It’s not uncommon for friends in the “real world” to ask my opinion of the online Christian community.
“Can you have real relationship with Christians who are disembodied words on a computer screen?”
“Can you develop friendships with people you have never met in person?”
“Is the online Christian community a church?”
“Can true Christian community be built through online encounters?”
I have been immensely blessed by the Christian blogosphere, and yes, I have developed friendships with people I have never met. These friendships have different levels of intimacy, but that is true of “real” friendships as well.
It was the online Christian community that helped me through the first year in Caronport. It’s not uncommon for the first year in Caronport to be rough. It’s hard to make friends, especially as an introvert. It can be a culture shock, especially if you’ve come from a more metropolitan neighbourhood. It can be difficult to navigate the social expectations and morays. And let’s face it, for 6 months of the year it’s freezing cold and the entire community hibernates for the winter (who can blame them). It was the online community that kept me sane. It was the online community that kept me hungry for Christian community. And while it might be a bit hyperbolic, it was the online community that kept me Christian.
And yet, that was a season. The online community could not and did not replace “real” community. In fact, if anything else, it helped me to appreciate and to actively seek out “real” community. Today, I live in both worlds. They both serve a purpose and they both edify me.
One of the common themes that I find in the Christian blogosphere is this idea that the “real” church has let people down, and so the online community has become a place for disenfranchised Christians to gather together. And I think that that can be an excellent thing. My concern, though, is when the online community substitutes for the “real” community. Can an online community be the church? Can the online church be an acceptable and encouraged alternative to the “real” church? Can we claim to be Christian online if we’re not plugged into and under the accountability of a “real” church community?
Sometimes it feels like the online community fosters a platonistic, dualistic understanding of the body. It is very easy for the Christian and the Christian community online to become disembodied . We can hide behind words on a screen, and behind avatars that show us in the best possible light. We can hide behind relative anonymity. We can choose to disengage when things get too hot, too challenging or too prophetic. We can live without real accountability. We can choose to listen to only people who agree with us, or who only praise us and never exhort us. We can choose to continue to pretend that those with whom we disagree are “other” that they are most definitely wrong, and we are most definitely right. And we can run from the question, “what if it turns out that they are the ones who are right and we are the ones who are wrong?”
Christian community is embodied. It is messy. It is painful. It is human. Jesus was “The Word became Flesh.” He entered into the mess. He entered into the sin. He entered into the pain, and strife and conflict. He entered into the physicality of human existence not to eliminate it, but to redeem it; to resurrect it. The body does not pass away like chaff. The body is resurrected. There is new creation. The new heavens and a new earth does not mean disembodiment; it means better embodiment.
And if the church, the community of Christians is the body of Christ, then there is a physicality to it as well. Yes the communion of saints includes those who have gone before and those who are still with us, but come judgment day, the communion of saints will be reunited, will be given a new bodies, and will physically, corporately, come together in the resurrected flesh, and will be the glorified, sanctified embodied community of Christ who gather around the throne of the lamb in worship and song.
Inspired and guided by the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I’d like to offer four thoughts about the nature and need for “real” community.
- The visible gathering of the community is a gift of God’s grace. This gathering occurs around the Word and Sacrament. This visible, physical gathering of the community of believers “is a source of incomparable joy and strength.” Meeting with another Christian is a sacrament as it is “a physical sign of the gracious presence of the triune God.”
- There can be no true, “real” Christian community without Jesus Christ. Our community, our relationship is through and in Jesus. We cannot form true community apart from Jesus. Humanity is broken and humans are marred by strife and conflict. But Jesus is the reconciler. Because his is our peace, he opens the way for us to gather together without strife, without conflict. “Without Christ there is discord between God and humanity and between one human being and another.”
- We minister to each other by speaking God’s word to each other. Indeed, as Bonhoeffer succinctly states, “the goal of all Christian community is to encounter one another as bringers of the message of salvation.” It is hard to speak the word to another and have the word spoken to us if we choose to not submit to that opportunity by refusing to participate and by automatically dismissing the other person because they disagree with us.
- Community is built on Christ’s redeeming work. Community is not built on the desire for community. It is not built on acts of human piety. It is not built on the need for the experience of community. It is not built on the “dream” of an ideal Christian community. It is built on Jesus Christ alone.
When I have felt disenfranchised by “real” community and have wanted to hold out and wait for a true “real” community, I give myself a shake and read this ouch-worthy, convicting point by Bonhoeffer:
“Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.”
And so, even when I don’t feel like it, even when “real” Christians have let me down, or I feel like it would be easier to just pop in a worship CD and watch a sermon online from some celebrity pastor thousands of miles away, I force myself to go to church. I sit and listen to the Word proclaimed. I join my voice with those Christians who have offended me and recite the Apostles’ Creed. I stand and confess my sins in unison with those who irritate me. I hear the words of confession and absolution, and I extend the peace I have received from Christ to those who have disappointed me. We gather together at the table of the Lamb and serve each other communion, knowing that “real” community is founded not on us, but on the grace of Jesus Christ, who lived, died and was resurrected to reconcile the world to himself.
And then I go home and blog about it, adding my voice to the online community, making friends with people from around the world. But, the “real” community keeps me grounded, keeps me focused and keeps me a part of the Body of Christ. It allows me to participate in the online community while not letting the online community consume me, depress me or distort my perception of what is “real.”