This is the fourth in a twelve-part series on Community formation and social media.
In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, “It is the curse and promise (of Christendom) that God’s people must dwell in far countries among unbelievers, but it will be the seed of the kingdom of God in all the world. It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visible in this world to share God’s word and sacrament. Not all Christians receive this blessing. The imprisoned, the sick, the scattered and lonely, the proclaimers of the Gospel in heathen [sic] lands, stand alone.”
Bonhoeffer is right: isolated people long for community, whether they are geographically dislocated from their communities of birth, locked away behind concrete and steel, or shut in and away from loved ones. Today we have a myriad of new tools to break through the isolation of our post-modern society. The blessing of community is seen every day in Facebook groups, thriving blogs and even pop-up twitter memes that unite people around a common goal.
I am a digital optimist. I am the new Minister of Digital Community for The United Church of Christ's new online ministry, Extravagance UCC. I also maintain a blog at Patheos.com that truly feels like a ministry. Once upon a time, I planted and led a thriving online church in Second Life.I also serve as the director of digital strategy for a small, private liberal arts college in the Southeast. It's okay, I know I am a nerd. But I do sincerely believe that the very real risks of technologically-mediated community are far outweighed by the immense potential to help people connect in an era of profound isolation and rapid change.
More and more, post-modern citizens of the world assume, as a matter of course, that they may choose whether, when, and how to identify with others. The vast diversity of humanity to which we have access via social media provides an unprecedented opportunity for individuals and groups to try on different paths of belonging, behaving and believing, as Diana Butler Bass calls for in Christianity After Religion, and thus it has the potential to alter the very fabric of our communities.
Let’s explore Butler Bass’ exhortation for a minute. First a sense of belonging (identity), then an invitation to behaving (practicing), leads finally to a shift in believing.
Technology can play an important role in identity formation, as well as practicing faith and believing, for both individuals and communities because it allows them to explore their values and beliefs amid a wide array of traditions that are easily accessed and engaged through social networks.
Online communities are not immutable entities locked by geography or ethnicity but rather fluid organizations of people seeking to connect and belong around a common set of interests, desires and goals. More and more, communities are highly focused gatherings of people that transcend traditional lines of demarcation and identity. Once upon a time in Habits of the Heart, Bellah and friends called these micro-communities social enclaves. Seth Godin now refers to them as Tribes. By whatever name they are known today, they have the potential to be communities of belonging, behaving and believing.
In his study of base communities in Latin America, Ecclesiogenesis: The Base Communities Reinvent the Church, Leonardo Boff writes, “Grace and salvation are always expressed in sacramental form. They do not come like a bolt from the blue. They find their path to the hearts of human beings through all manner of mediations. The mediations can change, but grace and faith cannot.”
Once our hearts and minds are opened to the fluidity of community via online interactions, we can be open to the possibility that online community can deeply impact the way we form, understand, and sustain the identity of our offline communities. We are invited to loosen the reins of our brick and mortar congregations and welcome a fluid state of discernment about who we are in the world, alone and together, and our response to God’s call on our lives. In this shifting space where we are formed and forming we have the amazing gift of holding open a sacred space for the Holy Spirit to do a new thing.
After working for decades in the technology sector, Kimberly Knight earned her M.Div from Candler School of Theology in 2009. In addition to maintaining a blog, she serves as the Minister of Digital Community with Extravagance UCC and is the Director of Digital Strategy for Agnes Scott College in Georgia.
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