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CHURCH COMMUNITY AND THE WORLD WIDE WEB
CHURCH COMMUNITY AND THE WORLD WIDE
CHRISTOPHER A. PRIEBE
think of community in the Church I immediately think of a small church I
pastored in Kamloops British Columbia. Although we had our faults we did one
thing really well – food. Eating was such a regular occurrence at our church
that on our twentieth anniversary someone stood up and said, “This church is
built on the blood of Jesus Christ and pot-luck suppers.” On the surface some
people think of a church as a building and a community as people in the same
space together. The problem with that line of thought is when the building
burns down the church goes on. As to community, I have felt more detached
standing in a crowd of a hundred people than when I have traveled to the other
side of the world and met a fellow Christian for the first time. The Church is
and the community is the bond they share.
(or more specifically -- eating together), has traditionally been the image of
fellowship. Communion is what the church has come to call the last supper of
our Lord where He combined the image of His blood and the common act of
partaking in the cup. His words echo till today, “This cup is the new covenant
in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Cor
11:25) The supper has been transformed. It is no longer a simple fellowship of
friends but a communion around a common Savior.
however only begun to unravel what community means. Space will not permit me to
develop every aspect of community but I hope to highlight a few of its primary
faces in the Church. In the end I really want to develop an area of much needed
and little developed research on how the Internet can help draw out those faces
of the Church. As well, I desire to leave an early record concerning the
internet and community for others to add to as this new world emerges. The
nature of this paper is synthetic for I hope to bring together the most relevant
Biblical data and apply it to a new field of study and practice.
community begins with God. He is the source of community and the highest
expression of its greatest attribute – “Oneness”.
Thus when the Bible begins it starts with these words, “In the beginning God….”,
for in the beginning that was all that there was, just God. However we should
not think that God was alone; instead, God was there as the Spirit hovering over
the waters, as the Father speaking creation into being, and as the Son who is
the Word spoken (Jn 1:1). When the perfect community created it only makes
sense that He created a community.
At first it was the universe with all its stars and moons held in precise
unity. Then came all the animals of the Earth held in perfect balance. And
when everything else was done God made man in God’s own image – which includes
community. Yet it was not good for man to be alone. So God reached deep into
the man and pulled out the other half of the image from close to his heart and
the two were called “one” (Gen 2:24) even as God Himself is called “one” (Deut
the dream of God to see community in humankind was broken when the members of
the community broke union with the “One” and decided to do their own thing (Gen
3). And now discord taints all of creation with not only weeds corrupting the
harmony of nature but also death bringing an end to the richness of fellowship.
Weddings now sadly end in funerals and the hearts that live are ruled with
dominance instead of unity. (Gen 3:16)
dream of God lives on and He has plans to restore community to its rightful
place. So as history played itself out under His hand God established His
covenant with Abraham and years later draws out His people from Egypt. Then
when the time was right God established a new covenant in His blood and drew out
the Church, and is preparing her for the wedding supper of the lamb.
To be a
community is to hold something in common, in fact, it is to have a
“common-unity”. When a community reaches its deeper levels it can appropriately
be called “one”. For some people community is that they live in the same
neighborhood or they meet in the same hall. For others they are bound to a
common purpose like a fan club or an activist group. For the Church however the
tie goes beyond such fragile connections and goes straight to the soul –
eternally binding one to the other. That thing the Church shares is not a
building or a meeting or even a common mission, it is the commonality of having
been “lost but now I am found, blind but now I see.” (Jn 9:25) Together
Christians have drunk from one common cup which is the precious blood of Christ
and now sit at one common table as equals. Here the last is now first and the
first is now last (Mt 19:30;20:16;Mk 9:35;10:31;Lk 13:30) and there is no longer
male or female, slave or freeman (Gal 3:28). Because of this unity when
Christians travel to the other side of the world they do not see African or
Asian, rich or poor but simply “child of God” and “child of God”, their brother,
their sister, with whom they dine eternally.
are Christians united by the shared experience of salvation but they are bound
by the one Spirit who dwells within each of their beings. Jesus prayed for such
unity by asking “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and
I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have
sent me.” (Jn 17:21) The Trinity is One because the Father is in the Son and
the Son is in the Father,
they are united. Likewise Christians are united because the Spirit is in each
of them and they are therefore “one”. Thus, Christian have koinonia
which is fellowship, or more specially, a holding of all things in common. “All
the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their
possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.” (Acts 2:45) When
people move beyond abstract concepts into concrete actions this is what Biblical
community looks like, the people were one, “and the two shall become one
flesh”. The context of that passage is marriage and I have been reflecting a
lot on it as I prepare for my wedding. When I marry my beautiful fiancé my
accounts become hers and my body belongs to her, it is no longer just my own.
