April 1st last year I walked out of my front door headed for a 4-mile run. I noticed the realtor’s FOR SALE sign in my neighbor’s yard and I had an idea. I quickly lifted the sign out of their yard and boldly jammed the two legs of the metal realtor sign in my front yard. I grabbed my phone from my pocket and snapped this picture.
Please understand we had no plans of selling our home, but when pastors put their homes up for sale, people assume they are leaving the church and moving. At least, I was betting on that assumption. I posted the picture on my Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts with the following caption: “Oh man, it just got real. On to the next chapter…” I slide my phone back into my pocket and went off for a run. When I got back home and walked through the front door, my wife was on the phone with my worried mother who was in tears trying to figure out why she was the last to know. I chuckled as my wife cut her eyes towards me. She pulled the phone away from her mouth and whispered in sharp biting tones, “Real funny. I have your mom on the phone. She is freaking out!” Then the texts, tweets, and Facebook comments started rolling in.
April Fools! I got ‘em.
In addition to being a selective prankster, I am an introvert. Stating it in such a simply statement sounds a bit like a confession, like I’m saying. “I am an alcoholic.” In acknowledging what is true about myself — that I am an introvert — I feel a bit defensive because I am also a pastor, which means people are my life. Claiming to be an introvert does not mean I do not like being around people; it simply means being around people drains me. I would not be faithful to my calling and vocation if I avoided people, which is always a temptation. To be faithful to serve the church and make disciples of the Jesus way, I am compelled to live with a people-oriented disposition. Beyond my vocation, I need people. I need a community around me to form me and shape me. Left to my own devices, I’d probably make a mess of things.
Seeking community, with all of the friendship and love and intimacy that comes with it, is a reflection of the God-createdness in all of us. We are born into a community of one sort or another and we remain dependent on a community even as we grow beyond childhood into something we mistakenly call “independence.” We need community because we were created by a God who is a community of persons — the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Whether or not the community we live in drains us or not (and even life-of-the-party extroverts report the need to have a break from people from time to time) we need it; we need one another. We form our identity and sense of personhood from community, not to mention we need one another for survival. Let’s be honest, most of us are not out there raising livestock and crops. We are all shopping at the grocery store. I appreciate Stanley Hauerwas at the end of his theological memoir, Hannah’s Child, confess at the end of the book that he is indeed a Christian. A confession he freely makes as a result of his friends. He knows he is a Christian because his friends, the community around him, says he is. I am a Christian in part because I pray Christian prayers, worship at a Christian church, read a sacred Christian text, and confess a faith given to me by a Christian community. I am a Christian not because of an isolated existential experience; I am a Christian because this community around me says I am. We are all given the capacity for community. The question is whether or not we will seek to foster it.
The common turn for many today who want to seek out authentic community is social media. First it was Xanga, then Myspace, then Facebook, then Twitter, then Instagram, Vine, Snapchat, Tumblr, and on it goes. With its staggering 1.44 billion monthly users, Facebook remains the reigning champion of the social media universe. Hate Facebook if you want, but just about everyone has a Facebook account. Your mom is on Facebook for goodness sakes! Mine is too. I am sure if I post this blog on Facebook I will get a like from Cheryl Parker Vreeland. (Hi mom!) Social media, properly used, has great value towards the end of forming community. My wife and I just spent the end of a date lunch watching funny videos on Facebook. We get to share our little moments of triumph, share pictures of our kids, and pictures of our pets on social media. We can exchange information 140 characters at a time and capture picture-perfect moments (with the right filter) and share it with our friends. For all of the benefits of social media, we must caution ourselves. Social media does not create community as much as it supplements community. Social media allows us to manipulate our profile pics to portray the image of our self that we want the world to see. (Sometimes we apparently want the world to see our cat. I still don’t understand that.) We type or thumb status updates that very rarely tell the entire story. We air our dirty laundry or go into thoughtless rants, communicating things we would never say verbally in public. We comment on statuses, tweets, pictures, and videos ad nauseum and deceive ourselves into thinking this is real community; it isn’t. Our interaction on social media is virtual community.
My April Fool’s joke is a perfect example. As I started reading the comments, I noticed some people were getting the joke and others were not. Others were convinced that I was moving or going through some kind of life-altering experience. I played my social media joke on April Fool’s Day to garner a few laughs, but the teacher in me wanted to use the post to expose how social media fails to paint a true picture of what is happening. To help make this point I posted the following meme:
Real community simply cannot be found online. Flesh and blood needs flesh and blood. I am not advocating a boycott of Facebook, Twitter, et. al., although I would encourage people to take all of ethics of Jesus Christ into the world of digital communication. I am simply advocating for real, face-to-face communication with real, live human beings. The beauty of Christian community in the context of the local church is often we are elbow-to-elbow with people we would not necessarily associate with. By his cross and resurrection, Jesus is drawing together all people from all walks of life. As we live as the people of God in intentional community through our participation in a local church we find ourselves coming to the communion table and sitting around a small group table with people who may challenge us and irritate us, but it is those kinds of people we need the most. We need friends whom we share much in common, no doubt, but we also need people with whom we share nothing in common except a common faith in the risen Jesus.
When we live like this, we are an answer to Jesus’ prayer, when he prayed, “Father may they be one just as you are in me and I in you.”
—[Photo: Robert Couse-Baker, CC via Flickr]
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