Exploring Experiences of Online Christian Community
Caitlin Smithers is a CCS Diaconal Ministries student who is also completing her MDiv at the Atlantic School of Theology. On March 14 she presented her grad project on Christian community and online spaces in a public lecture, asking questions like: What does Christian community look like in online spaces? How much impact do elements like online worship, gathering, games, or other social activities have on people’s feelings of connection? And what we might learn from these experiences in how we can intentionally build Christian communities, and Christian community beyond what was imagined before. One audience member, watching through zoom, commented in chat: “I really feel this presentation is about what Christ is doing in the world. So valid and real.”
Caitlin reflects on her research:
The concept of faithful communities is present throughout the Hebrew Bible and New Testament; the stories are full of people living in relationship with one another and with God. The Greek word koinonia, which is often translated to mean fellowship, actually means much more. It is a friendship, or partnership, to share, hold in common, or participate in together. In the New Testament, Paul participates in community by writing letters. Paul does not have to be physically in the communities to which he is writing to be considered part of them, or seen as a leader, heard and respected in the advice and encouragement he offers in his letters.
This understanding of koinonia can still be relevant to Christian communities now, as we experience this idea of communities not defined by place or distance, but by the commitment and love we show to one another. A commitment and love that God first showed us, and has continued to show us, in various forms and ways since the beginning of our relationship with one another. One example of this is when Jesus became a very particular body in a very particular time and place, and demonstrated radical care and concern for the bodies he encountered, especially the most marginalized. We often still speak of Christian faith as embodied based on this story, because of Jesus, and our relationship with him. However, there are many examples of times when Jesus was present with the people without having to be physically there with them. One of them could be in Matthew 25:40, where it says, “I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.” So, we are encouraged as Christians to see the face of Christ in our neighbours, in people often overlooked, or ignored, in stories of the stranger, and those who are sick or in need. We are encouraged to see Christ virtually among us, and share the love of Christ and God with one another, knowing that when we do, God is there.
For our grad projects at AST we were invited to do qualitative research, using one-on-one interviews, on a topic of our choice. I wanted to learn about peoples’ experiences of Christian community in online spaces. That was my research question, and I kept it broad in the hopes to learn as much as I could from the widest range of experiences and perspectives possible.
Before I did this research I had heard critiques about online communities and how they do not provide enough chances for personal connection, or getting to know one another or being known. But as I learned, through the theological background research for this project and from the stories that participants shared, it is possible, and has been evident throughout many stories of faith, of relationship, of love of God and one another.
So, is there more to this story? More to why online community isn’t sufficient in some cases and maybe more than sufficient in other cases? What elements could have an impact on why?
Well, I set out to learn more. I conducted 18 interviews, primarily one-on-one, with people representing eight Christian communities – five fully online and three hybrid communities. There was diversity and distinction within peoples’ experiences of Christian community online, but primarily people felt connection and belonging across the board. What seemed to make the biggest difference was the ability to interact and participate actively in the work and gathering of the community, whether online, in person, or hybrid.
So, it was not the format used, but the way that format is used. When intentional, equitable, and participatory gatherings and community are fostered, then connection and belonging lead to experiences like one participant shared about: “I have been in churches since I was 16 years old, and this is the first time I have felt truly, genuinely precious to a community, genuinely appreciated and heard, and I love that about them.” When any of those elements are less focused on, for whatever the reasons, which tended to happen in more hybrid communities where different ways of participating are common in many cases, the connection was still meaningful, and genuine gratitude felt, it seemed, but there was also something missing.
When it comes to belonging, to feeling connected, I heard that hybrid and online formats both allowed many who have felt disconnected in the past to feel connection and belonging within a Christian community. For some though, the online format was seen as more possible in an ongoingway whereas the hybrid model felt temporary or not enough in their current format.
Implications: There are many people who found the temples inaccessible in Jesus’ time and before, and that continues to be a problem facing Christian communities today. However, it does not have to be. Within this broader understanding of Christian community and the space it can take within our lives, without having to occupy a physical and inaccessible space, comes more possibilities for people to not just take part but even be in leadership. This concept shows that Christian communities aren’t necessarily declining so much as being invited into new spaces by the Holy spirit, as Jesus and the Holy Spirit show examples of throughout the Bible.
Christian community in online spaces is possible, and quite meaningful to many. It cannot be confined, as one participant points out. This is yet another chance for the spirit to work within our communities, to be a part of the embodied work of Christ in the world, and to deepen our relationships with the Divine.
Physical stuff: Investing in equipment, in people, in relationship-building and maintaining is important. Especially in online communities.
Justice: Accessibility, inclusion, and the overall reach to people who may be unable to connect with a community otherwise are key justice issues.
Participation: One of the core components that makes meaningful online Christian community most possible for folx is the ability to interact and to participate in the wider work of the community. This seems to be what takes it from being what some consider insufficient to being sufficient, more than sufficient, or even special. (And, according to some participants, more special than they had ever experienced before.)
All three of these implications – physical issues, justice, and participation – have an integral part in the conversations we will have as denominations and faith communities, as we look at ways communities can grow, adapt, build, or even form, as some denominations like the UCC have shared they are dedicating time and money to the formation of new faith communities.
I hope we will really look at how these different models of Christian community can be counted, fostered, and defined (eg. parameters around membership) so that the reach of the community could be explored further.
I know the level of technology and finances is not equitable across churches, so I pose this question back to you, as an invitation: Where do you see your communities of faith being invited into something new by the Holy Spirit, what might it look like for your community to RSVP Yes?