Likewise the Church has become one body (1 Cor 12) and each member lays down his
or her own life daily (Gal 2:20; Lk 9:23). This image of laying down one’s life
is seen in the image of the towel where at the same meal we celebrate for
communion Jesus washed their feet. From this towel image Jesus shows that
communion is not about putting one’s own needs first but to become the servant
of all (Jn 13:14,15; Phil 2:1-11) The saying, “I have set you an example that
you should do as I have done for you.” (Jn 13:15) takes on new meaning beside
His words at the same meal, “this is my body which is broken for you” (1 Cor
12:24 NKJV) and the response, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer
live but Christ lives in me.” (Gal 2:20)
Christian life is one where we have died and renounced all rights to ourselves
and now pick up our cross daily to live for the benefit of our brother and
sister. “Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than
this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” (Jn 15:12,13) and “We know
that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers.” (Jn
3:14) In our minds it is no longer “my body” but “our body” (1 Cor 12) Indeed,
we are called to be “One”.
FACING THE LOCAL CONTEXT OF THE CHURCH
struggle is that some people do not feel at home in the Church. If I compared
Church to a dinner they would feel like they were the ones sitting in the
corner. If I compared Church to a family they would say it is dysfunctional.
In fact, dysfunctional is an appropriate term in today’s culture. Gone are the
days where families played in the front yard and all the neighbors waved.
People live in large apartment complexes and suburbs and stare blankly at each
other when they have to remember their neighbor’s name. Doors are locked and
alarms are set before heading out on the half hour commute to work, driving away
from the place that was once called “home”. Between hockey practices and piano
recitals many complain there just is not enough time. Then finally when we get
to know a few people we move cities to get that better job and the bigger house
so both parents can work harder to pay for it. Not to mention the divorce rate
which is at a devastating 50%. I am not sure it is even possible to return to
and, in the end, society is growing with a deeper longing to find a place to
belong. After all, “It is not good for man to be alone.” (Gen. 2:18)
our churches look quite similar. Single moms strain to get their children
dressed and in the car. They hurry through their Sunday school notes as they
drive to their class they teach. The children squirm in church as they stare at
the back of people’s heads. Church finally ends and everyone files into a
crowded foyer to get a Styrofoam cup of coffee to go. That lady who always sits
in the third row from the front, ask her how it is going and of course she
answers all is fine even though there is no money to fix the car. The kids are
starting to fuss and she heads on her way as the muffler drags itself over the
people begin to complain that the church is not that friendly so the church has
a meeting and decides to start small groups. Our single mom gets a baby sitter
and finds her way to the Kent’s house. She is nervous at first but after a few
weeks she knows some names and she is starting to have a friend in Sally. By
the fifth week her muffler is so loud that the group can hear her from Penner
Street. Jim and Bill come over to her place on Saturday and fix her muffler
while Sally takes the kids to the park. A family is being formed and they even
eat together at the church BBQ. The problem is that when they get together no
one talks, that is, no one but Bill. Bill is the leader and every week it is
the same thing: he reads some verses from Scripture, asks a question and
everyone stares at him. Finally he answers his own questions and they close in
prayer. A community has started but it is a community that only connects once a
week, leaving six days in which the “community” has no connection.
OF THE INTERNET
here that the Internet becomes very useful by keeping people connected when
distance makes that impossible. In some ways this is like what the apostle Paul
did when he traveled all around the Mediterranean. He would plant a Church in
Corinth or Ephesus, stay there for a while and then he would move on to the next
city. How did he stay connected? From time to time he would meet someone from
those towns and hear news through them. At other times he would write letters
and send them back with those people. This is how we got most of the letters in
the Bible. Of course this was no replacement for the fellowship they had in the
upper room pouring over the Scripture and breaking bread but it was a way of
supplementing community while he was gone. Likewise the Internet does not
replace the actual act of meeting together
but it can supplement it.
