Category Archives: Post-Congregational Evangelism

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.

Spiritual Leadership “In Cathedral”

the digital cathedralBy John W. Vest, Visiting Assistant Professor of Evangelism at Union Presbyterian Seminary.

As we explore what it means to be spiritual leaders in a post-Christendom culture in my Post-Congregational Evangelism class, we read Keith Anderson’s fantastic book, The Digital Cathedral: Networked Ministry in a Wireless World.

People say this all the time, but this is the book I have wanted to write for the past few years. I would have approached it differently, of course, but I love how he stretches our notions of traditional church from a congregational model into a more expansive “cathedral” model that recognizes the necessity of ministry outside of our church walls. As a pastor in a brick-and-mortar church who very intentionally ventures out into public and digital spaces, Anderson himself demonstrates that this doesn’t need to be an either/or proposition—a both/and approach is possible for existing and new congregations.

My only real criticism of the book is its title. “The Digital Cathedral” (and its subtitle) makes this sound like a book primarily about using digital social media technology for ministry, which I fear will limit the audience for a book that needs to be read by everyone interested in what church can (and increasingly does) look like in today’s world. Digital culture is only one piece of the bigger picture Anderson paints. He regularly emphasizes the need for both local and digital ministry and understands that the network paradigm is not just about social media platforms but is increasingly the organizing principle of our entire social lives.

Building on the witty and evocative phrase coined by Elizabeth Drescher, which he employs throughout the book, I wish Anderson had called it In Cathedral. This generative metaphor for relational and incarnational ministry in a networked world opens up many possibilities for reimagining and reshaping church in the cultural spaces in which people actually live. Instead of setting apart certain spaces as sacred, living in cathedral recognizes God’s presence in everyday life. Spiritual leadership is helping people see this and live in the world accordingly.

Once again, I invite you to read the thoughtful reflections—and critiques—of the students in this class. They accept Anderson’s challenge to think differently and run with it.

Post-Christendom Reflections on Seth Godin’s Tribes

tribesBy John W. Vest, Visiting Assistant Professor of Evangelism at Union Presbyterian Seminary.

One of the assignments in my Post-Congregational Evangelism class this week was to read Seth Godin’s Tribes and then answer the following question: What does spiritual leadership look like in a post-Christendom environment of fewer congregations, shrinking memberships, and limited jobs in established churches?

Godin argues that in today’s world credentials and titles are less important than they used to be. Leadership is not given, it is asserted. Everyone has the potential to gather and lead a tribe. I think this is an important insight for future (and current) faith leaders who can no longer expect a traditional church job when they earn their degree and are ready to receive a call. Post-Christendom ministry requires the kind of visionary, entrepreneurial, and heretical leadership described by Godin.

My students have written fantastic essays in response to this prompt. I encourage you to read them all.


Post-Congregational Evangelism

Grouped-Social Network (with Caption)By John W. Vest, Visiting Assistant Professor of Evangelism at Union Presbyterian Seminary.

This week I began a new course at UPSem called “Post-Congregational Evangelism.” It brings together much of the theory and practice I first explored as a youth pastor and have subsequently presented in a variety of workshops around the country. Here is the course description:

Are congregations based on anachronistic social capital models? Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman suggest that “networked individualism” is the “new social operating system” of the 21st century. Instead of focusing exclusively on attractional or program-based approaches to ministry that will have limited results in a post-Christendom cultural matrix that we cannot realistically hope to change, the church must also invest in the religious and spiritual lives that people are actively cultivating beyond congregations. This course will explore this new cultural reality and the practical implications of thinking about church as a social network. If people are no longer interested in going to church, the church must find ways of going to the people.

Here are the books we’re reading together, in the order we’re reading them:

Students will be writing reviews and reflections on these books throughout the course and I will be posting them on this blog. I hope to also make additional posts myself to provide some sense of the trajectory we are following. I am very excited about teaching this class.

If you would like to see the full syllabus, you can download it here.