Thursday, August 10, 2017

Church Community. . .

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg gave a speech in Chicago a month ago or so in which he laid out a new mission for the platform -- to build real community. Though you will not find a video of it (at least I could not), news stories were filled with quotable quotes. But those few quotations are quite revealing.

With 100 million users taking part in what Zuckerberg called "meaningful communities" within Groups on Facebook, he spoke of his ambition to raise that number to a billion.  He said: "If we can do this, it will not only turn around the whole decline in community membership we've seen for decades, it will start to strengthen our social fabric and bring the world closer together."  Comparing the site to a church, he went on to talk about the need for "great leaders" in such a community, saying: "A church doesn't just come together. It has a pastor who cares for the well-being of their congregation, makes sure they have food and shelter.  A little league team has a coach who motivates the kids and helps them hit better. Leaders set the culture, inspire us, give us a safety net, and look out for us."  He went on to say: "People who go to church are more likely to volunteer and give to charity - not just because they're religious, but because they're part of a community."
Perhaps herein lies the problem.  Liberals do not understand the Church or why the Church exists.  They live in a dream world in which community is defined by common interest or preference, where communities are held together by the glue than those interests, wants, and needs, and where the direction of this community is aided and abetted by strong leader figures. In this liberal dream world, God does not play a formative role in this process -- it is all the will and desire of the individuals.  Indeed, it is a lot like theistic evolution -- God starts the ball rolling, hands it off to people, and then watches to see what we do with it.  God is not necessarily excluded but neither is God essential to it all. It is all about finding our “sense of purpose” and this happens when we figure out a way to relate to one another. This is not a community in which demands are made of those who belong but freedom is impart to those who desire.  Certainly, it is not about somebody else or even God telling us what to value, how to live, and where to direct our lives.  Community is merely mutual support, filling each others needs or, better, helping the other find out how to fulfill his or her own wants/needs/desire for themselves.  It is a neutral community without judgment or moral compass (except tolerance that means acceptance and support).

The reality is that we live in a world where "community" is defined quite apart from a physical or concrete reality.  In this world of digital relationship, the unique character of people to touch and be touched is secondary to the electronic image of people, their digital reality.  The whole idea of body and soul has been replaced with self-defined being that does not depend upon the body for much of anything except the rudiments of essential existence. In this electronic "reality" of a disembodied humanity, you may sit before a screen and find and be a part of a community of people whose only connection is that screen.

Perhaps the original tele-evangelists were as quick as Zuckerberg to hit on this social trend and so they were among the first to define the Church as a congregation of individuals whose only connection was a screen.  In any case, evangelicals gathered before a screen watching something together has become a normative experience for much of American Christianity and the definition of community for many of them.  (Which is one reason why I am so against screens -- if that is what Church is, why do I have to be there to watch the screen and why can't I just do it at home?)  Now the un-Churched world sees congregation or community as more or less the same thing as the social media versions.  But there cannot be Church without altar and pulpit and font, without a people called together in one place by the Holy Spirit, gathered before the Word and Sacraments of the Lord, enlightened by the living voice speaking into their ears, touched by the living water of baptism, and tasted in the bread and wine that is Christ's flesh and blood, and sanctified in this experience by the Lord working in them through these concrete elements to which He has attached His promise.  God is not only convener and definer but also the goal and purpose of this community.  Tele-evangelists forgot this, perhaps a nominal Jew like Zuckerberg never experienced it, and now the world thinks this nebulous shaped of community is the same as the Church.  Clearly the Spirit has His work cut out for Him -- if we are to rediscover again the joy and gladness of being called and gathered into the Lord's House where we meet Him where He has chosen to be met.


James Kellerman said...

Several years ago, when I read Robert Putnam's "Bowling Alone," I was struck by how non-religious civic organizations had collapsed. The Lions, Rotary Club, Elks, Shriners, Boy Scouts, Parent Teacher Association, Future Farmers of America, etc. were down sharply, some by over 90%. Church participation had also declined somewhat by then (2000), but even now it has not fallen as drastically as participation in non-religious civic organizations has.

The natural impulse, at least for Americans in this era, is to cut off all ties to community. It is a testimony to the power of God's Word that He is able to draw us naturally anti-social people together around Word and Sacrament and knit us together as brothers and sisters.

Carl Vehse said...

Community ties have been weakened for at least a century by two world wars, the widespread use of automobiles, freeways and interstate highways for transportation of people and supplies, rural-to-city migration, the airline industries, the U.S. power grid, radio, television, audio/video/computer intercommunications, medical care improvements, the development of care facilities for the elderly, increasing numbers of 'snowbirds,' increased use of college education, and worker mobility, to name a few.