Church has a long precedent of using technology to advance its cause. In the
first century missionaries like Paul used the Roman roads to bring the critical
message of Christ to the people.
Later the Church used the printing press to get the Bible into the hands of the
common people. Recently churches have embraced the modern sound system, which
allows them to project even the smallest voice to thousands of members. Like
the above the Internet is another tool the Church can use.
power of the Internet is summarized in the difference between atoms and bits.
Atoms are physical and symbolize the way we are used to doing things. If a
church wants to hand out Bibles they have to have them printed on real paper
with real ink. They are then bound forever in atoms (matter) and are given
away. The atoms however can only be in one place at one time. When the
preacher preaches he has to preach to a real audience that is there. If someone
shows up late everyone is gone and the lights are turned off. Bits however are
not so demanding because they do not take up much space.
If I want to give someone a Bible or preach a sermon I just put a copy of it
online, then anyone in the entire world can access it any time they want and in
any way they want, they are not bound to the rules like you have to show up with
your physical body in this physical place at this tangible time or else you miss
it. Likewise with community we are used to getting into our physical cars and
driving to a physical coffee shop so we can do something that is not physical at
all but rather an emotional and spiritual connection. Some would argue that the
physical creates the right atmosphere (that is as long as the coffee shop is not
too noisy or hot or smelly and you want to talk about something that does not
involve a lot of writing). What if an atmosphere could be created with bits
that could also create an emotional and spiritual connection?
If that was the case then we are no longer bound to the physical (except for the
need for a conduit like a computer) and can deepen our relationships at any time
and at any place, even if the other person is unavailable or on the other side
of the world. Since it is only bits I can archive the atmosphere so others can
come along and experience it over and over again later on. Some examples of
this are discussion boards, blogs (online journals), emails and chat logs of
second major advantage of the Internet is summarized in the concept of a
hyperlink (which is like a footnote except it actually takes the reader to the
A hyperlink is simply a little anchor tag <a href> stuck into a web page that
joins the page I am reading to another page that the author thinks might be
useful. In the old method of writing if I wanted to write a book then I would
start in chapter one and work my way through to chapter ten. Only a few people
would write books and everything I wrote was mine. Since books were written
only by the experts the average person did not have a voice. When the Internet
became public the most popular thing was for people to write their own little
web pages. The most amazing thing was that my web page did not have to be
complete or perfect. It was just one small piece loosely joined to a world of
other pages. I now had a voice and with the onset of “Content Management
Systems” the average person is even more empowered because all they have to do
is fill in a form and press enter and their voice is available to the world.
This has become so popular that 44%
of Internet users
have published their own content online.
above principle is applied to the Church we now have the ability for mass global
collaboration as the Body of Christ. If the Church were to hold its knowledge
in common (belonging to the community) instead of as personal intellectual property
then it could develop resources like never before. As an example,
http://www.wikipedia.org was created in January 2001 and now has almost a
quarter of a million encyclopedia articles in English and over 350,000 articles
in other languages. Each article was built by one person supplying the initial
content. Thereafter anyone in the world can just press edit on the page and
make minor changes. Although such openness has the danger of vandalism it is
quickly corrected by a massive community that feels ownership of the project and
self-moderates it. As I begin development on a new resource called
http://www.wikibible.com Christians from all around the world will be able
to build a giant online Bible Encyclopedia, Commentary, Topical Concordance, and
Illustration database. In the academic world technology is now coming available
where groups of professors can get together to write modules for courses. Other
professors can then build their online course by interspersing their own notes
with their choice of favorite case studies, videos, and other shared content
syndicated from a common location (to which of course they can add their
In the future care group materials like “Purpose Driven Life” can have a web
supplement where pastors and leaders can upload sermons, Sunday School lessons,
illustrations, images, youth events, etc. that all help to build a collection of
resources. Then when a Church does a series as a community all the departments
of the Church can focus on the same topic and give back their own advances to
enhancement that the internet offers is a surprising principle found by Woolgar
which states, “The more virtual the more real.”
What Woolgar found was that the more people used the Internet the more real
activity corresponded with it. For instance, as email increased so did
international travel since people were making broader contacts. Likewise when
football games were televised attendance went up in the actual games.
