Scot McKnight on "Virtual Community"
A response to Shane Hipps video from NPC.

Thanks for your video, Shane. Your point about not equating virtual community (grant me the term for the moment) with real community is one that needs to be heard. But, I'm not so sure it is this simple...

First, as a blogger who has what I have sometimes called the Jesus Creed "community," I do think there are some senses in which community is apt. For some, this is about the only "community" with Christians they can right now have. I honor that. For others it is therapeutic to dance, as it were, at a distance – not the complete thing, of course, but still participating in some dimensions of community. And there is another dimension: there are clearly dimensions of fellowship at work in blog communities. Never the whole, but some. And that needs to be considered for what it really is.

But now something perhaps more significant: by shrinking community to embodied community I wonder if we have written "communion of the saints" (a community) off the map. Isn't there something eternal, something spiritual, and something profoundly true that all Christians of all ages and of all locations are in communion with one another?

This means it may be appropriate to refer to internet communities as a participation in the communion of the saints (I have experienced this with some folks whom I've gotten to know at some levels via internet and via e-mails and via parcel post letters) and as virtual communities.

I would agree with you that some substitute virtual for real at their own loss; I would also agree that some think they are the same. But I wonder if it is not swinging too far the other way to deny the word community to what can happen – palpably so for many – in cyberspace.

Come to think of it, I wonder if you might just provide for us a full definition of "community." Do you mean "ecclesia" or "koininia" or something else?

February 16, 2009

Displaying 1–10 of 17 comments


February 20, 2009  11:58pm

Scot's got it right in my view. If real discussion rarely happens in most evangelical (fundamentalist) churches or communities, why challenge that kind of give and take online? Better to have two or three gathered together speaking honestly and freely online rather than a thousand trying to make their round lives fit into a square hole.

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February 20, 2009  12:32pm

It hit me as I read this today that we use words to connect, and that to the extent we honestly invest self – sometimes including a dimension of transparency and vulnerability – we are hitting at the dimension of spirit and incarnation. Word and Spirit.. "the two hands of the Father." So is this discussion really asking to be grounded in theological anthropology? And until we do that work are we just pinging off the walls about what it means to be in communion? Could it be that Spirit invests our communication with truth and meaning in ways that transcend the medium?

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Adam S

February 20, 2009  11:13am

I am not sure what the magic is with the word "community" for Shane. What is important for the Christian is the word "Body". I and Shane are both part of the body of Christ. As David Swanson said, we can find encouragement, intellectual challenge and friendship through an online experience. To me that means I am developing community through that online experience. Most of the time, that online experience is a supplement to an "in person" experience. But sometimes is it not. Those times it is not, the other person (presuming they are a Christian) is still part of the body of Christ. So I don't really understand Shane's problem with the word community being applied to online relationships. I am sure that he does not mean that we can not experience the body of Christ through online relationships. If he allows for that, then we are in fact being incarnational through an online experience. Will it be the same incarnational experience that occurs in a face to face meeting? Of course not, but any time you change the method of communication there is a difference. Paul, at the time of his letter to the Romans, had not been to Rome and met them in person. So by Shane's definition he had not formed community with them. But he was part of the body of Christ with them, which is way more important. I guess I just don't understand Shane's problem with online community.

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February 20, 2009  11:01am

I'd like to take Shane's side of this discussion. Is technology completely neutral? If you have children, let them watch TV for an hour or two and then turn it off. You'll have experienced comments like, "I"m bored dad." or "Now what am I suppose to do?". These are common responses. In fact, I remember that I did the same thing to my parents just about every Saturday morning after Scooby Doo was over and I had to turn off the TV. Here's my point. What is that about? Madeliene L'Engle says the key to successful living is learning to ask the right questions. Marshal McLuhan, a guide to Shane's book "The Hidden Power of Electronic Media", uses the story of Narcissus. Only McLuhan's take on the story is different than that of Freud who came up with the term narcissism to describe extreme levels of self-interest. McLuhan argues that Narcissus failed to recognize his own reflection in the fountain. He became absorbed with the medium. Narcissus was numbed by the medium - consumed by the technology. Shane argues that when we become aware of the ways that technology serve as extensions (or reflections) of ourselves, much of their power is dispelled. We return to being owners of technology and not servants of it. (The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture pg37). Don't believe it? Try living without your cell phone for a day. Why is it that studies show people are more likely to get in an accident when having a conversation on a cell phone while they are driving? Millions of us have conversations with people who are in the car with us all the time without incident. What is different about talking on a cell phone versus in person? These are healthy questions that we should be asking about the medium of the Web 2.0. I love the internet and email in particular. Yet, I realized this last year that I was avoiding calling people in favor of sending them an email. Email had created this comfort level in me that had diminished my willingness to confront people in person. It's not an either/or proposition. It's an invitation to use our imagination and to maintain control of our lives - our minds. Well, that's my short electronic blog thought.

