Shane Hipps on Community (and below it my response)

Shane Hipps on Community (and below it my response) March 3, 2009

Scott thanks for all your comments and push back. Always appreciated.

Clearly we’re playing with semantics here. I don’t say that
dismissively. Semantics matter–some times more than other times. I’ll
let others judge whether it matters here. It may be that we agree
after all.

First, my language in the video was less nuanced than it might have
been in written form. That is my tendency in a spontaneous oral
interview. I will try to be more precise here.

When I say that “virtual community” is not “community,” that does not
mean it has no value. As I indicated in the interview, I know that all
kinds of deeply meaningful connections and interactions happen online
all the time. I have experienced them myself. Some may want to call
this “community.” Fair enough. I just don’t call it “community.” That
is not intended to dismiss or demean any one’s experience online.

I play with semantics in an effort to help us see that “virtual
community” and “unmediated community” are not interchangeable things.
In my opinion, one is actually better than the other. The reason is
that “virtual community” occurs primarily on one frequency of the
human experience. It is mostly a disembodied, and largely cognitive,
connection.  This is not a bad thing, it’s just not as valuable as
unmediated community, which involves the entire range of the human
experience–physical, non-verbal, intuitive sense, subtle energies,
visual cues, acoustic tones, etc. These are extremely powerful things
that should not be quickly dismissed as “nice but not necessary.”

Most of us see these ingredients as essential for healthy marriage and
parenting. It’s the reason no one extols the virtues of online
parenting or the value of sex with your spouse in a chat room rather
than a bedroom. The same is true of community. For me, community is a
sacred and powerful institution, and I prefer to treat it in the same
spirit as marriage or parenting.

I guess what I’m saying is that virtual community is like playing the
guitar with one string. You can make music; it’s just not as
interesting or as good as music on a guitar with six strings.

To observe that “real” community is worth more than “virtual”
community may seem rather obvious to some and thus not worth stating.  
However, there is a growing legion of young people who can scarcely
tell the difference.  A subsequent rift is emerging between parents
and teens because of this very issue.  It will only become more
complex in the years to come.  We gloss over this distinction at our
own risk.  I hope that putting words to these things is actually
freeing for us.

Finally, I’m not against virtual community anymore than I’m against
the wind and the tides; I’m just concerned that too many of us grant
it virtues it does not possess.  This undo esteem can undermine the
profound and lasting impact of an incarnated and embodied Gospel.  But
perhaps we agree on this point.

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  • Shane is spot on. Semantics matter. Perhaps we can come up with something like “para-community” to highlight the value of virtual communication — and to acknowledge its limitations.
    This whole trend toward disembodiment (postmodern gnosticism?) makes me nervous. If I’m ONLY dealing with people through the computer or processing a sermon that comes via a video downlink — I’m not relating to a whole person. Sometimes it’s no more than just a shadow in a cave.
    In the past we had virtual communication through writing and art — but we knew that it was not complete. With what we’re doing now the temptation is to fool ourselves into thinking that we’re more connected to reality than is actually true. Of course, if perception is the only thing which matters…

  • In some ways, when communicating ‘virtually’ we are communicating with each other in the way a historian does with her subjects – via their written records. Essesntially we each become each other’s contemporary historians.
    For me, the deepest community invovled proximity and human touch. The hand shake, embrace, kiss, pat on the head. This is missing in “virtual community”.

  • Diane

    There is anxiety and discomfort around the idea of the Internet as community. Was there (I think not) this kind of discomfort around letter writing in the 18th century, which, in the days of the twice-a-day delivered penny post could be argued as the equivalent of the Internet? Did people hand wring all the time about whether exchanging letters was “real” community? So I tend to wonder what underlies this anxiety. Of course, a real, flesh-and-blood community can be better–it’s certainly more complete. But just as obviously, if it was meeting all our needs, none of us would be here. Flesh and blood communities provide touch, non-verbal cues, etc, but they are also more threatening, I think, than cyber communities. In a fallen world, touch can become pain (violence), non-verbal cues can become snobbery, etc.
    I wonder too, if we worry that the person we treat as an equal on a blog might not be a person we would reject in real life. And conversely that we “protest too much” our disdain of internet community vis-a-vis real life to “show” that we do have “lives,” to show that we are not one of “those” people who spend their days in a darkened room in front of screen, incapable of social interaction. I know I quite consciously tossed a photo of myself and two of my children up on my blog to show I’m essentially “normal.” (Of course, it could be a faked photo …:))
    In any case, the internet can be a way to get to know and love people who might be marginalized and misunderstood by our society because of some physical disability or being overweight or not having good body language or whatever … and that at some point that’s all of us, because all of us are imperfect and experience rejection in real community on some level for whatever reason, even if it’s the woman who’s torn apart by the other women for being too beautiful … Everything that’s good about physicality also leads to potential cruel judgment of people on a physical basis. So I like the fact that Internet community has the potential to be inclusive. And I don’t think we should worry about it. We obviously like it and if the person next to us has cooties, so what?

