Can Community Exist Virtually?

The Community Group I lead has been studying the book of Ephesians these past few months. One of its main themes is what the church ought to be like, so I’ve been doing a bit of thinking about that as I prepare for our sessions. Along side this, I’m a regular listener to William Bennett’s morning talk show, Mornings in America. While listening one morning last week, I heard a discussion about how the current war in Iraq is perceived by folks here at home, with the point being that, as a society or community we don’t feel that we’re very involved in this unless we have a family member or friend over there. We’ve lost some sense of the larger community as a culture. So all this converged to get me thinking about community and today’s church.

At the beginning of my professional career in the mid-1980’s, I remember when the first personal cassette tape players came out, dominated by Sony’s Walkman. Personal computers were a relatively new idea, not widely used or even available. Cell phones were not really around yet, and a car phone was an unusual thing to see. Communication was by telephone over land line, FedEx was in it’s infancy, and faxes were not widely available. Letters were still written and sent by mail as a routine way of keeping in touch. Face to face communication was still the norm.

Today, we primarily keep in touch with each other electronically. Virtual community is what it’s called, and I’m certainly a participant as I sit in the food court across the street from my office and write this on my new MacBook. (No I don’t have my iPod – today’s Walkman – plugged in.) But as I look at the condition of community in our culture more broadly, and in the church specifically, I think something really important has been lost.

God intended for Christians to gather together, to live in community, as his design for the church. This is very clear from both the Biblical example of Acts and from Paul’s writing in Ephesians. This is to be a face to face community, not a virtual one, because there is something very important about actually being together. Without being together, we lose half of our communication media, the non-verbal. We can’t see facial expressions when we talk together (emoticons just don’t cut it, and besides, they can be lies). We can’t reach out and touch someone when the comfort of an embrace, or the unspoken “I’m here” of a touch is the best way to communicate the community’s support. Contagious laughter or joy is impossible virtually because it can’t be heard or seen. And we’ve all experienced the misunderstandings that can occur without the nonverbal parts of our language.

This applies to meeting together for worship as well. Television church attendance from the comfort of your easy chair is no substitute for the gathering together of the saints. Experiencing worship with other believers can lift us to a place where we never will go alone. Hearing the Word spoken and taught live and in person forces us to listen at least a little bit more. And the power of the Spirit at work in a corporate worship setting can be life changing.

Can this kind of community exist virtually? I don’t think so, and I would argue no kind of real community can. We are called as Christians to be counter-cultural. Maybe how we do community is a place we should begin.

Hebrews 10:23-25 (ESV) 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

One thought on “Can Community Exist Virtually?

  1. Ken – I enjoyed our conversation last night after the “meeting of the Church at Orange Hill”. As Paul explained to the church at Corinth, we are all parts of the Church, the Body of Christ. All the parts must come together in worship and community to complete the work which God has started in us. Watching “church” at home on T.V. or becoming part of a virtual church would leave us with the disadvantage of possibly being only a nose, ear, or foot. That is not what our Lord Jesus intended for His Church, or how he would want us to exist.

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