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David Swanson

February 19, 2009  5:17pm

Andy, I think your examples are helpful. Can we say that these forms of communication have many benefits (encouragement, intellectual challenge, friendship, etc) without saying they provide community? Or, would you want to say that community is possible through these forms of communication without having face-to-face interaction?

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Andy Rowell

February 19, 2009  9:52am

I think if Shane is urging us not to make online community our sole connection or primary connection, I can accept some of his critique. I go to a church and participate in a small group–those give me things I can't get online. Perhaps that is Shane's modest point–he is worried about people making their primary and sole church an online community. But this is like saying people should not make the radio preacher their only preacher or Christian books their only source of Christian fellowship. Most people see online connecting as supplemental community and I think they find often find it and that is a good thing. C.S. Lewis exchanged letters with his future wife Joy Davidman after she read his books. Maybe we should avoid books because they are not being fully embodied; if you want to communicate with someone, the only appropriate way is to do it in the flesh. How is letter-writing not the same as connecting with people on a blog like Out of Ur or Facebook or Twitter? I think very highly of David Swanson who commented above though we have never met because we comment on each others' blogs and here at Out of Ur and talk back and forth on Twitter. He has sharpened me and I have sharpened him. Paul wrote a letter to the Romans who he had never met. Did he have shared background, future, proximity or goals? Well sort of. Again, I want to know how this is different from online connecting. If you don't like online connecting, don't do it. But for many it is edifying. To say that online connecting does not attain the quality of the best church communities, is not saying much.

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John Chiarello

February 19, 2009  6:42am

I agree While true community entails actually 'getting together bodily' yet Paul himself would say 'being absent in body, but present in spirit' while ceratainly not advocating some type of new age out of body experience, he did not limit 'being present'-form of community, as having to physicaly 'be there'.

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Nate Woodward

February 17, 2009  6:38pm

I'm not sure how anonymity and distance goes on the "pro" side of virtual community, without it confirming Shane's point that it is either virtual or community. I think Shane's strongest point is that the gospel is incarnate, enfleshed, and that online forums are by definition de-carnate, de-fleshed. This is the best explanation of why I am intuitively uncomfortable with cyber- or tele-congregations.

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Robert Martin

February 17, 2009  1:29pm

We JUST had this discussion in our Missional Church class yesterday afternoon at Biblical Seminary ( We kind of concluded that there are both pros and cons to "virtual" community. On the pro side, it allows for that anonymity and distance that people who have received hurt in the past from the Christian community can interact and feel protected. At the same time, that mask can get in the way of having true fellowship with people and can reduce trust ("Is this person I'm talking to REALLY like that or are they just acting?"). I look forward to more conversation on this topic.

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David Swanson

February 17, 2009  9:19am

I think I understand where Scot is coming from here. There are certain internet outposts (Scot's blog being a prime example) that have fostered relationships, conversation, and spiritual growth. However, I think Shane is correct to question whether these elements add up to community. It seems that Christian community must always be embodied; our physical selves must be in proximity with one another. Once this physicality is removed, we are more able to pick and choose how we engage with each other. Community requires that we relinquish this choice. Ultimately I am not the only one who decides who I experience community with. To be in community with others means that we experience the frustrations of our humanity that emerge when life is done together. This doesn't diminish expressions of the communion of saints provided by new technologies. My concern is that these online communities distract us from the difficult task of worship, service, submission, etc that can only be done in person.

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