Saturday, January 8, 2011


Sometimes it feels fleeting, like chasing a rabbit bounding through the bushes. Sometimes it feels rich and refreshing like rain pouring down from heaven. It is a little phenomenon called "community." It often seems very elusive in our culture despite the culture boasting of being more "connected" now than ever before. But what is true community? Well, here's my two cents on the subject:

I would define true community as an integrated web of deep, personal relationships. And ultimately it is something very precious and necessary to the human soul because it involves one of the most basic of all human needs: the need to belong.

The human need to belong has become a modern-day marketing feeding frenzy. All sorts of books have recently been written about it. Now that the "secret" is out, it seems that everyone is telling you how you can "belong" so that you'll feel good about belonging to something bigger than you are; or, conversely, how you can get more people to be aware of YOU so that you can feel good about yourself because people are "following" you.

What prompts me to write this reflection has to do with technological impacts on community. With online networking and faster methods of communication becoming old-hat, we aren't playing the same game we were a quarter-century ago. I don't need to make a list of the most popular techie methods of communicating nowadays because most of you already know them. There's almost an unspoken social pressure to "get with the program" and be actively participating in all of them. But what is the fruit of these new technological "advances" in the area of cultivating deep, personal relationships?

Cultivating deep personal relationships may be becoming a lost art in this technological era. Think of the friendships you deeply cherish and the healthy experiences of community you have enjoyed. What did it take to build that sort of relational depth? It first and foremost takes substantial amounts of time together face-to-face, sharing life together.

I've been using the term "true community" here, and it's worth contrasting that idea to other forms of "community." Now we have online communities galore- virtual gathering places where people can share their common interests while they remain safe behind their computer and smartphone screens. That type of gathering place might be called "community" in our modern lingo, but it is not the true community to which I'm referring. Those types of gathering places are missing face-to-face time. No matter how much you chat, post, tweet, blog, email, text or discuss online, nothing can replace good-old face-to-face conversation to reveal true relationship. (Or lack thereof.) In fact, if you rely on these kinds of virtual gathering places to get your need for true community, you may fall prey to the tendency to assume a level of intimacy with people with whom you really don't have it.

(**I'm not suggesting that socializing online or using technology to communicate is useless or meaningless. I'm not going to get rid of my Facebook account. I'm just suggesting that to rely on these things to build intimate relationship and community may be an exercise in futility.**)

Here's my point and the summary of this post: we can't replace true community with virtual community. It doesn't work. I do believe, however, that virtual community can and does supplement true community. But you can't just have virtual community and expect it to actually meet your need to belong- it can only virtually meet that need- and only for awhile. We were meant to thrive in face-to-face personal contact with other human beings- an environment that challenges us to love and be loved despite all our flaws without the invulnerability of a screen between us and the world.


  1. Kirby. Great thoughts. Out of interest, do you know anyone who has completely replaced real community with "virtual"?

    It seems to me that we have the same problem we had in the 80's (pre-virtual as we know it today)...we're all choosing to be too busy to slow down and have real relationships. I think the kind of community you're describing takes intentionality.

    I'm not sure I look at virtual as the problem. I think we are the problem and virtual community (like TV 20 years ago) is the latest scapegoat.

    The difference is, facebook actually connects us more TV created solitude...there's hope in that. Because it points to our hunger for real connection.


  2. (Kirby, this is Shawn from the work crew. my blogger account is under "Josie" cause that's who my old blog is about.)

    It's the spirit of the age Jon. more and more we are living lives of crowded loneliness. Facebook does indeed help to 'connect' and has merit for that. i aslo agree it's like, "guns don't kill people. people kill people (with guns)". We, in our own woundedness ARE indeed the problem. and there are definitely people out there who have all but completely replaced the real for the virtual.

    i also think Kirby is right on here. i work with teens; have for about 20 years. and like never before i see a generation of young people who have an ever increasing inability to interact socially appropriately. i certainly 'passed a note' or two in class, but today most teens facilitate most all of their communication thru a text. some are in the same room and still text. they hook up, break up, and try to solve major issues through QWERTY or T9. significant life events and social struggles are read, not spoken. they don't develop the ability to read social cues, see facial expressions and interpret one's feelings or response. their emotion is expressed thru ALL CAPS or emoticons. i truly believe many of them will suffer a significant hit in their future social lives when they heven't adequately learned the 'art' of face to face social interaction and problem solving.

