Beyond the Congregation: Koinonia in a Networked World

beyond the screenBy John W. Vest, Visiting Assistant Professor of Evangelism at Union Presbyterian Seminary.

Andrew Zirschky’s excellent book, Beyond the Screen: Youth Ministry for the Connected But Alone Generation, was a perfect follow-up to our study of Keith Anderson’s The Digital Cathedral in our Post-Congregational Evangelism class at UPSem. Though he ultimately ends up in a similar place as Anderson—technology and social media are important ways in which to nurture Christian community—he maintains a more critical stance toward digital culture than Anderson does—or I do, for that matter. (It’s worth reading Anderson’s review of Zirschky’s book here.) As such, this book provides some counterbalance to the thesis I have been advocating in this class: in a networked world and a culture in which fewer and fewer people are participating in traditional forms of congregational life, the church must find ways of existing in the social and cultural spaces in which people actually live. While I tend to run headlong into this new mission frontier, Zirschky takes a more cautious and critical approach.

First, especially as someone passionate about youth ministry, let me say that Beyond the Screen is a must read book for those who still think that the use of technology and social media among youth is always superficial and comes at the expense of more substantive in-person interactions. Zirschky deftly demonstrates that social media and mobile technologies enable teens to experience what they truly want and need in our fragmented world: authentic and meaningful relationships.

Zirschky and I differ a bit when it comes to our understandings of networked culture. Building on the work of Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman in Networked, Zirschky notes that “networked individualism” is the “new social operating system” of the 21st century. Though Rainie and Wellman mostly champion the positive aspects of this new way of relating to others, Zirschky offers a moral critique of this way of being in the world and argues that it is at odds with the biblical and theological concept of koinonia—a Greek word meaning “communion” or “fellowship”, understood as God’s ideal vision of human community. While he notes that it doesn’t make sense to abandon technology and digital culture in ministry, Zirschky is nonetheless wary of the dangers of networked individualism.

I think Zirschky’s points are all valid, but I see networked individualism differently. Instead of approaching it in terms of value judgements, I think of networked individualism in more structural terms. Neither right nor wrong, this is simply the way social connectivity has evolved in our present cultural context. In one form or another, the negative elements Zirschky describes existed in previous social operating systems as well. Some of them may be amplified in our networked culture, but they’ve always been there.

In the same way, koinonia can exist in networked culture as much as in any other social operating system. This, I would argue, is the goal of evangelism and ministry in today’s world—embodying koinonia in our personal and shared social networks. This can happen in traditional congregations, but it will increasingly happen in culture spaces beyond the congregation.

This is what I think. Follow the links below to read what my students had to say. As you will see, they are developing faithful and nuanced approaches to ministry in our rapidly changing world.

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