Many things in our culture work against the maintenance of real community. We are conditioned in countless ways to think and act as individuals only, not as members of any body, and even our individual relationships are ‘thinned out,’ based on images rather than presences. Since this is the opposite of how we are supposed to live as Christians, let’s look at how just one cultural reality contributes to this—contemporary communication technologies.
Images and Presences
The electronic media radically ‘compress’ time and space. Just thirty years ago it was expensive and difficult to make a long distance call to another country. Today we are able to stay closely in touch with others from another continent with little effort or expense. In a highly mobile society, this means that fewer and fewer of our friends and loved ones are actually fully present to us. We get their words and images only, not their embodied selves.
Media can also create the illusion that we have community with people that we don’t know at all. TV and film viewers come to see actors and other figures on the screen as friends. Because we see them, even experience them in one dimension, we get the impression they are in an intimate conversation with us. Online contact can give us even more of a sense that we are in a real community. But through these media it is easy to project an image that is not real at all. The NY Times ran an article recently on a young mother who attracted a loyal following through her unremittingly sunny and celebrative blog about marriage and child rearing. When she was injured in an accident, many readers sent gifts totalling nearly $100,000 within a couple of weeks. When the Times reporter asked some of the donors about their generosity to someone they ‘did not know’ they responded, with a snort, that they did know her, that they made no distinction between online friends and ‘physical’ ones. And yet the article ended with a kind but honest statement by the blogger’s sister, who noted that while she her relationship with her husband and her children ‘wasn’t perfect,’ in the blog she chose only to focus on the positive. Her sister knew her in an embodied, fully present (soul and body) way. The blog readers had an illusion of intimacy.
As great as it is, God did not simply send us the Bible, a message through the communication medium of writing. If that was all he could do for us, salvation would ultimately be in our hands—it would have been up to us to follow his instructions. But instead, God also came himself, in the flesh, to be fully present to us in Jesus Christ. It is only through his being fully present with us that we could be saved by grace.
In the same way, we must learn to be fully present in community with our neighbors and with our Christian brothers and sisters. It is not enough to simply show up at a church service where you live physically, but then try to maintain all your closest relationships with friends and family members who live far away. God made us embodied beings—the body (though it is weakened by sin) is a great good. God was so positive about bodies that he himself assumed a body in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. If we are going to give and receive grace from each other, we have to get it the way God gave it to us. We have to be involved in accountable friendships and deep relationships with other people where we live.
Individual and Communal
There is another way that communication technologies affect us. They divide the world into parts that can be easily customized into patterns that fit individual taste. We see this in how our news comes to us. Go to Google News—there is a brief paragraph on a terrible disaster with thousands killed, next is the latest on Paris Hilton, next is a sports scoop. There is nothing to force you to give sustained attention to any one subject. You pick and choose what you as an individual want to know.
In music, you once had to buy full albums but now you choose only the song you want on your iPod. What is the effect of this? Classical musicians have noted a new trend in the last several years. At concerts, many listeners now come late—for the second piece, and leave before the last one. They come for the products they prefer, as if they were selections on an iPod. Before the advent of media, people coming to a concert thought of listening to music as an experience of community. They were paying attention to art as a corporate body. Now we come to concerts thinking of ourselves as individual consumers.
Communications technology is only one factor among many that had done this to us. Ancient people thought of themselves primarily as members of a family or a clan. They could not imagine prosperity and good for themselves apart from the prosperity and good of their community. Today we can’t even think of ourselves as members of an audience. Ancient people thought of their relationships with their family, clan, people, and neighborhood as covenantal—the relationship was more important than their individual needs. We think and act first and foremost as individual consumers. Our needs are most important. If they are not being met, we go elsewhere to have them met.
I recently learned of a man who lives about three hours from NYC. He has not found a church in his area that he likes. So one Sunday a month he takes a train to New York, goes to Redeemer, eats at a restaurant and sees sites, and then goes home. The rest of the Sundays he watches or listens to religious programming. Sound extreme? It’s not too distant from the experience living in the city, but only attending Redeemer services, and not becoming involved in the life of the community—becoming personally accountable and responsible for others.
This is harder for us than it was for our ancestors, because we are conditioned to be deeply afraid of covenantal relationships. And yet the Bible tells us we were built for covenantal relationships. We want and need to have other persons unconditionally, unselfishly committed to us, and we to them. Christian theology tells us we were made in the image of God, and that God is a Trinity. Jesus said he never did anything, said anything, or accomplished anything without his Father. The persons of the Trinity are absolutely one—each person does everything with the others. We were meant to live like that. Sin, of course, makes all human community difficult and at times painful. But it is suicidal to avoid all food just because sometimes some of it can be ‘bad’ and make you sick.
I am saying that community is no longer natural or easy under our present cultural conditions. It will require an intentionality greater than that required by our ancestors, and uncomfortable to most of us. But building Christian community is not simply a duty. It should not be a distasteful act of the will. Community grows naturally out of shared experience, and the more intense the experience, the more intense the community.
I hope no one sees this article as a broad-brush dismissal of communication technology. My wife Kathy is one of five siblings, none of whom live closer than hundreds of miles from any of the others. Yet they email one another virtually everyday. That’s a thoroughly good thing. Nevertheless, the power of their relationships lies not in the current emailing and the phone-calling, but from their many years of sharing the same home, beds, room, parents, schools, experiences—all fully present to each other. What makes an aggregation of people into a community is that they are drawn together around some common object. Weaker community can be created by a common interest, such as a hobby, a sports team, a musical genre. Stronger community comes together around deep beliefs and causes, or powerful common experiences, like going through a flood or battle together—and surviving. There have been countless ‘buddy movies’ about some group of misfits who are extremely different in all kinds of ways, but then they are thrown together into a life or death situation. When they come through it together, it becomes the basis for a deep, permanent bond, stronger then blood.
When Christians experience Christ’s radical grace through repentance and faith, it becomes the most intense, foundational event of our lives. When we meet someone from a sharply different culture, race, or social class but who has experienced the grace of Jesus Christ through the gospel, we don’t see the differences first, because we are looking at someone who has been through the same life and death situation as we have, since in Christ we have spiritually died and been raised to new life. (Eph 2:1-6; Rom 6:4-6.) And because of this common experience of grace—now a deeper identity marker than our family, race, or culture—when we come together, we find we ‘fit’! ‘As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house’ (1 Peter 2:4-5.) Like stones that already have been perfectly shaped by the mason, the builder simply lays each next to the other and they interlock into a solid and beautiful temple. When we speak to others who know God’s grace, we see that their identity is now rooted more in who they are in Christ than in their family or class. As a result we sense a bond that overcomes those things that, outside of Christ, created insurmountable barriers to our relationships. Jesus has knocked them down.
So, hard as it is to build strong community, especially in our time and place, we have tremendous resources. We have many things against us as we try to build Christian community, especially in a place like New York City. But there is no alternative.