By Sister Maxine Kollasch, I.H.M.
The early church and social networks have a lot in common. Sharing the commonness of life is an opportunity to build community.
A while back, I signed on to Facebook and there it was: a smackdown. Someone posted a short remark about religion that someone else doesn’t like, and a fight was on. The remark wasn’t scandalous or mean, it was just a personal opinion. But the comments flew, pitting one side against another. It’s an experience that a friend describes as anti-social networking.
Sure, social networking is great when sharing inspirational memes and life achievements, but can it really hold the potential for good? In a message on World Communications Day 2014, Pope Francis asserted that social networking can foster unity among people. It can introduce us to viewpoints that are very different from our own, making us more expansive. Further, he noted, social networks can be a place of true encounter with God and our neighbors worldwide.
How can social networks become a place of Christian community? I turned, oddly enough, to the early church for answers to this modern question.
The early church had its fair share of good and bad days. Still reeling from the events of Jesus’ Passion, death, and Resurrection, believers remained committed to staying together and following Jesus. They used many images and symbols to speak of their nascent community, such as the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-14).
One of my favorites comes from the book of Acts: koinonia, the Greek word for an intimately connected community. Koinonia describes the group of people who began to follow Jesus and gather as a new community. They were people who sought a deeper relationship with God and one another and took steps to draw closer.
“They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need. Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes. They ate their meals with exultation and sincerity of heart, praising God and enjoying favor with all the people. …” (2:42-47)
The passage describes community at its best! But we know community life even for the first disciples wasn’t perfect. In Saint Paul’s letters he responds to struggles that emerged between members and communities. What Acts offers is a compelling vision, one that inspires and motivates believers to keep striving for community even when the going gets tough.
As I considered more closely this vision of community, I began to find good advice for engaging online.
1. Transforming the ordinary
Sometimes it’s hard to believe that the ordinary stuff of life can be transformative. In Acts, believers shared in everyday activities such as eating meals together. But in the context of faith, the meals took on greater significance. They provided spiritual as well as physical nourishment. The ordinary act of having a meal became transformative, deepening their relationship with God and strengthening the community.
On social networks, people share lots of ordinary stuff, too. Photos of a walk in the park, cat videos, recipes, golf techniques. These things aren’t overtly religious, but they can open up to conversations of greater depth and meaning.
The Facebook remark about religion occurred in an otherwise ordinary conversation about daily life. People were talking about how they manage stress. Although the conversation went downhill quickly after the religion remark, it would later be transformed by an act of kindness—a question—that would help people to understand why the remark was made and to respond with compassion.
2. Keeping the apostles at our side
The early church was blessed to have many of the apostles and first disciples to walk with them. These mentors not only performed “many wonders and signs” but also showed by their lives how to follow Jesus. These same kinds of mentors are in our online communities—women and men whose posts populate our newsfeeds and who engage with us through Pinterest images. They model koinonia behavior and inspire us to become online mentors, too.