates those who seek a spiritual connection with God and neighbour, those who need compassion, understanding, and consolation, as well as those who need a sense of direction and community to realise their identity.
Furthermore, Egere (2012, pp. 614-615) citing Menardi, a tech-geek and Catholic ministry social strategist, says:
The cyber-church is every bit as real as the people who gather in-person in our parishes. The Cyber-Body-of-Christ is made of human flesh-and-blood people who simply congregate in cyberspace. Our job is to foster deeper connections between all of them – across the spectrum from physical church buildings to the cybersphere. The greater implication is that the Body of Christ exists in a wider plane. We know for certain that there are plenty of good Catholic believers that are never seen in a church building and yet, they too belong to the Body of Christ. They are easy to forget because they are seldom seen in person. They may be people that we only see at Christmas and Easter…or the children we lose track of between First [Holy] Communion and Confirmation…or the families who get over-extended with weekend activities. These are our “parishioners” as well. Our ministry is incomplete if we only serve the right-in-front-of-our-noses Body of Christ.
Egere then declares that “the cyber-Body-of-Christ is, in fact, an answer to the prayers of Jesus in John’s Gospel when he says, ‘I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me (John 7:21)’ (p. 615).”
Culled from my Masters Thesis titled “Virtual to real faith communities: A study among Young FaceBook users in Uromi Diocese.“
Copyright, Oselumhense Anetor, 2017.
Image credit @ Pixabay