Sunday, November 07, 2004

New Modalities of Spiritual Community

Every few decades, a new medium finds its niche in American politics. In the 1920s and 1930s, it was radio that gave candidates a way to talk directly to large audiences. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was television, which created sound bites and showed that a candidate's physical image matters. The 1980s and early 1990s were about cable TV and targeting audiences such as the MTV generation.

This year, the Internet came into its own as a political tool.

Tricia Bishop, who reports on the Baltimore Sun's Technology Beat, wrote a nice piece published today headlined Internet finds its niche in politics.

A number of us have found spiritual community online. I feel that I have been blessed with a wonderful community of about 270 folks who have been discussing "navigating theology, praxis, and leadership in the emerging church" since May of 2001 in the online faithmaps discussion group. (They call themselves the 'mappers.) This group arose out of, which I had launched shortly before the birth of our group.

I had originally bought the domain name for Cedar Ridge Community Church when I was on staff there running small groups and their Learning for Life Adult Ed initiative. I had intended to use the site to support one theology workshop I had taught there. After I left staff, I bought the domain name from the church and started developing in earnest (it desperately needs a redesign and I'm working on that now!) and the 'mapper discussion group.

It has become clear that a number of folks in our online community have found connections there that they were challenged to find in their geographically local communities. I've blogged a bit more detail ab this elsewhere, but there are a couple of features about online community that make it unique:

- the initial anonymity that's possible online leads some to be more intimate earlier in the arc of their relationships than they would in facetime relationship. This is fueled by the significant optionality of online relationships; if you don't like me, it's fairly easy for you to make me go away.

- another significant feature is the comparative ease of finding people of like mind because of the relative ubiquity (at least in the First World West) of the Internet. It's easier to find resonances with folks online than it was for folks in , say, 1920's southern Georgia.

A few of us have also explored ways in which blogging (see Do Blogs Democratise Knowledge, parts one and two) can be usefully explored as a way of developing a new praxis of theological development.

I think it's important that we avoid triumphalism when it comes to touting online community. Just as the advent of the radio, the television, and the telephone did not completely revolutionize spiritual community, the Internet will not solve all of our ills; it most certainly is not the answer to challenges of spiritual community. Nevertheless, at the same time, just as American politicos are exploring ways to use the web more effectively on behalf of their candidates, so also the church would do well to explore whether she is fully optimizing what new relational opportunities are afforded her via the web without viewing it as a panacea.

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