Tuesday, February 22, 2011

When Is a Community a Community?

My cage has been rattled over the past two weeks.  I thought, at this point in life, I knew what the word “community” meant, what it looked like and of what it is comprised.  Here is a example of my pre-cage-rattled understanding of community.  Last week the house of one of our church families caught fire.  They were safe, but belongings were lost or damaged and the house is uninhabitable for a few months.  Within hours, folks in their neighborhood responded with boxes of food and clothing, gift cards to local stores and cash.  They were overwhelmed.  That’s community in my book.

But, in this postmodern era of deconstruction, even the basic notion of 'community' is not spared.  Through my coursework in the Drew D.Min. program,  I was introduced to lifechurch.tv which, some consider, the largest church in the United States.  Before reading any further, I invite you to go to www.lifechurch.tv and check it out – even attend one of their services; there are over 50 broadcasts to choose from.

OK, I’m back.  Did you really check it out or are you just reading on??  Seriously, check it out…I'll wait...

What do you think?  Can a church which largely exists online be considered a community?  If you’re like me, you probably automatically dismissed the possibility of this kind of church ever creating “real” community.  At which point, I needed to ask myself, “What is ‘real’ community?”  I’ll come back to that in a minute…

But first, there was one other stereotype that needed to get blasted out of my heart and mind.  I assumed such a ministry had to be associated with some kind of independent, fundamentalist preacher/gathering.  But it isn’t…not even close.  Lifechurch.tv is associated with the Evangelical Covenant Church.  Founded by Swedish Lutheran immigrants, this denomination is ‘evangelical’ in the 19th century sense of the word and is considered ‘mainline’ (another term that is in need of a postmodern face-lift).

So...what is ‘real’ community?  Lifechurch.tv has a complex array of virtual small groups and face-to-face small groups that span the globe.  Thousands experience worship through online re-broadcasts accompanied by live chat rooms with hosts who guide real time discussion centered on the message as it’s being preached.  Thousands more experience worship in satellite locations where everything is live up to the message which is down-linked and projected at each site. 

I’m prone to believe the testimonies of those who find deep meaning in this when they share about the strength they derive from the community that is lifechurch.tv.   It’s hard to argue when folks give witness to how a small group was “there for them,” even though they were spread around the globe and have never met face to face.

Perhaps in this new postmodern era when technology has flattened and transformed the world, the very notion of community has also transformed.  Perhaps, community is no longer defined in terms physical proximity, but now may be experienced as the proximity of compassion, identity, spirituality and commitment.  When is a community a community?


  1. Those of us old people who grew up with the model of church being a pastor, congregation, and building probably have a hard time with lifechurch.tv and other online communities. I think we need to ask ourselves this question. Where is my resistance coming from? I find that most people reject most things new in churches, not because they have evaluated the new idea and tested it objectively in their minds, but rather because they have no room left in their minds and attitudes for ideas that are different from their past experiences.

    Let's have this conversation among sisters and brothers in the Alaska Conference. Thanks for generating this discussion, Jon.

  2. I think the issues are usually less "theological" and more "habitual" -- can't see doing it any other way. However, as Michael Slaughter blogged last week, we need to recognize the wealth that our traditions offer. We talked about this last week in Sunday school. Good discussion.