catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 16 :: 2006.09.08 — 2006.09.22


Somewhat unreal communities

Emilie, my fourteen-year-old, walked through the room while I was watching the news and said, “Hey, I didn’t know there was a hurricane.”  I opened my mouth to tell her that if she watched the news or read the paper every once in a while, she’d know people had been talking about and tracking the path of this storm for days, and it wouldn’t be a bad idea to start developing an interest in the world around her, but she beat me to the punch.  “Oh, wait,” she said.  “Madi said she didn’t have to go to school the other day because of the weather.”  I didn’t say anything.  Without even trying, she’d dealt me a stunning reversal: she’d gotten her news firsthand from a friend on MySpace who was actually on the scene in Florida, while all my information came to me from a distance, mediated by the conventions and compromises of twentieth century broadcasting.  It was the triumph of the new media, the virtual community.

I’m aware, of course, of the drawbacks of MySpace: many people use it to document their commitment to drunkenness or their aversion to being modestly clothed or both at the same time, and nobody will ever accuse the comments posted on most pages of being philosophically deep or overly fastidious about matters of spelling, punctuation, and grammar.  On the other hand, Emilie’s online communities include people she probably wouldn’t be in touch with any other way: friends in Florida, the daughter of a missionary family in Albania, friends from middle school who are now going to different high schools.  In July, when we visited family in northern Illinois, she helped her cousin Becca set up a MySpace account, and they’ve been leaving each other messages nearly every day since then.  She’s even found a site where she can post her drawings and receive comments and suggestions from people from around the globe.

This, I think, has been most people’s experience of virtual community.  We’re able to extend the scope of our relationships, reaching beyond our physical surroundings to communicate with people who share our passions or our particular view of the world.  I don’t know if everybody who has stumbled across has felt a sense of recognition and relief, but I’m confident a number of us have: “Christians who care about the environment and the arts and don’t feel a compulsion to proclaim that there’s a bright shiny side to every aspect of the Christian life?  It’s like coming home.”

As many people have pointed out, though, virtual community has its drawbacks.  There’s the “echo chamber” effect: surrounding ourselves with so many voices that agree with us gives us a distorted picture of how widespread our viewpoints actually are in the outside world.  Online progressive organizations have created networks of participants who are excited about their causes, who are ready to donate their money and volunteer their time . . . and yet only a miniscule number of the candidates they’ve supported have actually won an election.  Studies suggest that we’re far less likely to live in the same community or connect with people whose political or ideological beliefs differ from ours than we used to be, and because we don’t associate “the conservatives” or “the liberals” with the friendly man next door or the woman down the street who uses a walker, we feel much more free to misrepresent or demonize them.  Too often, the internet funnels us into communities that are ideologically gated, walling out people whom real communities might ideally include.

On top of that, relationships in virtual communities are just more volatile than they are in real life.  We’re much more likely TO BE SCREAMED AT!!! or have people make nasty comments about us when we’re online than in face to face conversations.  Not that there aren’t abrasive people in non-virtual communities, but there’s something about the physicality of the person we’re talking to, the subliminal messages communicated by the slight widening of a person’s eyes or the subtle shift in their posture that reminds us that they have an emotional life and they ought to be respected, that they’re more than just a cardboard cutout representing an attitude or argument that we hate.  Online, we can shift from experiencing community to screaming into a void; in a non-virtual community, when we can see both the person we’re talking to and the other people who are listening in, we’re more likely to be restrained.

I’d prefer to end this essay by celebrating the non-virtual community as more complex and difficult than, and therefore richer than, virtual community; I’d like to consider the discipline required in virtual community, navigating our instincts to respond to people as though they were no more than words on a screen.  But lately I’ve been thinking about the ways that non-virtual community can be transformed into virtual community. 

What’s happened is that another set of friends has decided to leave our church.  They’ve been unhappy about some of the decisions the church leadership has made over the past couple of years, and when the leadership team revealed their recommendation for our new staff pastor, our friends felt the church had lost its way.  And so they’ve started attending another church, one with great music and a great pastor and good programs for their kids.

They’re not the first to go.  Many people we love don’t go to church with us anymore, the majority of them, I think, due to disagreements with the church leadership.  We’re the only family left from our first small group who still attend the church.  These may not seem like devastating words, but this was our family.  Eight years ago we moved five hundred miles away from just about everyone we knew, but what we got in return was a real community.  We were there for each other when someone was sick or had sick children, when a baby was born, when a child died, when children got married; we showed up at each other’s houses to help with moving or put up sheetrock; and we always felt that doing anything we could to contribute to this community was a privilege rather than a burden.

Now that community is gone.  In some ways, it feels as though we’re in a different church, a virtual community.  We’re in a new small group with intelligent, warm-hearted people, but it’s like coming home from school to find that your mom and dad and brother have been replaced by new people.  There might not be anything wrong with the new family members—in some ways they may even be cooler than the people they replaced—but there’s no way you can have the same connection to them.  The Biblical metaphors seem to have reached their limits: how can we feel like we’re members of the body when the arms and legs are off at several churches in a couple of different counties?   

I’m not the type to leave a church.  It’s always struck me as the last resort: unless you find that one of their foundational elements of theology involves injecting babies with heroin, you try to make things work.  You try your best to esteem others as better than yourselves, even if your private opinion is that the others are theological dunces who shouldn’t be allowed to hold a Bible, much less interpret it.  You esteem them more highly because there’s a good chance that your little opinion is wrong, and, what’s more, you’re stupider and more selfish than you think. 

I haven’t changed my opinion on any of that, but I feel I have more of an insight into why some people abandon churches.  They feel their churches abandoned them first.  They go to church, and the building is the same, and they see many of the same faces, but that sense of belonging, of being a significant part of the community, no longer rings true.  They’re only virtual members now.  They feel no real connection, and, worse, they feel anything they say will be challenged or ignored.  It seems to them that the church they’re thinking of leaving is no longer the church they loved; if they leave, what they’re leaving isn’t the church they joined but something entirely different. 

I’m afraid I really don’t know what’s going to happen next.  I know it’s not fair to the good people who’ve stuck it out with the church that so much of my loyalty lies with those who have already left.  I believe that, given time, we can develop deeper connections with the people who remain; maybe we were brought here to be given a taste of true community so we can seek it out and pursue it and nurture it in other contexts and with other people.  I know the connections we make with other people rarely last long in this culture: most of the people we were close to when we were first married moved out of our lives.  They got new jobs or married people who lived out of town or found bigger houses in less pricy communities or reinvented themselves in the city or (because there’s nothing new under the sun) started attending a church where they had less baggage, and when we started having kids we found ourselves with less time to focus on relationships and started becoming this little self-contained nugget of a community, with three and then four and finally five members.  I know there’s really nothing permanent about community: if a community can be compared to a body, then maybe it undergoes the organism’s experience of constant loss and continual renewal, and perhaps what separates a healthy community from a virtual community is its ability to hold together and maintain its focus, to be what it was created to be, in the face of relentless change.  No matter what decision we make, I know the struggle to find and to be a community won’t end.

And yet none of this knowledge makes me feel any less sad.   

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