Community at a distance

Scattered/Gathered: E-groups and the Church-  Post 1

I can’t read minds, but I know what you are thinking: “Online small groups in Church? How can the church ever develop community if we are connected only by computer screens!”  I understand your skepticism.  I, too, have seen students in my classes who boast about having hundreds of Facebook friends, but are unable to communicate face-to-face with their peers.  I know that it is difficult enough to create strong and vibrant community in face-to-face small groups– and a real challenge to do so in an online setting.  Of course, I have always liked a good challenge!  The church should take the Gospel where people are and, as we shall see, people are online. E-Learning small groups are an ideal way to foster Christian community by meeting people where they live: the internet.

Christian community should not be taken for granted, but it often is. For many Christians in the world, access to Christian community is limited or not available. For some, Christian community is even illegal. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes about his experience of living in a secret Christian community while teaching at an underground seminary. Bonhoeffer praises Christian community as an “incomparable source of joy and strength to the believer.” [1] Still, Bonhoeffer also understands that Christians must not segregate themselves from the world, for to be in the “Kingdom is to be in the midst of your enemies. And he who will not suffer this does not want to be of the Kingdom of Christ.”[2] Christians, therefore, must live in two communities: the church and the world.

Walter Brueggemann suggests that Christians share the situation of their Jewish forerunners who lived in the Exile, living together in a religious community in the midst of a broader culture that, at times, violently opposes their faith. As such, Christians must begin to speak in “exilic language” without ever forgetting their mother tongue.[3] That is, Christians must participate in the broader society without losing sight of that which makes them distinctly Christian.

For the church of today, the primary “exilic language” is a digital language. Advanced technology has changed the way we think, behave, and communicate. Likewise, technology has changed the way that people interact with society. Through social media people can interact with their circle of friends and the broader world without leaving their homes. When logging into Facebook or sending a tweet, distant friends no longer seem so distant; the “world feels more open and connected.”[4]

Not everyone is convinced that technology actually makes the world more open or connected. Shelly Turkle, for example, questions technology’s ability to build real community: “Does virtual intimacy degrade our experience of the other kind and indeed all encounters, of any kind?”[5] For Turkle, our “digital friendships” serve simply as distractions from connectivity with “real” people. In her words, “The ties we form on the internet are not, in the end, the ties that bind.”[6]

For Christians, speaking a digital exilic language, the question becomes, can online Christian community create ties that bind? In other words, can Christian community be developed at a distance and in the absence of physical presence? Mary E. Hess, argues that online relationships, while not physical can still be “embodied.”[7] She notes that online experiences can often feel like out-of-body experiences. Responding to critics who claim that online relationships are not “real” and are “disembodying” Hess states, “we don’t stop to consider what was so compelling about the engagement that we were literally drawn out of our bodies long enough to acquire physical aches and pains that we only notice when we get up and try to move.” While our physical presence may not be felt on the other side of the fiber-optic cable, our conversation can still be quite real, embodied, and relational.

Christian community has always had long-distance relationships. The very relationship between God and humanity has, for the most part, been from a distance and “disembodied.” While opponents of online community often scoff at its lack of “physical touch” and “face-to-face” communication, it is rarely suggested that the absence of these qualities in prayer makes the relationship between God and humanity any less “real.” On the contrary, the apostle Paul seems clear in 1 Cor 1:9 that physical, face-to-face community is not required for a relationship between God and humanity, for from a distance God “has called you into fellowship with his son, Christ Jesus our Lord.” [8]

In the same way, Christian community among believers is often described as occurring from a distance. Consider, for example, the collection for the poverty stricken Christians of Jerusalem (1 Cor 16:1, Rom 15:26, 27). Paul urges Grecian Christians to collect money in order to support their brothers and sisters who were suffering. For Paul, the collection served as a visible symbol of the unity of the Spirit that bound together the Jewish and gentile Christians.[9]

On account of their spiritual communion and despite that they had never met “face-to-face,” the Gentile Christians shared with their brothers and sisters.[10] “For if the Gentiles have shared in (ekoinonasan) the Jews’ spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings.” (Rom 15:27) Paul placed a high premium on taking up the collection and ensuring a bond of Christian community even among those who had never met.[11]

