By Matthew Messenger, a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary.
In Beyond the Screen, Andrew Zirschky lays out his argument that teenagers are not addicted to new flashy technology to the exclusion of physical relationships, but rather, like the rest of us, are looking for deeper, more intimate relationships with other people. Those people just might not be in the same room. More on that in a bit. Over the course of the book, he explores the psychology behind relationships and the meaning of presence both in the digital sense and physical sense. He translates the psychology into a discussion of networks and groups and how those relationships look and act. He draws a comparison to Paul’s theology of koinonia and how that provides a model for youth ministry, or really, ministry in general.
So, full disclosure: I’ve spent a fair amount of time working with youth in the various Boy Scout programs and in the church. The thing I’ve learned is the same thing that Zirschky argues up front. It’s not the technology that people want; it’s the community. Campfires are as old as it gets and we still hang out around them, talking, entertaining each other, and being with each other. So how does this relate to Zirschky’s argument of the relationships not being in the same room? He argues that between social media and texting, youth are having a conversation with each other and are maintaining a networked existence between the various groups and other interactions in their lives. He describes it as a carefully curated existence and to be sure, it truly is.
Zirschky is arguing that all of this connection seeking with other people and communications that span from physical to digital and back again, are symptomatic of a search for true belonging. He argues that we find that sense of true belonging in koinonia. For those of you that have not had the luxury of taking Greek, koinonia is where we derive the word “Community”. More important to the argument though it also means fellowship, and communion. For me, this is where Zirschky’s argument really comes alive. Communion, he argues, was and is more than a quick sharing of some wine and bread, it was how the early church determined how they lived and interacted with the world around them. (see Acts 2:42 for more details). So, at the end of it all, no one cares about your flashy sanctuary or million dollar sound system. They are neat toys, and fun to play with, but frankly (and in your heart of hearts, you know its true) the toys get boring. The tools and toys are great but they are not a substitute for being present in someone’s life. Koinonia isn’t just a word or a concept, but a call to a way of being present with each other, where each person is valued for who they are, and not for what they bring to the table.
We want to be in community with each other. We don’t always do it, but it seems pretty clear that we want it. But being in communion, being present for and being in one another, that’s even harder work than just being in community. Zirschky states that koinonia was the social operating system of the church and should be again. It gives us a model for how we are to interact with each other. Bruce Reyes-Chow sums it up in his benediction:
“See one another
Hear one another
Care for one another
And love one another
It’s all that easy
And it’s all that hard”
So what does this mean for me in my practice of ministry? Keep remembering to be present in people’s lives. Set boundaries, because boundaries are healthy, but be present. Love is a verb; continue to practice it. Recognize the imago dei in each person. Love everyone. It’s all that easy, and it’s all that hard.