Finally, when someone in the office would write an email then see the other
person by the water cooler they would talk about it. Instead of just having one
mode of communication they now have at least two modes (both of which are
different but both build community in their own way). Applied to the Church
this means that people do not only see the backs of each others heads on Sunday
morning and the passing handshakes by the coffee urns. Now they can go online
and read about the spiritual discoveries, births of grandchildren, sorrows and
joys of the friends they are making through their online blogs (web-journals).
They can scroll through a list of photos and find that person they met in
passing and figure out what his or her name really was. The youth can
download pictures of the latest concert they went to and the worship band can
share their latest songs they created for others to download and play in their
car (copyrights allowing of course). Care groups and Sunday School classes can
collaborate on writing this week’s lessons and everyone can download this week’s
sermon and post questions and insights that God has put on their hearts. If
someone is sick the prayer team can be alerted by email and begin to write out
their prayers (who says they have to be spoken?) and then send electronic cards
to the sick. New people to town can read the history of the church, its purpose
and get to know some of the members before they even arrive. Of course this
needs to be protected by a password and policies need to be in place for
In the end however more “virtual” community will result in a more physical
community since people now have more to talk about when they meet each other.
This, in and of itself, is a great icebreaker. It is not that the Internet
replaces other tools for community (like coffee shops, phone calls, Christmas
letters and shared experiences) but it adds another form. Each form is
different and adds a new dimension making the entire community experience more
full and complete.
CHALLENGES THE INTERNET CREATES
Internet however will not solve all of a church’s problems with community.
People will still be too busy to socialize and like other forms of community
building (like standing up in Church and introducing one’s guests) some people
will like it and others hate it before they even try it. Moreover if a church
has cranky parishers that do not get along before you give them a web page, they
will be just as cranky when they go online. The only thing that has changed is
the tool they use to express their God-given and man tainted personality.
Finally, despite how busy the Church leaders are it is not a solution they can
just take out of a box and let it run on its own. Like the “Church Growth
Movement” it is not a one-size fits all solution, each church needs to tweak the
basic tools of the Internet to fit its own culture.
danger for a church starting out in supplementing their physical community with
an online community is to only build an online pamphlet that simply tells about
the church instead of engaging the people in taking part of the church. The
practical workings of Biblical community are shown in Acts 2:42, “They devoted
themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of
bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and
miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and
held everything in common.” Many Christian web pages stop at the first point –
they devote themselves to the apostle’s teaching. If one went to the church
page it will have a bunch of information; things like, “How did the church
begin”, “What does the church believe” and then a list of sermons and Bible
studies. These are great but they are all top down, the organization pushing
content to its people. It is beneficial to put the church’s hours of service,
pastor bios, and upcoming events but if that is all the church is doing it would
be like every time the church meets someone they spend all their time giving
announcements to that person. True relationships allow two-way conversations.
states they also devoted themselves to fellowship. “Organic” is a good word to
describe this in the Internet world. This means that the site builds itself and
grows from the ground up – based on the efforts of the whole and not just the
leaders. When we built our community site for Trinity Western University we
decided to try out this “organic” model. We started by creating the basic
framework much like someone would lay out a garden (add content to these kinds
of topics), then we planted the seeds by letting the students come in. When
they came we found out that the most popular activities they did were to look
for old friends and upload pictures (perhaps because it is so easy to do).
Within a month we had over 1,000 pictures uploaded and a large collection of
testimonies from friends who were re-united. Students began to move the
boundaries we had set by asking for new discussion rooms on topics like politics
and book reviews. They created communities on photography and collaborative
research space and then began to design elements like a graphical world map that
shows where alumni have gone. It is there in community where they supplement
their fellowship and enjoy each others acceptance around the common broken bread
of Christ’s salvation. This is now moving the church closer to the Biblical
model of oneness where each member has an equal voice and all the members work
together in the digital “commons”.
passage moves on to speak about prayer and miracles. These two can be
summarized by the word “ministry” both inwards and outwards. I once read that
society has tried to resolve the lack of community by creating small groups only
to find out that people are coming there simply to talk about themselves in the
midst of a group. The same danger can be true for a web site. It is now
possible to let people journal their thoughts away online but still never
connect to others. This is what I really like about the FOAF (Friend of a
Friend) strategy. The basic idea is that I create a profile that tells about me
and save it as a web page with special tags <firstname>Chris</firstname>. When
I join a club or go to a conference I give them the web address to that file.
