Internet as “Community”? One More Time

Shane Hipps got this ball rolling, then I weighed in, and now Anne Jackson has weighed in. (And she’s pulled the plug on internetting during Lent so she might not weigh back in until April 13 or later.) And Shane has responded yet again, and it will appear in a few minutes above this post… Anyway, the question is this: Is an internet site a “community”?

Blog101.jpgThis is a good question. But not enough of us are thinking about how we can answer this question aside from just giving our opinion. How do we decide if an internet site is a community? Do we just say “I don’t think so” or “I think so” and then, because each of us is entitled to an opinion, stand staring at one another in a stalemate?

I asked both Shane and Anne to offer their definitions of “community” and so I thought I’d offer mine here, and ask you what you think: What is a community?

The standard way we Protestants answer such questions is to go to the Bible, and I hope we would also use the Church tradition as our sounding board. Some reflections, but we have to begin with a dictionary on this one because we are talking about how best to use the English word “community.”

Dict.jpgFirst, the word “community” derives from Latin. In one way or another, it goes back to “common” or “hold things in common.” We get all kinds of words from the Latin heritage: commune and community and communion and communism.

Now we’re at a stalemate: since our Latin-derived word is behind all of these variety of meanings, we discover folks using such a word for all kinds of things held in common (the community of Cubs fans, the community of Phoenix, the community of homeschooling). Let me say this a different way: “community” is a word capable of being used in a variety of ways and for a variety of degrees of commonality. We might also appeal here to the prescriptive vs. descriptive use of language: since the word “community” is used promiscuously by so many, the word “community” takes its meaning from its users instead of from some narrowly-defined set of criteria in a dictionary.

I think there is a way out, and it is my second point. I propose three ways of looking at this word “community” to help us think about whether it is appropriate to call an internet site a “community.” It would be appropriate to see my sketch as “three levels of community.”

First, there is what I will call the common, generous use of “community.” It is used to describe any kind of commonality. Thus, there is the New York Times community of readers and the golf community and an internet community. Thus, it refers to some kind of connection between people or villages or nations or nation-states. Like it or not, this is how Westerners use this term. Look it up in the OED — the word “community” is used for the “scientific community” because it shares at least one characteristic.

PrayerFell.jpgSecond, there is a Christian fellowship (koinonia) use of “community.” The New Testament and early Christian word “koinonia” (fellowship) was frequently translated into the Latin word “communitas” (with variants) so that there is a solid linguistic reason for understanding the word “community” more narrowly as the “Christian fellowship.” That is, what holds Christians together — life, goods, exchange of goods, Spirit, beliefs — constitutes “community.” Here are some NT references: Acts 2:42; Rom 15:26; 1 Cor 1:9; 10:16; 2 Cor 6:14; 13:14.

Third, there is a Christian church (ecclesia) use of “community,” and here one might think both “universally” and “nationally” and “denominationally” and “locally.” The word Greek word “ekklesia” is not translated with the word “community” in Latin; it becomes “ecclesia” in Latin. Here the word “community” refers only to those gathered (embodied) together in faith and discipleship and worship — around Jesus Christ.

Here’s my proposal: an internet site can be a “community” in the generous sense; it can be a community in the “fellowship” sense to the degree that there is some Christian life being shared between folks but it will fall short of koinonia community most of the time, but it can (or should) never be an ecclesial community.  

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  • Terry Dischinger

    Dear Scot,
    Thanks for this discussion on community because I think it really gets to the heart of something that we find missing in much of the western church today. In reading your post and the post by Shane Hipps, I think the issue for me is more qualitative. I believe you can have a community online, but it isn’t the same as the community one experiences when face to face with others. My son, for instance, has a good community of people he interacts with regularly on Facebook. He is in touch with a number of kids his age who are on the mission field with their parents as well as kids with whom he sees everyday at school. You can say they have a Facebook community. He often laments to me, though, that he wishes he could have more time in face-to-face fellowship with his MK friends so that they can talk about Christ and life and how to face the issues of living in a secular world. While they do talk about these things in their “community” and it helps, it is not the same for him as when he is together with them during a summer conference where they can sit and talk and pray together and such. I see that in my own work as I oversee missionaries for our mission in Europe. I interact with them online and even through conference calls when we are all together on the call. We have developed a great sense of community together. But, this community doesn’t at all compare with the times when I have been able to meet together with them for a few days in Europe. We have spent deep times of talking, praying and fun times of laughing. It is actually those times together that have made our times of community online meaningful. These past 6 months, I have not been able to travel and be with them because of my health. Even though we still communicate like we did before, I sense the community is not as strong as it was when we could be together face-to-face. Another factor that I also think about in regards to community is the depth of commitment we have for one another in our community. I truly believe the commitment we have to stand alongside each other and sacrifice for each other will be deeper and greater when we can be together regularly in physical, face-to-face encounters. While a virtual community can produce commitment to one another, I do not believe it will produce that commitment of laying our lives down for our friend without deeper connection. As I have gone through some very difficult times with my health these past months, I seen great support virtually as well as in person. It is the community that I fellowship, face-to-face, regularly, though, that has truly given me the support I’ve needed to hang in there. So, I think community can come in many forms, but the depth of community is really the crux for me. To live the Christian life and love like Jesus, we need a community that goes beyond the virtual.