  • David Scott

    I have to comment by way of story.
    Our communion meal each week is very informal. We all “come” to the table, and as we do, we greet each other, talk, mingle, hug. On my way to the table I was aware of a young woman who had recently had some crisis in her life. I walked over to her, hugged her and whispered “How are you doing?” in her ear. She started weeping on my shoulder and we stood together throughout the communion meal, sharing and ministering.
    There are so many interactions in that one experience that fall outside of what is possible in “virtual” community. Yes, I believe connections can be made in a virtual world, but true healing community can’t be experienced online, via text message, email, etc.
    One other thought: When I think of Jesus’ interaction with people, there’s a whole lot of touching, feasting, crying, washing, stuff that involves high-octane touch and face time. I think that counts for something.

  • Diane

    David (#4),
    I agree that there are a range of possibilities in physical community that are not available in cyberspace and that it’s very important to note that Jesus took a lot of time to be with people physically. It’s also very important to note that most of us “know” Jesus through the Word, not physical contact, not face time. I think, if I’m remembering correctly, that this gets us back to the beginning of Derrida’s Of Grammatology, where the Greeks, perhaps, are concerned that writing is overtaking orality … and D. starts on why do we privilege the oral … it had to come back to postmodernism, right? 🙂
    I think, however, the primary question about cyberspace has to be, not whether the communities are “real,” but whether they enhancing or hurting our primary relationships. The question is not the hurting person who gets a shoulder to cry on from her real community, but the person who needs a shoulder to cry on in her real community and gets rebuffed and thus doubly hurt. For her, cyberspace may be a blessing. Right now, however, getting sucked into this discussion is hurting my primary relationships, so I will be off.

  • Randy

    It sounds like much of the commentary here boils down to Marshall McLuhan’s observation that “the medium is the message.” ie. the medium effects the message delivered as much as the content does.

  • Can I just say that I love Shane Hipps!

  • Eric

    Of course in-person communities — churches in particular — should have advantages over on-line communities, including via the face-to-face personal connection they provide.
    The problem is that the local church in many instances often fails miserably in terms of adequately building community. Often church is simply a place where people show up on Sunday and engage in polite conversation. The same thing often carries through to small groups.
    Too often the church does not provide an outlet for people to engage in open, honest dialogue about what really matters. People are discouraged in a lot of ways from asking the hard questions about faith, or talking about their deepest, darkest challenges. There also isn’t much of a sense in many churches that the church *as community* has a mission to do outside of its walls.
    In a lot of ways, places like this blog allow for the sort of dialogue and community that should be taking place in churches, but isn’t. So, despite its limitations, I see blogs like this as filling in a significant “community” gap that many local churches have failed to address.
    So to me, the real question is not whether places like Jesus Creed provide community (it obviously does, despite significant limitations), but why the church isn’t providing the community that was intended.

  • Terry Dischinger

    I just wanted to add an Amen to what you’ve shared, Eric #8. While a church and physical community should have some advantages over a cyber community, sometimes the exact reverse can be the experience as people are excluded and alienated or just ignored. The discussion that Scot started about neo-reformed is one example of how many churches are actually denying community and driving people away from fellowship. Also, one of the most alone feelings a person can have is to be in a body of people, whether large or small, and feel invisible. Thanks for expressing well some of the issues that we really face in the church.

  • Andy Serkes

    My family and friends are spread out across the US. While facebook and blogs keep us connected, it is being with each other that we desire most. Likewise, I can see value to an online Christian community but I have several concerns.
    –It is easier to put on a mask online. I can tell you my story but you can’t see my tears.
    –We gravitate to persons who believe what we believe and if we disagree, it is easy to leave a virtual community (less attachment, I have not watched your kids grow up or received meals when my father died…)
    Our faith needs to be lived out within community. If virtual community adds to our faith community great. It only becomes a problem if it takes the place of face to face community with shared experiences and active caring.

  • I think the “connection” versus “community” distinction is certainly an important one.
    I think in the video Hipps plays semantics with incarnate, although his point may ultimately be quite true. Movies and re-broadcast of sermons aren’t incarnate either–if we buy this line of reasoning.
    I think what Hipps may miss is that the ability to collaborate online in terms of sharing ideas is hard to replicate on the scale that a virtual platform provides.
    Ultimately, I think Hipps points are well taken. We should focus on real face to face relationships as much as we can.