The conference then reads that file and adds me to their records. In addition
my file also tells them what my hobbies are and who some of my friends are.
When another member reads my profile they can click on any of my hobbies and see
everyone else who is interested in that hobby. Moreover through some advanced
tools they can map out which of my friends know his or her friends and all the
people we have in common through those friends. When we bring this solution to
the problem of people thinking only about themselves we can create a “hyperlink”
(see above) on all of their hobbies, keywords, etc to a list of everyone else
interested in the same thing. When they click on that hyperlink they now enter
a community site all about that shared interest where they can discuss their
shared passion. Furthermore, by making some of that content available to the
they can powerfully share their testimony or provide a “bridge” to Christ on a
portal of those with shared interest.
second danger is directly related to the first. If the church allows it’s
people to write anything they want on the church web site it runs to risk of
allowing the content to misrepresent the church. This was the biggest concern
that we had to address when we started building our University’s community site
(what if the students say something that puts us in a legal battle?) In
response to this concern, it is important that the church controls the front
most page of the site (which happens to be the page that the world sees). This
responsibility can be handed down to a list of trusted people who have proven
themselves faithful After the login screen people can have greater freedom and a
disclaimer should be placed on the page that the views on the following pages do
not necessarily reflect the views of the entire church. Overuse of freedom is
not a new problem; Paul had to address its expression in community with the
churches he worked with too. When answering the Corinthian church’s question
about eating food sacrificed to idols Paul stressed the point that they are free
now in Christ to eat it but if someone is weak in their faith then the other
members should not flaunt their right and cause that brother to stumble. It
would be better for them to simply abstain from using their freedom. (1 Cor 8)
Likewise on the Internet some people may be free (or at least feel free) to
write content that might harm those weaker in the faith. For instance, I once
had a student upload a picture of himself not fully clad playing a guitar. My
swear filter caught the submission and notified me right away. I then emailed
the student and lovingly reminded him of the theology of the weaker brother and
exhorted him in Christian love to not to cause his weaker “brother” to stumble.
Of course he responded with openness. If however he had not listened then I
would have had to follow the Biblical example of confrontation and restoration
outlined in Matthew 18:15-19. If the offender still did not listen then I would
have had to remove him from the community (which is as simple as pressing ‘ban’
or ‘delete’) until he repented.
issue is the problem of Internet addiction and alienation. It is possible for
some people to replace their other modes of community with this one mode and
spend all their time in front of a computer.
Healthy relationships require multiple avenues of communication. The opposite
of addiction is alienation where some members will not have access to use the
Internet due to financial or educational barriers or a lack of interest.
It is important then for the Church to offer multiple avenues of community to
both of these members to broaden their experience and to encourage the members
of the community to mentor each other in complete relationships.
Graham Bell invented the telephone he was convinced that its primary purpose
would simply be to deliver news reports and symphonies to the people. Only
after being confronted with undeniable evidence was he convinced that the
primary purpose of the telephone was to allow people to communicate.
In a similar fashion some people believe that the primary purpose of the Church
is to deliver sermons and deliver a message to a people. In so doing they have
forgotten that the message is embodied in a people and that it is people that
God came to save and unite into the glorious bride of Christ prepared for the
wedding supper of the lamb. Eating together is the Biblical image of community
and it is seen in Communion where we are bound together by the common experience
of the blood of Christ and the common Spirit who sends us into united ministry.
Like the telephone, the Internet is designed to do more than simply deliver news
and push content to the people; rather, the Internet provides a place of
“commons” for the Church to relate and thus move in beyond one day a week. It
is not intended to stand alone as the only form of community but as a supplement
to add to what already exists. With nearly 66% (about 82 million)
of American Internet users the Internet for faith related issues it is apparent
that the Internet is being used for far more than just displaying news. People
are longing for community and God is restoring community through the Church. I
have sought to offer some suggestions as to how the Biblical model of community
can be worked out in the Church online and I now offer this paper back to the
Church to build upon.
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