The Illusion of Community, Part 1

October 20, 2008 by

Online Community SocialThis is part one in a series about the illusion of community. First up, let’s talk about how we’re doing at building community online. Not so well in my opinion.

I have serious concerns with online social networks. I take issue even more with Christian online social networks. I am all for redeeming technology, using it for good, and leveraging its potential to deliver the good news of Jesus. However, and I know I’m going to get flack for taking this position, but I am really concerned that too much emphasis is being put on building community online as a substitute for building community offline. The ease and excitement that revolves around online ministry/community is understandable. The telegraph, the telephone and the television all brought similar euphoria.

If ever there was a buzzword for the past several years that the church–myself included–has been in love with, it would be the word “community.” And rightly so because community is so desperately lacking these days. People are lonely and isolated. Today, 1 out of every 4 households in the U.S. has just one person living there. In 1950, it was 1 out of every 10. So while we may be more connected than any other generation, we’re more detached than ever before.

Bubble Trouble
Perhaps the biggest issue I have with Christian social networks is that they are following the exact same path churches have been on for 2,000 years. Instead of churches permeating culture, we’ve created our own culture. We’ve taken the idea of church and made it a place instead of a presence. For more on this idea, read the late Bob Briner’s book, Roaring Lambs.

But first, a quick etymology of the word “church.” It’s translated from the Greek word ‘ekklesia’ which comes from two words ‘ek’ meaning ‘out’ and ‘kaleo’ meaning to ‘call.’ An ekklesia or ‘calling out’ was both a call and a response. It was not intended as a detachment from culture (let’s go meet in our own buildings), but rather a response in the midst of culture (let’s be the church right here).

As I step down from my soap box, my point is that ‘Christian’ online social networks are hardly any different than offline clubs like so many of the ‘Christian’ buildings we meet in every weekend. They may be safe, family-friendly and even entertaining, but I’ve got to think there is more to life–and to God’s kingdom–than that.

Moving Too Fast
I have two friends—not known to each other—that shared a similar experience with an online match-making site. They both made matches to their respective pre-spouse and enjoyed about nine months of dating until both couples broke up. The reason? They had entered into a relationship that had skipped so many months of dating because their online profiles jumped through all of those hoops. So when each couple met for the first time, they assumed they knew the other person–they were quite possibly a soulmate already–yet they hadn’t built community the way humans are wired to do so. They thought they were further ahead in their relationship so when things are moving that fast, someone is bound to throw up a flag and say “slow down!”

I’m not against match-making sites, but I am concerned that we let the illusion of social connection replace our ability to really connect. We’re addicted to watching our friends list grow, yet we have very little connection to any of them. Experts tell us that it’s impossible to have that many friends anyway. How can sitting at a computer, scrolling through status updates and photo feeds be community-building? I understand people chat online and swap information, but that’s hardly transformation. I would argue that the people who do have “deep” connection to others online have been or are in deep offline relationships with those people too.

Where Do We Go From Here
I’m not starting a campaign to shut down social networking sites (although the ‘Christian’ sites are tempting). I am passionate about seeing real community happen. One experiment currently underway is with the folks at ROOV. I’ve been following their story for a couple years and they recently asked me to be one of their advisors (unpaid and volunteer, with the exception of miniscule stake in the company). The thing that got my attention at ROOV was their desire to get people online so that they’ll go offline. They don’t have profile pages or picture uploads or status updates. They’re simply connecting people with similar interests (entrepreneurs, sports, traveling) to get people to meet each other offline. More about ROOV in another post.

So let’s stop building ‘Christian’ bubbles and artificial community groups. Let’s regulate our drooling over technology’s capabilities and instead pray for our heart to be broken for people who lack community with God and with others. Let’s put down our iPhone, get away from the computer, and go build some deep relationships. Life on life. Seems to me a man about 2,000 years did that with 12 people … and the world hasn’t been the same since.

Post By:

Brad Abare

Brad Abare is the founder of the Center for Church Communication. He consults with companies and organizations, helping them figure out why in the world they exist, why anyone should care and what to do about it.
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5 Responses to “The Illusion of Community, Part 1”

  • Jarrod Skeggs
    October 20, 2008

    Two good points you make here that I like. First, no need for “Christian” online communities. I agree 100%. Start a group for your church on Facebook if you wish and let the unchurched people you are associated with see that connection. Second, online community only works if offline community is already in place. It is too easy to be non-authentic online. I think many people tend to pad their online “profile” to make it appear to be the person that they really want to be but unfortunately are not.
    Thanks for sharing your perspective. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on this subject.

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  • mike
    October 20, 2008

    I’ve actually seen online Christian communities that label themselves as an “online gated community” where your kids and family are safe.
    You know…just like Christians in China. Anyway, I always thought that was sad.
    To me, the best use of technology is to facilitate what God already put in place, and what Christ put in motion. Thus, facebook et al are just more streets to walk and more countries to visit.
    W/r/t blogging, there is a rich history of letter writing in the Church. This facilitates that in great ways.
    (a buddy and me started a church weblog aggregator last year. We haven’t done much with it…but it’s been really fun to watch.)

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  • Tim Good
    October 20, 2008

    People will likely be quick to see your reflections as an attack on the networking type sites. When in fact I think the only way to really be aware of the effects of media is to ask these questions; What does it add? What does it remove? What are we trying to build upon? and where, if taken to it’s extreme, will it take us? Good thought look forward to more of the same
    (and yes I know I’m stealing from Marshall McLuhan)

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  • Monique Cuvelier
    October 22, 2008

    I agree that Christian social networks should be inclusive rather than exclusive, but there’s something to be said for appearing where people expect to see you. Someone who’s looking to make more church-oriented friends may look for a Christian network before looking at Facebook. I say, build your networks where you can.
    – Monique

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  • Nathan
    October 22, 2008

    Yes! Great post, and your soap box is much-appreciated.
    After working in Christian retailing and on a church staff, I’m afraid I’ve grown pretty cynical and jaded about Christian sub-culture and its tendency to duplicate and exclude. While “safety” and “family-friendliness” are important concerns, too many times these degenerate into idols and become our only litmus test for determining “Christian” value, when in reality our faith often calls us to do things and go to places that are anything but safe and family-friendly. But enough about all that… trying to refrain from saying more…
    My church is in the process of setting up a facebook page and various facebook groups in an effort to help encourage and promote the “real-life” community that already exists in our worship services. Also to try to help “de-compartmentalize” our faith and emphasize the idea that Christ’s influence on our lives has to exist beyond Sunday mornings.
    It’s not much, but for our congregation, anything web 2.0 is a pretty big step, and I think this is the first time we’ve ever tried something like this. We’ll see in a few months if it actually helps get people involved and more plugged-in outside of the internet or if it’s just something else adding to the noise.

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