Reaction to Shane Hipps

I have been in a conversation with Ben Simpson regarding a post by Steve Knight in which he includes a video of Shane Hipps critiquing the possibility of online Christian community.  This is a subject about which I have thought a great deal as I lead a project at Resurrection to develop an Internet Campus.

I have two reactions to the Shane Hipps video.  The first regards his definition of “Christian community.”  The second regards his comments about the incarnation.

Hipps starts by saying, “We’ve radically altered the definition of [community].”  This premise suggests that at some time in the past Christians have shared an understanding of community that is radically at odds with what happens when people interact online.  It would be helpful to know the source and content of that prior definition, if in fact such a definition has ever existed, in order evaluate the validity of this premise.

Hipps then goes on to give his own definition.  He says, “A meaningful, missional, Christian community should have several ingredients:  1) shared history; 2) permanence; 3) proximity; and 4) a shared imagination of the future.”

Communities can have any or all of the characteristics Hipps mentioned, no argument there, but Hipps is saying a “Christian community” (or more precisely “a meaningful, missional, Christian community”) by definition should have all four of these.  It’s not clear to me that this definition of community is sound, from either a sociological or a theological point of view.

I’m not a sociologist, but I believe a good sociological definition of “community” is a group of people who interact with each other and share one or more things in common such as interests, goals, intentions, worldview, needs, practices, proximity, emotional connection, resources, or identity.  I believe a sociologist would say any one of these or other traits could be the basis of a community as the term is commonly used.

Neither am I a theologian, but some simple illustrations cast doubt on Hipps’ definition.  If church I attend closes, then it wasn’t permanent.  Does that mean the entire time I was part of that church it wasn’t a “Christian community?”  Similarly, if a church I attend never arrives at a shared imagination of the future, does that mean it isn’t a “Christian community?”  If I’m homebound and talk with other congregants by phone and listen to my church’s weekly worship service on the radio, does my lack of proximity mean I’m not part of the “Christian community?”  Further, the term “proximity” is relative.  As long as we’re getting technical here, how close is close enough?  Did people who were close enough to see and hear Jesus but never touched him fully experience the incarnation?

This brings me to my reaction to Hipps’ comments on the relationship between the incarnation and Christian community.  He begins by saying, “Jesus Christ is the ultimate medium and message for God’s revelation in the world.”  He goes on to say it is, “… hard to understand how you incarnate the gospel in a discarnate setting.”  It isn’t our task to “incarnate the gospel.”  God has already done that once and for all.  Jesus is no longer physically present with us in the body in which he was incarnated (or perhaps he is if you accept transubstantiation).  Rather, our knowledge of Jesus is mediated through the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit, and the Church, which is the Body of Christ in the world.  Affirming the gospel as incarnational does not mean we must physically touch Jesus in order to be in communion with God.  My question for Hipps is this: in what way does the incarnation demand that we physically touch each other in order to understand or practice the gospel?

8 thoughts on “Reaction to Shane Hipps

  1. Jeff Suever March 4, 2009 / 6:02 am

    Good comments. Paul’s letters as well as Jesus’ letters to the seven churches in Revelation suggest a bond of community even though they were not physically close.
    I would question whether the concept of “community” should include location at all, but rather focus solely on the degree of relationship established.

  2. Ben Simpson March 4, 2009 / 7:56 am


    Great post, with great questions, all worthy of attention.

    Of all the important points you raise I will address only one. Contemporary discussions of the incarnation of Jesus/the gospel within the Christian community have fascinated me for the past two years. The church should somehow “enflesh” the good news about Jesus, so that people can see the claims Christians make take on flesh and blood. When the church extends care for the widow and the orphan, Jesus’ presence is made real to those extending and receiving care. When the body of Christ joins together in worship, Jesus is found in the midst of the saints. God became incarnate in Jesus, but the good news about Jesus becomes incarnate in us–not only an abstract idea, but a concrete reality made manifest in the lives of the saints.

    You stated, “our knowledge of Jesus is mediated through the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit, and the Church, which is the Body of Christ in the world,” and by saying this you have stepped into the ring of a historic debate. Kierkegaard addressed this very matter in “Fear and Trembling.” In that book Kierkegaard using the story of Abraham to demonstrate that faith (or the knowledge that brings about faith) does not necessarily come through mediation, but can occur directly in a human/divine encounter. In this regard your mention of the Holy Spirit is the most compelling, though I would argue that “knowledge” of Jesus can also be attained through direct, divine revelation of Jesus as Christ. This may occur in Church or in Bible reading, but it may occur during some other religious experience.

    Keep hammering away at your definition of community. Your loose definition is functional on multiple levels, but does your definition capture the type of community we are called to be as the church of Jesus Christ? That is the question.


