Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Why Talk Anymore? Community Formation & On-Line World

A few weeks ago I was sitting next to a former student in the Imago Dei Youth Ministry when he mentioned to me a recent update regarding his brother,

"He got accepted into one of his top colleges."

“I know," I responded. "I saw on Facebook.”

He quickly commented back, “Why do we even talk anymore?”

There is a lot of truth to my friend’s tongue-in-cheek retort. We are so inundated with social media and various forms of on-line communication that real human interactions and verbal dialogue seem out-dated and redundant at best. Yet I wonder, do these electronic interactions and web-based conversations have any real depth? Do they ever extend much farther than clever emoticons and shorthand text-lingo? Can we actually form true community and worthwhile relationships over the world wide web?

So I offer my thoughts, certainly aware of the irony, through my blog.

Yes: Community Can Be Fostered On-Line

As a youth pastor I can say without a doubt that I have witnessed the birth and evolution of adolescent community through the medium of social networking sites like Facebook, Blogger, WordPress, and Twitter. The same rings true for the adult populous of our congregation. There is an ability to share information and swap formative resources through the simple posting of a URL to a given current event, news story, creative video, or pertinent commentary related to theology and/or Scripture. I have found some of my most sacred discoveries through friends within my on-line community.

Even more, some of my most intentional, raw, and honest dialogues, dare I say pastoral ministry, have taken place over the internet. I have discovered that there is a tendency for students and adults who typically balk at any interaction beyond superficial banter to share deeper elements of their story through wall posts, Facebook chats, and other social-network dialogue. There are caution flags to be waved, for sure, when we deceive ourselves and believe to have "security" and "confidentiality" through these variations of on-line community. Furthermore, we are all aware of the horrific incidents that should cause us to pause and be on-guard whenever we engage in on-line discourse. But these abuses of technology do not extinguish the plausibility, even certainty, that community can be generated on-line. Actually, in the emerging technological age, which is actually not emerging but already here, this variation of community occurs quite often. I not only am grateful for this, but also have benefited significantly.

No: On-Line Community Cannot Replace Tangible Human Interactions

In short, unless we are willing to enter into flesh and blood interactions with others we will never fully experience community as God intended. Again, this is not to say that beautiful forms of community do not take place on-line. Rather, it is to say that community can only reach its fullest of potential when people gather together in tangible ways. I think a theology of the incarnation can underscore the significance of this suggestion.

The Christian tradition throughout history has held fast to the theology of Jesus as "God-in-flesh." In other words, while God's people, prior to the incarnation of Jesus, were able to pilgrimage together en route towards God's dreams for the world, confident that God was with them, only through the advent of Immanuel does the imago Dei fully experience and enter into fellowship with the Creator.

The Law: a gift.

The writings: a shared story.

The Temple: a sacred place.

But all of these are a mere shadow of the "with God life" compared to the actual incarnation of God in real human flesh. Still more, this Jesus as God incarnate called a people to live into the incarnation as they not only "provoke one another to love and good deeds," but also refuse to neglect the significance of "meeting together" (Hebrews 10:24-25).

Yet this is the habit of some.

I write all this because as I begin a new series with the Imago Dei Youth Ministry, "Below the Surface: Relationships and Faith of Depth," I am reminded how difficult it is to move beyond superficial dialogue and community engagements and to go deeper. As my former student said, "why do we even talk anymore?" Better said, do we even talk anymore? Or are we so entrenched in a Facebook world that we no longer have the capacity to engage in conversations, sustain strong relationships, covenant and commit to faith communities, and even pursue faith that dives below the surface.

Phyllis Tickle alludes to this in The Great Emergence:

"Dependency on machines, in other words, is part of the Great Emergence, and it infiltrates far more than our mundane activities. It infiltrates as well our unsettled and unsettling inability to determine where the line is between us and machines...how many of them we will allow into our bodies, how much we will allow them to stimulate our actions, how long we will be able to control them" (15).

I love social networking. I value the advances in technology that make communication with neighbors near and far possible in an instant. I am grateful for the ability to share ideas, stories, articles, videos, and thoughts through mediums like this blog with people all over the world and in my own church.

But while community may happen there, it does not end there. It should not end there.

Community needs to be incarnated. Community requires flesh and blood interactions...at least if we want our communities to move below the surface.


[1] Two great and relevant clips from Portlandia that expose the propensity for shallow conversations should we become so obsessed with community through social networking and media: "Technology Loop" & "Did You Read?"

Updated 3/27/12

A great interview of Brandon Vogt on his book, The Church and New Media: Blogging Converts, On-Line Activists, and Bishops Who Tweet, available on HomebrewedChristianity.com.

This article was also featured in the on-line resources of CONSPIRE Magazine.