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?