  3. Andrew Conard March 4, 2009 / 11:07 am

    Clif – Thanks for articulating your thoughts in this post. I believe that there may be value in parsing different types of community as Ben mentions in his comment. I am not sure what those distinctions are, but I know that the type of community that is a sports team is different than the community that is a church. Some things shared, but also things different.

  4. clifg March 4, 2009 / 2:49 pm

    Ben and Andrew,

    To clarify: in this post I’m not attempting to define “Christian community.” The scope of my argument is narrowly confined to reacting to Shane Hipp’s definition. I brought up the sociological definition of community in order to establish a baseline of how the term is commonly used. To that common understanding of the term we add the modifier “Christian” and Hipps further adds the modifiers “meaningful, missional.” I agree that a church is a specialized type of community with its own requirements beyond those of, say, a sports team.


  5. Christine Hargrove March 5, 2009 / 8:09 am

    The glaring thing I see about his definition is that the early Christians were incredibly apocalyptic. They did NOT have a sense of permanence and were not engaged in constructing buildings to last for all time, as other religions were. Additionally, if you look at the numbers, the vast majority of Christians were converts. It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it truly is, because there’s no “shared history” as a community when they come together.

    I do agree that individual congregations did most of their interpersonal communications through talking. Their options were that or find someone who could read and write, and given how close people lived, why not just go talk in person? Letter-writing was reserved for distance.

    I do want to mention one other thing you wrote: “at some time in the past Christians have shared an understanding of community that is radically at odds with what happens when people interact online. ” I think he is being nostalgic about the past, but at the same time there is a real danger in “doing community” online. There are two major things: first, that things online are easily misinterpreted, as people don’t necessarily communicate clearly, and that the internet is often dominated by the squeakiest wheel. Behavior that in real life would be unacceptable is allowed to flourish in part because those who are mainstream quickly fade into the woodworks with the first snarky comment. It would be useful to have a proactive strategy against that, whether it be involved mods or published rules.

    But I think it’s worth the effort!

  6. Chuck Russell March 26, 2009 / 11:13 pm

    To piggyback off of Christine’s comments, I think the deeper question is can we be in authentic human relationships which are primarily developed and fostered online, and which maintain their primary relational interaction in a virtual environment. This is not so much a question of the authenticity of “Online Church” as it is a question of the beneficial or harmful effects of ongoing virtual “relationships”. I would argue that the lack of physicality significantly transforms the nature of communication which happens especially between individuals who have not previously encountered one another physically. This can have, obviously, positive and negative benefits – however on the whole I typically believe the predominant effect is negative. Disembodied communication is simply not authentic communication. One need only consult the most basic of communications texts to know that human interaction is primarily not verbal (I.E. the content of the words we speak), instead it overwhelmingly influenced by non verbal communications. Whether it is a sense of trust, the ability to tell truth from falsity, or the ability to effectively understand the entirity of the communicators message – Disembodied communication fails on almost all counts.

    Ok as for the Incarnation we must ask ourselves why is it that God in his infinite wisdom condescended to take on human flesh in the first place. Perhaps it was because the effects of disembodied communication strategies employed in the Law and the Prophets had produced less than perfect results, and thus the New covenant demanded the real presence of Christ. I think this is at least plausible. If this is the case, its is not difficult to see the issues that could develop as a result of disembodied community.

    Finally, and I don’t know how this fits, but I think it is important to understand what it meant that the early church rejected the Gnostic movement which of course, had as a major theological premise, that the Body was at least unimportant and unhelpful, and at worst evil itself. In refuting the Gnostics writters, including the author of the Johanine Epistles, were careful to stress the importance of physicality in the understanding of Christ himself. Like I said, I’m not sure how this connects exactly but certainly its something to think about.

    At the end of the day I believe that the Internet can be a tool to transmit theological content, training, and information. I do not think it can ever be truly effective at building Christian Community outside of at least a semi regular physical meeting. I believe this less as a point of theological contention, as a realization that disembodied “relationships” are almost never authentic and effective relationships, and in fact in many cases are more destructive than helpful. To reduce it to an oft quoted retort “Long Distance Relationships Never Work”

  7. Will England October 2, 2009 / 7:59 pm

    I don’t know a lot about religion or the history of Christianity – I’m just starting this journey. But his comments noting that a Christian Community should have:
    “1) shared history; 2) permanence; 3) proximity; and 4) a shared imagination of the future.”

    Are the very definition of most Internet communities I’ve had the privilege of being a member of, or leading. Over time we develop a shared history; leadership, technology etc. changes and we become permanent; proximity is generated through open communication and occasional regional or national gatherings; and the internet communities have some of the strongest visions for the future.

    I feel an online church will build more of a community and encourage more people to learn about Christianity.

    Thank you for your service and your post!


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