Each Sunday, I challenge the church in the dismissal with benediction "to go into the world, living lives worthy of the Gospel, so that others might see the love of God." We leave the comfort of the sanctuary for work, school, home, and life. Sometimes, we leave behind the challenge on a pew in the church; other times, it hits us in the world beyond the doors when we least expect.
I am accustomed to that challenge in the "real" world of sight and sound, flesh and blood. Increasingly, I am finding the challenge in the "virtual" world of the internet. As a football fan, I frequent several football message boards--- which are an anonymous world unto themselves. Occasionally, the topics wander to other things than football. My identity as a pastor is not a secret on these boards (it is not something I revealed from the start, but came out as the discussions revolved around faith issues). I have gotten in many discussions with all kinds of people about the bible, creation, the church, just to name a few. These discussions have been with atheists, fundamentalists, and even self-described pagans as well as "regular" Christian folk. People ask all kinds of questions about faith, sin, and God. I find that many have had a bad experience with the institution of the church, even though they are still searching like the rest of us. Because of their experience, they have abandoned the church; even with that, some want only to find someone in the church who will not judge or cajole them. My hope in these conversations is to always be civil, even if we disagree...to be caring, even if there is no common ground. On some occasions, relationship and respect grow as conversation continues.
I read recently that a United Methodist pastor had been commissioned to start a virtual church first, build a a local community there, then work on the bricks and mortar. When John Wesley said that the world was his parish, I am sure he did not dream of the internet. Perhaps living beyond the doors as Christians has taken on a whole new meaning in the 21st century. Just as Wesley went where people were to spread the Gospel in 18th century England, so too must we be willing to be witnesses for Christ in the infinity of cyberspace. In the easy answers of the internet, the love of God must be shown, especially to people who are searching, doubting, and even hurting.