In June, my pastoral residency came to an end. For the past two years, my pastoral license found its validity in the denomination of that church. But upon leaving, my license expired. Certainly there are worst things in life, but my issue was that I had already committed to two weddings! I began to panic when the legal dots connected.
But then the rescue I needed came forth: the Internet. The World Wide Web fixes all fixable situations when a problem presents. All one has to do is simply “Google it” and everything typically works out fine. What’s the name of that actor from “One Tree Hill?” How do you clean a pan when boiled grease is stuck to its surface?” Who sang that song from the late nineties that wont pop out of my head? You know… that one tune: “I’m a Barbie girl, in a Barbie world.” For all these answers and more, Google.
So I Googled to my hearts content. Get ordained for free! Ordinations for all 50 states. Perform weddings. These headlines kept me disappointed until I found what might be the only somewhat professional looking evangelical organization* that ordains. Something within me refused to get certified by either: a) an organization that had “American” in the title, b) an organization that conflicted with core Christian values.
When my online transaction finished processing, I began to wait eagerly for my ordination pack to show up in my P.O. Box. And let me tell you… what a glorious pack it was! Not only did I get a full-size certificate of ordination and a pocket version, but the organization also sent a “letter of good standing!” I’m officially in good standing with a group of people whom I never met. I’m the real deal… for the first time in my life, I can say that I’m an ordained minister of the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ – to Him be the glory! And, for the low, low, cost of $47, you can be too.
But this begs a question. Why is it that an Internet organization can ordain me for ministry? Do they know me? No. Did they lay hands on me to commission and inaugurate my commitment to life-long ministry? No. Are they a community of faith that I can look to for deep support? No. They are an extension of the World Wide Web. They are not my community.
Having involved myself with blogging for a few years now, I’ve wrestled with what I believe about a theology of community. Can true community happen online? Well, before we can answer that question, another question matters: What are some characteristics of Christian community?
The New Testament gives us a beautiful and messy picture of authentic community. The early church committed herself to the breaking of bread, prayer, fellowship, and the Apostles’ teaching. In such an environment, the many “one another” passages of the Scriptures were carried out. The community of faith was a place to be known and to know others. It was a value of participating in a common story and together discerning what that meant for their lives. As they did so, it became evident that each person had something to contribute to the well-being of the local church and to the culture around it.
As they chose – to love each other, to love those in the margins, to pray and see the sick healed – the world took notice. As they reflected the reign of God together, true community happened. If I were to summarize my theology of community, it would be: Authentic relationships guided by love can change the world.
Many characteristics of Christian community can indeed be aided online. We certainly can get to know people through the Web. Many readers and fellow bloggers are indeed part of my formation and community experience in a deep way. My friend Dan Martin recently wrote about this in a piece called “The Church Virtual,” which demonstrates this reality. However, I fear with the emergence of Internet church campuses, blogging, podcasts, and the vast resources for Christian experiences accessible from any desk in the world; that if we are not careful, Christian community will fade like a fad.
A primary metaphor for Christian community in the New Testament is “the body of Christ.” Related to this stands the reality of Christ’s incarnation. As John says: “…the Word took on flesh.” Whether we want to admit it or not, it’s impossible to be “incarnational” through a disembodied communication medium. This is not to say that what happens online can’t make a positive impact in people’s enfleshed situations (if so, I blog in vain!), but that nothing replaces the flesh and blood experience of the body of Christ.
Someday I hope to have a community that will “ordain” me as their pastor (and hopefully it won’t cost $47!). But what matters more, is that I want to experience flesh and blood community right now. As I write and interact on the Web, I continue to find that many of your stories and ideas contribute to conversations I have with my local community. I hope that my blog serves that function for my readers as well. The greatest joy I could have is knowing that what I write is stimulating thoughts and inspiring reflection on how your community will continue to join God’s mission in your local city and world. The Web serves as a wonderful supplement for community, but if it replaces enfleshed relationships, we may need to reevaluate our Kingdom priorities.
*I’m grateful that online ordination exists for situations like I found myself in. The folks at Christian Discipleship Ministries were kind when I had questions to ask them on the phone. They said, “God ordains, we just provide legal paperwork.” If you find yourself in need of a way to be able to marry folks, but are not currently a pastor, I highly recommend them to you.