    WOW, sorry to ramble on so much about that. Well done Kirby. and Jon, i agree - what Kirby is suggesting requires rediculous amounts of intentionality. and when someone catches the vision for the deep community we were created for, they won't settle for anything less. sadly, for many others, the honesty and transparency required is too high a cost.

  3. Kirby, well said. I agree, I don't think FB and like websites are the problem, it's what we do with them. Wine isn't a problem but drinking a bottle alone is. So, like many things in each of our lives, it can become a "lesser lover" which offers a substitute for more intentional relating. We settle for online relationships, often, because it feels safe and we aren't so exposed or vulnerable. I love Shawn's last paragraph....we settle for easy and lose a piece of our heart in the process.

  4. Kirby
    Had two really great responses written up and the internet kicked me out both times... I think I would rather tell you in person anyway... I love our conversations and miss the campfires of summer.


  5. Kirby,
    Good points. I enjoy momentary connections with friends on FB, send me an email, and when people respond to my blog...all virtual. I agree with Jon in that the medium is not the issue it is how that person chooses to engage with the tool of internet connections. My question is in two parts: 1. Why are so many people (friends I know) using FB (and other like instruments) to connect? 2. How might real community best engage with virtual community for a win-win?

    Thanks for your thoughts...Godspeed!

  6. Thank you for your responses everybody! I don't think it's possible to completely replaced real community with virtual without becoming a vegetable. I'm not suggesting that "virtual" is the problem. I'm just saying that it isn't the answer that some claim it to be. Perspective is the problem. When you begin to believe that virtual connection replaces face-to-face connection, something in your relational makeup goes into dormancy or even dies.

    The key word that Jon used is "intentionality." Virtual community can take place without much of that. True community flat out doesn't happen without it.

    You are right about Facebook drawing people together instead of polarizing them like TV does, and in that regard FB is a good thing. It's easier to keep up to speed with what's going on in people's lives with virtual instruments which is why people widely use them. The win-win Nathan is talking about is only possible when true community is actually taking place. When that happens, those involved in the true community crave face-to-face time despite the fact that they might use virtual methods between face-to-face connections. But as I said before, the virtual is merely a supplement for the true, not the other way around.

  7. Hi Kirby, I think my most significant experience of community were the relationships I shared with your father, along with Chuck White and Charlie Brown. I agree that it's hard to envision replacing the hours we spent together with online relationships. One example, it's too easy, in an online environment to be only partially plugged in at any point. Too much multi-tasking going on.

  8. You already know I disagree with you Kirby. :)

    I ran an online community. It was there that I read poetry that captured my heart. I got to know the woman behind that poetry without even seeing her face and was stunned at the heart that can be expressed through words that is often missed in the face to face.

    I got to know her, and had many praying for our developing relationship... from California, Indiana, England, Australia, the Netherlands.

    We dated over Skype. We watched movies together on the phone. We wrote each other... postcards and emails.

    When we got married, many of those very very real friends in our community came to our wedding.

    I would say I had true community and found real love using forums, Skype, phones, email, and Facebook.

    I love the richness that all of these different mediums allow with Tara and I even today. Face to face shows one facet. Written words show another. Being restricted to voice shows another.

    For me, I celebrate the diversity of communication methods we have and how each creates a new way to see each other. I am thankful that these different ways of coming together remind me of things that I could forget with just face to face.

  9. Thanks, Bryan! Of course I was highly anticipating your comments to this particular blog posting! It took me nearly three weeks to complete it because of my own wrestling with perspective and reviewing conversations I've had with you and others on this topic. Your wedding was truly a celebration of the diversity of connections between those close by and those across the miles. It has been a treasure to celebrate your union with Tara! Thank you for contributing your thoughts into the mix. Love you, brother!