12 July 2009

Communication without community

In a recent post Bishop Alan’s Blog: Why ordination? Why today? Bishop Alan quotes an author, Eugene H. Peterson as saying:
The pastors of America have metamorphosed into a company of shop-keepers, and the shops they keep are churches. They are preoccupied with shop-keepers’ concerns — how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money.

Some of them are very good shopkeepers. They attract a lot of customers, pull in great sums of money, develop splendid reputations. Yet it is still shop-keeping; religious shop-keeping, to be sure, but shop-keeping all the same... “A walloping great congregation is fine, and fun,” says Martin Thornton, “but what most communities really need is a couple of saints. The tragedy is that they may well be there in embryo, waiting to be discovered, waiting for sound training, waiting to be emancipated from the cult of the mediocre.”

The biblical fact is that there are no successful churches. There are, instead, communities of sinners, gathered before God week after week in towns and villages all over the world. The Holy Spirit gathers them and does his work in them.

And one of Bishop Alan's blogging friends, Simple Massing Priest, responded to this thus:
I've said before that statistics only tell you what they tell you and that's all they tell you. Thus statistics about average Sunday attendance or giving by members do tell you something about the vitality of a congregation. But what they're telling isn't always clear. And even when it's clear, it may not be important.

If only we could find some discrete statistical way to quantify the transforming work of the Holy Spirit in the life of a community and in the lives of individuals.

He goes on, however, in another post Simple Massing Priest: The Great Heresy(ies) to say:
Historically, Catholic Christianity has always seen the collective expression of the Body of Christ - that is to say the Church - as important. While never denying the importance of individual faith, individual devotion and individual piety, a Christian is properly a Christian because they are part of Christ's Body, the Church. To treat Christian faith as being an entirely individual undertaking - as seems altogether too common in some circles - is manifestly heretical. The Ethiopian eunuch came to believe as an individual, but it was baptism by Philip which grafted him into the Church. The lot fell on Matthias as an individual, but his Apostolic authority came from being 'added to the eleven Apostles.'

Now, I agree that there is, as always, a polar opposite heresy - the heresy that would emphasize the collective to the exclusion, diminution and discarding of the individual. That heresy might take many forms, but it would certainly be a heresy.

Individualism and collectivism are both Western heresies, or perhaps I should say heresies of Western modernity. And they are both related to (and are perhaps the root of) the obsession with counting, and the idea that if things are not numerically quantifiable, they aren't worth bothering with. Things must be "measurable", and this is often used as a kind of label of approval. "Measurable" is an epithet tagged on to things to make us think that they must be good.

The Orthodox theologian Christos Yannaras has a different take on it

In everyday speech we tend to distort the meaning of the word 'person'. What we call 'person' or 'personal' designates rather more the individual. We have grown accustomed to regarding the terms 'person' and 'individual' as virtually synonymous, and we use the two indifferently to express the same thing. From one point of view, however, 'person' and 'individual' are opposite in meaning. The individual is the
denial or neglect of the distinctiveness of the person, the attempt to define human existence using the objective properties of man's common nature, and quantitative
comparisons and analogies. Chiefly in the field of sociology and politics the human being is frequently identified with the idea of numerical individuality. Sometimes this rationalistic process of leveling out is considered progress, since it helps
to make the organization of society more efficient.

One manifestation of this, especially in America, is the failure to understand objections to attempts to expunge the inclusive use of the word "man" from our vocabulary. Some people insist that "man" must refer exclusively to males, and ought not, indeed cannot, include females.

They would demand that the word "man" be removed from a phrase like "reconciliation between God and man, and man and man" and replaced with some impersonal abstract collective term like "humanity", and fail to see that this changes the meaning, and the reason they fail to see this is because they cannot see the distinction between individuals and persons.