  • I wonder if we need to get away from the idea or language of a website or the Internet per se as being the community. My developing understanding is that the Internet (websites, blogs, twitter, facebook) are better understood as space(s) that act as a plane of existence in which community may be found. The almost forgotten word cyberspace was coined to describe this notion of a virtual place.
    Therefore a website is merely a node in cyberspace, and your being/identity is separate from that node. A hint of the event of your being/identity/existence can be found in one or more nodes.
    I wonder if it is almost entering into another form of dualism to separate the physical from the virtual. A number of authors I have read have liken this separation as not unlike the physical/spiritual dualism.
    The thing is that your being/identity/existence, the event of your person can be in both spaces at the same time.
    Could it be that regardless of the space we exist we can find that we participate in one or more communities (gathered and ungathered) simultaneously across the space (and time) continium? Yes, we move our attention and in and out of the spaces… but just because we are in the proximity of one community doesn’t mean the event of our presence has ceased to exist in the other space. Perhaps this is an example of us being made in the ‘image of God’.
    It isn’t wrong to think of “ekklesia” as those gathered together in faith, discipleship, witness, service — around Jesus Christ. Is it really appropriate to limit our understanding of “ekklesia” to a framework of space that Paul understood given his cosmology?

  • Yes.
    I appreciate the way you, Scot, as well as Shane and Anne have addressed this.
    I guess I’m not much sanguine, or not as much as I used to be over much of any koinonia happening on the blogosphere.
    I think “long ago” now, it seems, when I first started my blog and called it “The Community of Jesus”, I actually had some faint aspirations toward what I no longer aspire to any longer. But it was probably just as much a title for what my blog was going to be about, as a subject matter. It changed to “the Jesus community” and finally to “Jesus community” as maybe one might get a taste of that from the blog. Or that we might address subjects as those doing so together in Jesus.
    I find blogging as little more than just sharing thoughts and insights. I think it’s way overrated in really getting to know people. There’s no substitute for face to face interaction, even with all its limitations. That is incarnational. I agree with the thought that there is often a sense of intimacy that really is a fabrication. I’m not sure I track any longer with Eugene Peterson’s thought that our words give the most intimate part of who we are. Maybe they do, but this is to be lived out in flesh and blood, in community with so many who don’t think or have the same interests altogether as we have.
    But blogging is good for other reasons. Certainly to share thoughts. And I’ve learned a lot from this blog.

  • Barb

    I love your three forms (are fellowship and church different levels?) of community. I agree that without personal face-to-face interaction we don’t have the church and not very much of the fellowship either. I do learn a lot from this blog–BUT I’m not known at all.

