Remember when the term "community" had some clearly defined characteristics? Whether it was a neighborhood, an ethnic group, or a church community, we spent time together--face to face time. And that time was important--it helped define who we were, how we fit, and what was expected. I grew up at First Baptist Church of Coon Rapids, a small church in a small suburb of Minneapolis. That church was my community. It was made up of old and young men who always seem to be sipping a hot cup of coffee, church ladies who kept their eyes on every kid that ran through the speckled, vinyl floored hallways, and families who shared a long-term, deep-felt commitment to one another. That community taught me how to be a Christian, they encouraged me as I went away to school, and they supported me as I went through very difficult journeys with a handicapped child. Even though I am no longer part of that church, I still identify with the community--they are part of who I am. In fact, they helped make me into who I am.
The question I have been contemplating lately is how has technology changed how we define and experience community? Shane Hipps, in his book entitled The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture: How Media Shapes Faith, the Gospel, and Church, describes how tools like Facebook, blogs, and chat rooms have created a sort of "cotton candy community...it goes down easy and satiates our immediate hunger, but doesn't provide much in the way of sustainable nutrition. It spoils our appetite for the kind of authentic community to which scripture calls us" (p. 111). True community involves permanence, proximity, and can not be based on "intimate anonymity". Hipp also says that true community is full of diversity and conflict. If we can't figure out how to work through difficulty, we can never really be close to each other.
So think about how the technology our kids use may be reshaping their experience of community. First of all, the idea of "place" has certainly changed. Kids feel more comfortable talking on cell phones and computers than in engaging the people sitting next to them. The idea of being together in a physical space has more power than we probably understand. Conflict has also changed. It is much easier to hit and run with a text message or a Facebook comment than to sit down and actually work out differences. Conflict has become more a means of expressing rage and negative emotion than a means of building cohesiveness and understanding in a community. Commitment to a primary community has also been impacted as kids are involved in busy schedules and social networks that connect them, in a cursory way, with multiple groups, each having very little to do with one another. Finally, because kids can really pick and choose who they will hang out with, they often choose homogeneity over diversity. They are rarely "forced" to interact with people who are different than them or who may force them to see themselves from a different perspective.
So what does this changing idea of community mean for a youth leader who is committed to helping young people grow up to become mature men and women of God? Part of the equation HAS to be a strong community. For instance, how can kids see what a Christian businessman or a godly woman in leadership, or an unselfish senior citizen or a loving single adult might look like if it isn't in a Christian community? How can they find out who they are and what they can become and what it looks like to trust God for the big and small things if it isn't through community? And how can they truly experience the love of God if it isn't through people of all ages coming around them and helping them in the growing up process?
Community is no longer a given in our culture. We can't assume our kids understand it or engage in it. Technology has changed how we spend time together. It has also caused one of the biggest generation gaps we have ever seen. We need to do all we can to help our kids value the idea of community. We need to re-engage them into the church community. We need to help them work through conflicts in youth group in a way that builds cohesiveness and understanding and long-term commitment. Basically, we need to help them value and understand the concept of Christian community that is so clearly taught in scripture.
We can't help these kids on our own. God has something even better in mind. Hilary may have actually gotten part of it right. It really does take a village to raise a child.
Let's not let technology take that village away.