There's no substitution for authentic community
I have serious concerns with online social networks, and even more with Christian online social networks. I'm all for redeeming technology and leveraging its potential to deliver the good news of Jesus—and the ease and excitement of online ministry/community is understandable. But I'm concerned that too much emphasis is being put on building community online as a substitute for building community offline.
If ever there was a buzzword for the past several years that the church—myself included—has been in love with, it would be community. And rightly so: Community is desperately lacking. Today, 1 in every 4 U.S. households has just one person living there. In 1950, it was 1 in 10. So while we may be more connected than ever before, we're also more detached than ever.
What's my beef, then, with online social networks? Perhaps the biggest issue I have with Christian ones is that they're following the exact same path churches have been on for 2,000 years. Instead of churches permeating culture, we've created our own. We've taken the idea of church and made it a place instead of a presence. An ekklesia or "calling out" was never to be a detachment from culture (let's go meet in our own buildings), but rather a response in the midst of culture (let's be the church right here).
My point is that "Christian" online social networks are hardly any different from offline clubs like so many of the "Christian" buildings we meet in every weekend. They may be safe, family-friendly and even entertaining, but I've got to think there is more to life—and to God's kingdom—than that.
Moving Too Fast
I have two friends who shared a similar experience with an online matchmaking site. They both found online matches and enjoyed about nine months of dating before both couples broke up. Because of the computer-generated compatibility function, when each couple met for the first time both persons assumed they knew each other—yet they hadn't built community the way we are wired to. When things are moving that fast, someone is bound to throw up a flag and say, "Slow down!"
I'm not against matchmaking sites, but I am concerned that we let the illusion of social connection replace our ability to truly connect. I understand people chat online and swap information, but that's hardly transformation. I'd argue that the people who have a deep connection to others online have been or are in deep offline relationships with those people too.
Building the Real Thing
I'm not starting a campaign to shut down social networking sites; I'm just passionate about seeing real community. One experiment currently underway is at ROOV.com, where the creators are trying to get people online to meet offline. ROOV doesn't have profile pages or picture uploads or status updates. It's simply connecting people with similar interests to get them to meet offline. Rather than fast-forwarding through the fundamentals of community, they're interested in truly building it.
Let's stop building Christian bubbles and artificial community groups. Let's regulate our drooling over technology's capabilities and pray for our hearts to be broken for people who lack community. Let's put down our iPhones, get away from the computer and go build some deep relationships. Life on life. Seems to me a man about 2,000 years ago did that with 12 people ... and the world hasn't been the same since.
BRAD ABARE is director of communications for the Foursquare denomination and founder of the Center for Church Communication.