This is the tenth in a twelve-part series on Community formation and social media.
Years ago, I was a member of an intentional Christian community in what was then a poor inner-city neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Community members met regularly to worship, discern and process community decisions, share meals, and sometimes just have fun together.
At times the conversations among us were difficult and challenging, especially when conflicts or serious disagreements arose. One of the hardest series of discussions took place when one community member experienced what she felt was inappropriate behavior by another. In the spirit of Matthew 18, she first confronted the person directly, then subsequently brought the issue before the whole community. The process was heart-wrenching and painful—but it ultimately strengthened the bonds among us and deepened our trust for and intimacy with one another.
Communities of faith that form and are nurtured through online relationships differ in significant ways from in-person faith communities. But there are foundational principles that undergird all healthy, vibrant, life-giving communities of faith, whether they connect face-to-face or through mediating technologies—and those underlying principles are what differentiate genuine faith communities from other forms of social connection.
Here, for example, are four principles shared by those seeking to build and nurture a life of faith together (others, of course, could be added to the list):
1. Living for others.
True community, in many ways, is the opposite of narcissism or a self-centered existence. Jean Vanier, in his seminal Community and Growth, wrote, “It is only when we stand up, with all our failings and sufferings, and try to support others rather than withdraw into ourselves, that we can fully live the life of community.” Community, in all its forms, isn’t about trumpeting ourselves as much as it is about being a listening, supportive presence for others.
One of the more difficult—and important—aspects of living in a faith community is a commitment to hold one another accountable. In community, we don’t have the luxury of merely cheering on the accomplishments or successes of those with whom we share the journey of faith. We also have the harder responsibility of calling our sisters and brothers to account—with grace and humble recognition of our own lack of perfection. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it in Life Together: “Nothing can be more cruel than the leniency which abandons others to their sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than the severe reprimand which calls another Christian in one’s community back from the path of sin.”
3. A question of balance.
Vanier wrote that “a growing community must integrate three elements: a life of silent prayer, a life of service and above all of listening to the poor, and a community life through which all its members can grow in their own gifts.” When we think of community, we often move directly to the relationship-building and networking-with-others aspects—and neglect the important components of silent prayer, connecting with the marginalized, and working for social justice. But those are essentials to a healthy community life—and perhaps even more so regarding online communities of faith.
A faith community, mediated or in-person, is not merely a social club, support network, or interest group. Along with our social, emotional, and intellectual ties, a community of faith is sewn together with spiritual bonds. Prayer, then, is an essential component of faith community: “A Christian fellowship lives and exists by the intercession of its members for one another, or it collapses,” Bonhoeffer wrote in Life Together. “I can no longer hate or condemn a brother [or sister] for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he [or she] causes me.”
Many of the essentials of building and nurturing our life together remain true regardless of the forms, structures, or technologies we use to construct our communities of faith. In some ways, being intentional about the foundational principles is even more important in our lives online, where it seems the forces of individualism, materialism, and self-aggrandizement are so strong.
In the end, it’s not about “nurturing community” at all—it’s about loving one another (as we’ve been loved). As Bonhoeffer put it, “The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create community.” And that’s true regardless of the medium in which community grows.
Jim Rice, editor of Sojourners magazine in Washington, D.C., is a Research Fellow for the New Media Project at Christian Theological Seminary.
The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.