Saturday, March 20, 2010

Thy Kingdom Connected

So, this post is a much belated review of Dwight Friesen's Thy Kingdom Connected.

But first, a story.

I found out about the earthquake in Haiti via Facebook. Within a very few hours after the quake hit, my Facebook home page was filled with news accounts of the severity of the quake, and pretty soon thereafter, my Twitter feed was full, as well. Folks started re-tweeting other folks who were actually on the ground in Haiti, and I started following @lightxxx, @shaunking, and @firesideint on the off chance that maybe I could do something to help them. Then, a friend in Texas posted a story on Facebook about Crisis Camp, a loose network of IT folks who had banded together to do whatever they could to help Haiti, including working on online maps and setting up communications networks. I reposted the story. Then a few days later someone from my church posted to our church listserv about a Crisis Camp gathering in DC. I reposted that on Facebook, and a couple of my former students challenged me –again, on Facebook—to go to this Crisis Camp gathering myself. I considered myself appropriately chastened and went.

During the introductory session, a fellow from World Bank stood up and talked about a project they were doing to map the locations of schools that had been destroyed. This reminded me of a string of tweets from @firesideint (Luke Renner), where he had been collecting coordinates of destroyed schools. I had been watching YouTube videos that he’d uploaded of destroyed schools not 2-3 days before this. So I emailed the Crisis Camp listserv after the event, and was very quickly directed to two other listservs, where I also posted. A man in France volunteered to post Luke’s coordinates to the OpenStreetMaps, so I Direct Messaged (DMed) Luke, told him about this, and he got back to me with a file which the French guy uploaded. In the flurry of emails that went back and forth, the head of the World Bank project called me on the phone and we talked about Luke’s information.

Here’s my point with this story: the use of social media –particularly Twitter—in generating solutions for Haiti has been *unbelievable*. From Shaun King mobilizing the collection and shipping of hundreds of tents to Haiti to Luke Renner’s current push on Twitter to bring in shipping containers as a more permanent housing solution to tents, Twitter has been used to mobilize people and resources –and to connect people WITHIN Haiti—more than I think anyone would have ever predicted. My own experience as a very, very small connector within this much larger process was almost entirely due to communications over the internet. My access through online media to folks in NGOs and even the World Bank in this situation busted apart both my notions of the power of the ordinary person and the limitations of technology within a third world context. For a little while, anyway, the world really *did* seem flat.

Now, a word from Dwight Friesen:

“And what we’re discovering and beginning to understand more fully today than at any other time in recorded history is that who you are, how you live, and what you do impacts every other living being and living system on the earth.” Thy Kingdom Connected P. 66

In Thy Kingdom Connected, Friesen explores in some depth the interrelated phenomena of the boom in social networking and the way that social organization and relationships are changing. His assertion is that the profoundly interconnected nature and flat organizational structure of the internet and social networking is changing the very nature of social interaction, and therefore should translate to a change in how churches structure themselves and in how they approach leadership.

In my experience and in reading I’ve done, most folks who have grown up “churched” have grown up with a model where there are clear lines of authority and clear boundaries around group identity. My parents were basically hippies with an attachment to Reformed theology (yes, those two things *can* go together) who helped found a church with a bunch of their high school friends, but even they had a model of church with a clear (male) leader, a Presbyterian form of government, and adherence to creeds. Without some form of ecclesial structure, and without adherence to creeds/statements of faith/theological systems, how could you have church?

But what *is* a church, really? Is it the system of government, creeds and confessions that define a church? Does that model of church make any sense at all to folks who are in constant contact with people all over the world via social networking, exchanging ideas and being influenced *perpetually* by those whose ideas, background, and social standing may be very different from their own? Is it possible that, for someone steeped in the culture of social networking, a “church” in the conventional model may seem a social contrivance at best and outright hostility to culture at worst?

“What might it look like for your faith community to begin thinking of itself as a resource center whose primary goal is to develop relationships with those people you’re connected with? What might it look like to reorient your energies around connecting them with the very best resources at your disposal in order to help them thrive in their area(s) of passion?” p. 101

In other words, what if your church were more like Facebook?

And have you considered that you might be having *church* on Facebook already?

We’re all familiar with folks lamenting how social networking is addictive; how it distances us from one another, shortens our attention spans and makes us terminally shallow. I know that there’s a part of me that feels like a big ol’ loser every time I lose hours to Facebook… or even worse, to Facebook-Twitter-Gmail-Facebook-Yahoo Mail-Facebook-Twitter-Facebook. Self-deprecation aside, though, most of the folks I’m in regular contact with online are Christians, and we are often talking theology, directly and indirectly. I’m praying for folks in my Twitter stream almost every day, and when I recently had an urgent prayer request, where did I go? Twitter. And folks prayed. Immediately.

While I wouldn’t want my entire interaction with Christians to be online, I am changed by the amount of time I relate to people online, as is practically everyone I know. We have different ideas than we would have otherwise. We see possibilities where we wouldn’t have seen them before, and we have resources that we never would have had without our online contacts. If the rest of our lives consist of this rapid-fire connecting and networking with others, it would a) be artificial to ask folks to act like this isn’t changing how they relate to people socially and b) foolish for the church to not use the networks and resources opened up by social media to their benefit.

Friesen proposes a model for church organization, based on network theory, that he calls “Christ-clusters”: “a relational grouping of people who are responsible for discrete, Holy Spirit-guided and cluster-determined cellular functions,” “a dynamic, communal expression of God’s good news that finds tangible expression in service, justice, and love” (p. 121), where “God is the center and participating shaper of these social constructs.” (p. 124) The focus in these “clusters” is on more flat, consensus-based leadership structures that spend considerable time in the discernment of God’s Will for this body and less time ensuring adherence to the implementation of the “vision” of church leaders and/or the maintenance of existing liturgical practices.

He’s not suggesting utter chaos, though. On the contrary, he asserts that “the church is people, but it is our shared language, practices, and narratives that actually knit the people together” (p. 151) and that “wise pastors and ministry leaders will help form a close, differentiated community that is unique from other communities (lest it cease to be a community at all).” (p. 152) The key is not that there be *no* doctrine or practice… you really do lose church when you don’t even know what you believe… but that there be more openness to God’s will for the group, to connections that exist outside the group, and to dissension within the group. Friesen sees the effective church leader as fostering a balance between chaos and stasis… in other words, the ideal conditions for the growth of any organism.

A possible criticism of this book is that it will seem dated quickly. Social networking can seem like a fad, and anyone takes a risk when they try to describe history while sitting in the middle of it. That being said, Friesen’s book is a challenge to the church to do a better job of just that… discerning the times and not making the mistake of assuming that God *isn’t* behind current trends or can’t be glorified through them. It may be time for church leaders to stop trying to design “programs” to “attract the younger generation” or to dismiss phenomena such as the emergent church as a fad that is waning. There is a true sea change afoot in the way social systems organize, and it is high time to seriously consider the implications of this for ecclesial structures.

1 comment:

Craig Frogale said...

I hope technology continues to allow the church and the whole world to openly exchange ideas in a way that both honors tradition and encourages growth. I wish this all could have happened sooner. Maybe then the church could have avoided developing such an inbreed and out of touch subculture full of smother mothers and grown men in boy scout uniforms. For God's sake, somebody open the windows in here!!