The apostle Paul himself was often in community with those he had never met. The relationship was primarily carried out by means of one of the most prominent technologies of his day: the letter. Paul’s letters often carry the full weight of conversation— greeting, coaxing, admonishing, and praising his recipients. Paul treasured Christian community as a source of joy and strength. Surely, his letters were received as “doubtless tokens of such community.”[12]

Luke Timothy Johnson suggests a variety of purposes for private letter writing in the ancient world: to instruct, commend, propagandize, etc.[13] In each case, however, the letter serves the larger purpose of substituting for the physical presence of the letter writer. Johnson observes, “Perhaps the only universal function [of ancient letter writing] was that of making one who was absent, present; in a real sense, the letter was viewed as bearing the presence of the sender.”[14]

Following the letter writing customs of his day, Paul often used letters as a substitute for his physical presence. Paul did not view his letters as inadequate substitutes, but as acceptable substitutions for his physical presence. Margaret Mitchell and E. Randolph Richards argue that Paul may have even sometimes preferred sending letters to making personal visits.[15] In these cases, Paul believed the letters to be more effective than a personal visit. In other words, Paul used his letters— the “social” technology of his day— as both a substitute for his presence and as a preferred method for developing and sustaining relationships with his churches.

Like the church of the New Testament, the 21st century church is still looking for ways to strengthen the bond of unity that comes by virtue of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The task, however, has been compounded by a culture of individualism. Thomas Kirkpatrick states that, “For most of our human history, group life was a given. But we have less and less reason to be together and fewer and fewer ways of knowing each other, while our need for intimate, interpersonal relationships remain constant.”[16]

The church, made in the image of the Trinity, has always been a community of mutual support and interdependence. Stanley and Willits note that the persons of the Trinity can be observed enjoying one another (Gen 1:26), encouraging one another (Matt 3:17), supporting one another (John 14:25), loving one another (Mark 9:7), deferring to one another (John 14:10), and even glorifying one another (John 17:1).[17] Likewise, mutual encouragement, support, love, and honor should characterize relationships in the church.

As the church continues to be a community of mutual love, it must seek new avenues through which people can be supported by fellow believers and be integrated into the community of faith. Like Paul, the church must leverage the “social” technologies of the day to strengthen, encourage, and instruct the church. E-learning small groups offer the church an opportunity to meet people where they are (i.e. social media) and develop Christian community in an exilic, digital language.

Interested in E-groups for your church?  Check out Post 2!

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Kindle loc. 66.

[2] Ibid., Kindle loc. 39.

[3] Mary E. Hess, Engaging Technology in Theological Education: All That We Can’t Leave Behind (Lanham: Rowmand & Littlefield, 2005), 91.

[4] “About Facebook,” Facebook, http://https://www.facebook.com/facebook/info (accessed August 8, 2014). Facebook’s current mission statement.

[5] Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011), 12.

[6] Ibid., 280.

[7]Hess, Engaging Technology in Theological Education, 66.

[8] Mark A. Maddix, James Riley Estepp, and Mary E. Lowe, eds., Best Practices for Online Education: A Guide for Christian Higher Education (Charlotte: Information Age Publishing, 2012), 34.

[9] Frank J. Mater, Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament: Romans (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010).

[10]Theological Dictionary of the New Testament: Volume 3, 807.

[11] Brendan Byrne, Sacra Pagina: Romans, vol. 6 (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1996), 442.

[12]Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Kindle loc. 87.

[13] Luke Timothy Johnson, Writings of the New Testament, 237. Heikke Koskhennieme offers a slightly different list of purposes: 1) philophronesis, expressing a relationship of friendship, 2) homilia, an ongoing dialogue, and 3) parousia, a substitute for the presence of the sender when a visit is not possible. For a better description of this list see E. Randolph Richards, Paul and First Century Letter Writing: Secretaries, Composition, and Collection (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2004), 124.

[14] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament, 237.

[15] E. Randolph Richards, Paul and First Century Letter Writing, 203.

[16] Thomas Kirkpatrick, Small Groups in the Church: A Handbook for Creating Community (New York: Alban Institute, 1995), 10.

[17] Andy Stanley and Bill Willits, Creating Community (Colorado Springs: Multnomah Books, 2004), 41.