Nathan Kirkpatrick: Christian institutions are called to cultivate real community

Aerial view of a suburban development


It is possible to live alongside people and yet be strangers. How can we build relationships using technology and embodied experiences? asks a managing director at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

A friend recently recommended that I download a smartphone application -- an app -- that facilitates conversation among neighbors. In joining the app’s network, you verify your address so that you belong to just your neighborhood’s conversation. My friend said it was a great way to learn about upcoming events and other goings-on, as well as to connect with the people who live nearby in new ways.

Initially, my experience was very positive, as I learned things I never would have known about my neighbors.

The couple around the corner is incredibly concerned about environmental justice and wants our neighborhood to do more to steward the earth. Their passion is contagious.

There’s a woman two streets over who has been out of work for five years and has decided to start her own business cleaning houses. She is looking for clients.

My next-door neighbors are active in party politics in the most hopeful and constructive kind of way and are looking for others to join in creating a new kind of political conversation in this country.

Oh, and I learned that the cats we have been feeding for years belong to a family three streets over and that they have the unfortunate names “Dawg” and “Princess Leia” (I hope there’s a story there).

This app has given us things to say to one another on the cul-de-sac besides “Looks like it’s going to be another hot one today.” And yet it has also exposed some of the shadows of our life together.

The app has offered a very public platform for neighbors to broadcast racial, ethnic and socioeconomic prejudices. While I live in a middle-class, multiracial, multiethnic neighborhood, it is not uncommon to receive updates that “young African-American men were spotted driving around the neighborhood” or that we should be on the lookout for a run-down older model car spotted nearby.

Suspicion and fear run high in my neighbors’ posts, and with any report of another break-in, they run even higher. I now know how many of my neighbors will, without hesitation or any sense of shame, declare that they believe dreadlocks are probable cause for a police search.

Indeed, the app has illuminated the fact that we are all pretty much strangers in one another’s lives. We don’t actually share a life together as much as we live lives in proximity to one another.

The app has somewhat painfully brought to the fore the fact that neighborhoods like mine are no longer communities that gather to grill hot dogs and shoot off fireworks on the Fourth of July but are rather a collection of insulated and isolated households that pause alongside each other at night before resuming our independent responsibilities in the world tomorrow.

It’s been 15 years since sociologist Robert Putnam published “Bowling Alone,” chronicling the breakdown of community. Since then, we have witnessed the launch of LinkedIn (2002), MySpace (2003), Facebook (2004) and Twitter (2006) -- and all of them were made mobile with the launch of the first smartphone to be broadly available in 2007. With the rise of the app, there are seemingly new ways to knit our lives together technologically with each passing month.

In the midst of all these virtual communities and through my participation in them, I am reminded that Christian institutions, particularly congregations, have as part of our vocation a calling to the cultivation of “real” community. We are called to create spaces and places where people can gather, in all their complexity, with their hopes and their hurts, their fears and their faith, to participate in the mission of God, to announce the dream of God and to work for the healing of the world.

One of the leadership capacities we teach in our Denominational Leadership program is integrative thinking, building off the work and writing of Roger Martin. Integrative thinking is the art of both-and thinking, of holding together things that other people present or hold as opposites. (It’s a difficult skill, which is why, in Denominational Leadership, we take hours upon hours to teach how to do it.)

Too often, the discussion about virtual and real communities becomes an oppositional, either-or argument: we must forsake the one and embrace the other. Facebook bad; church good. Twitter evil; small group ministry divine.

Even when the argument is more nuanced than this, it is still often presented as a false choice between a straw-man portrayal of online engagement and a Pollyannaish portrayal of in-person community.

The more constructive approach, it seems to me, is to practice integrative thinking, to hold these two worlds together. This is a challenge that I make no claim to have mastered. Instead, as I think about it, I am struck by the questions that the challenge itself poses.

In no particular order:

  • How can we, as Christian institutions and congregations, hold together our call to create real community with the pervasiveness of virtual relationship? How can the practices and patterns of our life when we are together shape our time in the land of apps?
  • How might we use the virtual world to nurture and nourish our real-world connections? What does it mean that people are often more transparent virtually than they are in our congregations? What would have to change in order for us to practice in-person transparency and vulnerability?
  • Is “unfriending” the digital equivalent of “shaking the dust off our sandals,” or is it actually failure to love the other person beyond our disagreements?
  • How does what we learn about our neighbors through virtual platforms -- particularly when we hear their bald declarations of prejudice -- inspire our own witness and give us courage to declare an alternative reality and to work for racial justice?

Some will see this list of questions and feel overwhelmed by the complexities of our times. This is understandable.

What I hope, though, is that most will find energy and possibility in these questions (and others like them) and that they will seek an integrative way forward in which the church can do what the church does at its best: cultivate community, in both real and virtual ways.