Friday, March 11, 2005

Online Faith Community -- An Oxymoron?

It’s a scene out of an old movie. A train is about to leave the station. One person is inside a car, looking out; another person is standing on the platform, looking in. The two people reach up for the window; their hands align on either side of the glass . The train starts to move; the person on the platform walks, then trots, alongside the train, as long as possible, but finally is left there alone, waving, as the train steams away.

This is what the Internet community feels like to me sometimes. We form relationships; sometimes genial or even affectionate ones, sometimes antagonistic ones, sometimes a bit of both; but there’s always a pane of anonymity keeping things “virtual.” And there’s a transience as well; people come and go, often with no explanation, often after sharing their feelings and experiences in very self-disclosing ways that beg for some kind of supportive response. I know there have been countless times online when I’ve read a post that’s moved me profoundly to do something…but how do you communicate the equivalent of, “Hey – let’s take a walk outside and talk about this some more,” with a screen name? And if that person were me, how welcoming would I be of someone reacting in that way to my own gut spillage – would I be relieved, or annoyed, or frightened that I’d run into the friendly neighborhood online stalker?

How can people of faith be the Body of Christ for one another, take care of one another, in an online context? Is it even possible in any but the most superficial of ways? What about the person who, for whatever reason, has little or no connection to a flesh-and-blood faith community, who experiences Christian community primarily via the Internet? What is the best way for the rest of us to serve one another here?

This is ministry territory that I think we’re only beginning to chart, and I’d really love to explore this topic with anyone interested.


Jake said...

Having tried a few different venues for online communities, I'm not too optimistic. Forums are better that chat, and blogs are better than forums, but without the 3D component, limited to written words, I'm just not sure. We can certainly continue to try, however.

I think we've just started the exploration. Today for the first time I checked out the "podcast" development, which opens up some new options. I even played around and made something up. Not sure if it works.

Just imagine the possibilities....

LutheranChik said...

Greetings, Father Jake! I am honored to have you visit my blog (humble bow).

I think we can build community, and in fact I've experienced really meaningful community online, but as you note it really can only go so far without that multidimensional component...and of course for those of us in sacramental traditions, that whole dimension gets left out. But to the extent that something is better than nothing, I do think that some valuable ministry can be done in an online modality.

Sheryl said...

I think I might have mentioned this book to you before, but Tom Beaudoin's book Virtual Faith: The Irreverant Spirituality of Generation X deals with some of these issues, including whether or not it is possible to have real community in a virtual environment.

It's an interesting book in general, speaking as a member of that generation. In addition to discussing the internet and faith, it also discusses Gen X's willingness to adopt faith pracitices outside their faith tradition if they fit their personal spirituality, the assertion that it is possible to be spiritual and not religious - and what exactly that means, and several other issues. It's a semi-scholarly book, in that the author did a whole lot of research, but it is written in a very accessible tone and also includes his personal experiences as an Xer.

Personally, as you and Fr. Jake have said, I think that it is possible to have community on-line, but it is limited by so many factors, not the least of which being that it can be somewhat impersonal. But technology grows every day. Who knows what the future may hold?

LutheranChik said...

I know I've enjoyed the cross-pollination between traditions I've experienced online...I've grown to value much of Eastern Orthodox spiritual practice, for instance, although it's not a tradition I could embrace wholeheartedly. I've had a real change of heart regarding the charismatic movement after meeting people online who didn't fit my stereotype.

And...another cool thing about the Internet is that even if you think you are in the world's smallest religious subcategory, LOL, you can usually still "find your people."

LutheranChik said...

As an example of community...I just visited the Anglican/Episcopal forum over on Beliefnet and read through a really remarkable topic thread where one individual asked forgiveness of the other regulars for his anger and intemperate speech over the years. And the people involved responded in kind; a mutual confession and assurance of forgiveness. I didn't create a link because in my mind it's at least a semi-private conversation...but this topic thread blew me away...I'm sitting here at work getting all misty. This is being the Church in the world, and it's happening online.

Kathryn said...

Oh bother...I don't visit for a couple of weeks, and you've posted all this wonderful stuff. Having spent a couple of years as a regular on a couple of Christian internet fora, where exactly the situations you describe kept coming up, I've found myself with a collection of hurt and unhappy people whom I long to bring into a more "real" community, to be loved and comforted. Some of them I've now met irl...some of them disappeared overnight leaving me anxious as to their eventual state. The real barrier to community, though, is the fact that people can and do project only those versions of themselves which they relationships can tend to lack integrity.
But for all that, it's a good place to connect...once you recognise the limitations.

pastorgirl said...

As a fellow B'net addict (with LutheranChik) the key component to the online community connundrum is the anonymity. "Secrecy" seems to skew our online personas to a large degree. I know I am different in this anonymous forum than I am in real life (I'm also different behind the wheel of a car-- where I seem to think I'm invisible-- but that's another story).

In some ways I might be better online-- more willing to take risks, more courageous, more outspoken. But in other ways, I am "less than"-- less honest, less authentic. There is no accountability-- no one to call me on it when I doctor up a false impression. I also tend to lose some of my pastoral vocation online. It all to easily becomes about showing what I know rather than really caring pastorally for people who are strugging.