In part this is because a a deficiency in the English language. Other languages have different terms for a person of either sex and a male person. Greek has anthropos and aner, Latin has homo and vir, Zulu has umuntu and indoda, but English has to make do with "man" and "man". Zulu even has a saying umuntu ungumuntu ngabantu -- "a person is a person because of people". But because Western modernity prefers to see things that are quantifiable and countable, the idea that persons need communities in order to be persons at all seems quite alien. The Orthodox anthropology that Yannaras describes is communitarian rather than aligned with Western individualism or collectivism -- and I've discussed the economic ramifications of that in another post.

However, another blogging friend, Dion's random ramblings, writes about using social media:
Build a wide range of relationships. This is where twitter and facebook come in. The intention of these relationships is the create opportunities to interact around common interests and concerns, and particularly to drive traffic to my content! I cannot emphasize this last point strongly enough!

As should be apparent from my previous post, I have grave reservations about simply "driving traffic" without being concerned with the quality of the traffic. For example, on Blog Catalog I have 8 friends. They are people I have interacted with, either face-to-face or online. There are many more who have said that they want to be my "friend", but they haven't bothered to read any of my blogs. What kind of idea of friendship is this?

As one writer put it, we live in an age of communication without community. People say that they want to be our "friends", but they don't want to talk to us, or exchange ideas. A person is a person because of people, but in individual is an individual in isolation from other people. Occasionally feral children have been found, children that were lost and brought up by animals, and they find it very difficult to interact with other people. They may be individuals, but they find it very difficult to become persons till they have faces, and some people don't seem to want to have faces. Faces have been replaced by "avatars" and "personas".


James Higham said...

If only we could find some discrete statistical way to quantify the transforming work of the Holy Spirit in the life of a community and in the lives of individuals.

The church is not bricks and mortar and statistics on attendances. It is the loose collection of individuals bound by their commitment to the Trinity.

Tauratinswe said...

James gets to the real issue in his comment. We in the west, particularly in the U.S. churches, are preoccupied with quantifying everything. More and bigger is better. However, God seems to be more interested in quality. The fruit of the Spirit can't be counted, it can only be experienced in the quality of life produced.

Steve Hayes said...

James and Tauratinzwe,

I think the bloke who wrote about quantifying the work of the Holy Spirit was being ironical about that, and would no doubt agree with you.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
digitaldion (Dion Forster) said...

Hi Steve,

Thanks for the thought provoking post!

I agree that relationships are more important than traffic (particularly for those who seek to use communication technology and social networks to be in ministry). However, I also think that it is worthwhile having a good balance between relationships and traffic.

At the end of the day my intent in using new media (twitter, facebook, blogs, qik video etc.) is to create places and moments of engagement towards a specific goal. In my case the goal is to engage people on the values and principles of the Kingdom of God so that society can be transformed. This task requires a fair measure of 'reach' and influence.

I think it is quite akin to the paradigm shift that is taking place in information processing - we need to move from lots of followers with no engagement, to a sizeable number of sincere and engaged relationships.

Rich blessing from a very wet Cape Town!

(as always, I am grateful for the linkback you've given!)

Donna Farley said...

Dn. Steve, you are right to be concerned about the 'quality' of traffic driven to your site...viz. 'tagskie's profile in the 'dropping-by' comment above....you may want to enable comments moderation!

having said that, I hope I can drive some traffic here by posting a FB link and tagging some friends/acquaintances/contacts there who I think would find this particular post very interesting, as do I....

Steve Hayes said...


I removed tagskie's comment before reading yours, so I have no idea what his profile looks like. But yes, that is the kind of thing I had in mind, though such irrelevant comments seem to be relatively rare here, and are automatically marked as spam in WordPress. I usually do indicate in Facebook (via Twitter) when I've posted something new on one of my blogs.


In what I wrote about "driving traffic" I particularly had in mind the "TrafficG" site I referred to my in previous post. Perhaps I should not have deleted the comment by "tagskie", as it is a perfect illustration of the kind of thing I am talking about.

Matthew Tripp said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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