  • Peggy

    There are a number of us from Missional Tribe who have been considering this wider conversation as well. Today, Kingdom Grace put up a post pondering some of this same issue: Grace’s short post was:
    This is what I am thinking about this week…
    * Community itself is not our source of Life.
    * However, within community, we experience the reality of Christ in our midst.
    * Through shared life we encounter Christ as our source of Life.
    * In what activities are we actually sharing His life with one another?
    I would love to hear what you think.
    Here was my response, which is very consistent with what Dean #2 above was saying (thanks, Dean!) about it being bigger than many think.
    Grace, this is a very perichoretic topic, I think.
    While the community itself is not our source of life — Christ, the “head”, is — it is the Body, which is the intended manifestation of healthy life. One in which our lives are to interpenetrate with each other and with our triune, three-in-one God.
    We experience the Body physically as well as spiritually and emotionally, and this is what gives rise to our ability to be in community IRL as well as virtually.
    Perhaps the more pointed question concerns (as Alan Hirsch uses) communitas, which I believe also happens IRL and virtually. This is where we allow the Holy Spirit, the very Breath of Life to this Body, to use the intensity of our liminality — in all its glorious chaos and brokenness — to move us toward each other to practice cHesed.
    Here we humbly give and receive from each other that which Christ knows we truly need — not according to what we might think we can afford (physically, emotionally or financially).
    I think it is the communitas that is the missing piece in understanding community as the “koinonia” of “allelon” in the “ekklesia”.
    * * * * * * *
    So, why is it so difficult for community to be inclusive? And why must the local Body of fellowship be separate from the virtual Body?
    Hmmm…I think it, again, has to do with our narrowing of the concept of Body with a kind of bracketing of the perichoretic nature (usually a very unintentional thing because the concept is so rarely used and experienced).
    Your “Praying with the Church” went toward “the communion of the saints” in this way, it seemed to me.

  • Peggy

    …one more thing.
    There is a sense in which folks equate physical “church” with the kind of intimacy that we are called to as the Body of Christ. But there are many experiences of “church” that are not remotely intimate. People come and go and there is no interaction. There are many, many reasons for this … and I believe that it is a HUGE challenge that is not easy to overcome for lots of congregations. (This, from a former “Community Life Pastor” at a large congregation.)
    And there is a sense in which people equate “virtual” community to be void of that kind of intimacy because it is not physical. But that is just not the case. There are many of us here at the Jesus Creed blog (especially those of us who remember the One T Saloon fun) who have gotten to know each other quite well — and communicate with each other in other venues … sometimes meeting IRL.
    I see it more like a blending of three “circles”, where koinonia and allelon and ekklesia can be experienced separately, but are most powerfully experienced where they intersect. Perhaps there are even ranges within the inner circle where the “core” is experienced IRL but there is an outer area where “virtual reality” comes into play.
    I say this because it has been my exact experience … and perhaps there are others who have experienced this as well.
    I am absolutely not saying that we shouldn’t aim for the bulls-eye…just that sometimes it is not available or possible for all sorts of reasons.

  • The question being, “Is an internet SITE community?” can’t be answered simply as we are seeing. I think it all has to do in how much interaction is happening. I think much of what makes a community is subjective. Do people feel as if they are a part of the site? Do they feel as if they are a part of a community? Then yes… THAT site can be community. If there is a site that doesn’t have much interaction and it doesn’t give people ownership in the way of being a part of ongoing conversationk then THAT site is not community.
    What we have to come to grips with is that the issue isn’t online or offline. The issue is relationship, connection, and transparency. Especially for those in the Net (or Millennial) Generation, the lines between online and offline interactions don’t exist; they are extensions of each other.
    I think a better question to ask would be, “Can community exist online as well as offline?”

  • Scot –
    I like your definitions, but I’m not sure I can draw the circles the same way, and its precisely because the point that Henry (#7) just made so well: I think the discussion has to see online presence as an extension of offline presence.
    Shane keeps speaking as if offline were something separate from online. Two different worlds. But while I think that was true for the “early Internet” (and will continue to be true for many “affinity-based” groupings…sorta analogous to your first category), if you study the way the next generation uses information connectivity (Facebook, IM, txt, etc), it’s to project and live inside a community they are already physically embodied in i.e. their friends. (I think Pew Research has the best stuff right now, at least in 2008). Mediation just extends their reach (like the phone).
    So I think your first two categories are workable especially to describe something like the Jesus Creed community. But to look at all to the future, I think we’ve gotta speak of the way different mediations affect our perceptions, but we can’t think online interactions “replace” community: they extend it.
    I’ve got a couple more questions for Shane that I posted for my friends over on my blog:
    And I’m gonna keep trying to write my series of thoughts on the Theology of Facebook there, too.

  • RJS

    I think that the answer to your question “Can community exist online as well as offline?” is yes. But while one can do just fine with only offline interactions, I don’t think that one can do fine with only online interactions – and this is a key asymmetry.
    Online only is similar to pen-pal relationships, good but not enough. Online as an extension of and supplement to offline can enhance the community. This is the way my daughter and her friends use “online” resources.
    A blog like JC is valuable (extremely valuable), but for most probably not community in the most important sense. There is still an element of vagueness – we are not always (perhaps often) “real people” in our interactions.

  • RJS

    I’m in agreement with what Chris says I see.