Living Theologically in a Networked World

Verity A. Jones

When DisciplesWorld, the journal for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) that I produced for six years, launched a social networking website in 2009, skeptical church leaders wondered aloud: What is all this new media doing to the church? Are friending and blogging and tweeting all just one big distraction from the gospel?

As I am discovering, sorting out the answers requires both acknowledging past traditions and leaning boldly into the future. The new digital media world confirms some of what we know already about human need and human nature, while also pushing our theological imaginations toward new horizons – if we are willing to engage the questions.

I recently gained some historical perspective from new-media strategist Ruby Sinreich at Duke, who makes the perfectly obvious point that there is nothing new about social networking (http:// People have been doing it for ages. We network to raise money for good causes. We network to help a friend find a job. We network to elect people to office. Sinreich says social networks are like rivers – they flow. You can’t totally control them, but you can try to understand where they go and why.

Human life is inherently social. We could even say that Facebook didn’t create social networking; social networking created Facebook. Communities of faith have thrived on social networking for centuries. Paul was a consummate organizer and networker. His letters, visits, preaching, and teaching gathered together new followers of Christ and connected them to other disciples throughout the Mediterranean world. He sent out Timothys and Priscillas as friends to connect with and mentor new followers.

I was so caught up in trying to save a print journal from being pulled under by the radical and rapid shift to digital formats, that I had failed to appreciate this basic theological point about human life and its relevance for the church. Through my subsequent work with the New Media Project at Union Theological Seminary, I have been privileged to pick up this theological thread once more.

Deeper into Daily Life

Social networking is perennial, but today’s new media tools are indeed changing what networking looks like and, to some extent, how networks behave. Social media tools make networking far more visible and easier to follow. Friends of friends on Facebook can see each other and converse. In fact, Facebook’s success is tied to how it originally differentiated itself from online tools that encouraged false identities such as video gaming. Instead, Facebook encouraged people to dig deep into their actual, real relationships. In Time Magazine’s profile of him last year, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg says, “At its core, what we’re trying to do is map out all of those trust relationships.” Profile writer Lev Grossman explains, “The fact that people yearned not to be liberated from their daily lives but to be more deeply embedded in them is an extraordinary insight.”

Further, today’s digital social networking reverberates with political and sociological impact. Relationships of the rich and powerful can be studied through interactive web graphs on sites like News. We talk of “swarms” or “flash mobs” when people connect through Twitter or Foursquare and gather on the spur of the moment. New media tools also make networking more accessible to those previously left out of power circles (women, poor people, people of color). Mobile technology is closing the gap of accessibility; more and more people who can’t afford computer access are using the tools on their smartphones.

Social media tools are enabling new sorts of networks to exist as well. The online Young Clergy Women Project, founded at Yale Divinity School in 2006, is one such network. Clergywomen under the age of forty are few and far between in many parts of the U.S. Without colleagues nearby who are experiencing the same pressures and challenges, young clergywomen can feel isolated and alone. Through the Young Clergy Women Project, more than 500 young clergywomen have found life-giving connections on the Project’s password-protected blog and public e-zine. Many have never met each other in person, but consider each other close friends. Susie Shaefer, co-chair of the group’s board of directors, says, “We exist because face-to-face community is not there” for many young clergywomen. “We can’t replicate face-to-face community; we are trying to substitute for it.”

God is (Virtually) Everywhere

But the social media revolution is doing more than redefining old, deeply human practices of networking. It is presenting new models for how we might exist as church in the world, how we understand ourselves as creatures of God, and perhaps even how we experience, encounter, and describe the divine. In a recent post to the New Media Project blog, Research Fellow and Sojourners Editor Jim Rice explores how the power of digital media to collapse time and space by creating real-time global connections might offer a new model of church. Not- ing Avery Dulles’ statement in Models of the Church (Doubleday, 1974) – “In a healthy community of faith, the production of new myths and symbols goes on apace” – Rice argues that digital media give us “vivid examples of the ‘universal body of Christ’ that never before existed.” (See http://blog. of-church-in-new-media-world.html.)

Rice demonstrates how we might learn empathy for geographically distant people by quoting a tweet from a Palestinian student – “Darn. I can hear the IDF drones overhead. Makes it hard to study for my test tomorrow” – and for online friends who are suffering – “I’m in Tahrir Square right now. The security forces are moving in.” Such encounters produce more sympathetic understanding in the body of Christ than facts on the page ever could. Such tweeted or friended connections and pleas can suggest “analogies of God’s transcendence and immanence that have the potential to lead to profound new insights and understandings about the very nature of God and God’s realm on earth,” Rice says. “An abstract theological concept like ‘God is everywhere’ is somehow easier to visualize now that it feels as if we can be everywhere at once, if only virtually,” he adds.

No doubt the question of how we understand ourselves as creatures of God in a networked wire- less world is a theological query fraught with un- certainty. Does online life threaten to obliterate religious tradition and memory? What are Facebook, Twitter, and even the online version of The New York Times doing to our attention spans, our ability to concentrate, the quality of our worship and reflection, our relation to the corporeal world, and our relationships with people and communities therein? We are right to attend to these questions, but we ought not stop there.

Friending Creation

We should consider the prospect that exposure to networks of people and ideas that educate, encourage, correct, influence, shape, and depend upon us is an essential element of what it means to be fully human, even if some of those networks are digitally based. Not just because digital networks can build empathy across the universal body of Christ, and not just because they might offer us a more tangible means to grasp God’s immanence and presence through others, but also because we are created by God to be in relationships, in networks of people and ideas of all kinds. As co-partners with God, stewarding the good gift of creation, we ought to be concerned with the world, its creatures, and all of creation.

If we are properly concerned with God’s gift of creation, then why shouldn’t we venture into the plethora of ideas and information available online? There we can find educational resources never before available to us – from up-to-date statistics about world-wide hunger to plans for building affordable houses, from user-friendly community calendars to the worship styles of South America. Why wouldn’t we want to know all that we can know to be faithful co-partners with God stewarding the good gift of creation? 

Of course, we have to discern helpful from harm- ful information, distinguish ideas that lead to life from those that lead to death. But the very act of exploring this immense abundance of information is not inherently a distraction from things that matter. Networking with ideas and sharing the very best with others can be an essential expression of what it means to be human before God.

Living in a networked world also stimulates new ways of thinking about our experience of who God is. Kathryn Reklis, another New Media Project Re- search Fellow and a graduate student in religious studies at Yale, recently riffed in a blog post on Karl Rahner’s “horizon of our being” – Rahner’s descrip- tion of our “pre-apprehension” of God as a horizon that “grounds our existence in God’s existence and draws us toward God in love.” But instead of the horizon metaphor, our new media world might offer fresh alternative images of the divine, Reklis says. Though new habits of hyperlinked reading can lead to “surface-surfing” over content, she suggests they might on the contrary lead to digging deeper into topics. “The more we click, the further we go into a web of connections that we experience as having depth,” she says.

Reklis asks, “Is God, then, … not a receding horizon making experience possible, but the thickening web of interconnectivity, the relationships between all other relationships? … What do we know about ourselves and our world theologically, if the divine possibility of all our knowing can be imagined as the hyperlinked connections of our digital experience” rather than the “horizon of our being”? (See from-horizon-to-hyperlink.html.)

Trinity Affinities

What would it mean to ask such questions in specifically Trinitarian terms? Could the relational character of the Trinity be imagined as a “thickening web of interconnectivity?” If God in three persons is present where two or more are gathered in God’s name, is God also present in the daily lives of people online sharing their prayers and faith activities with friends, people who yearn “to be more deeply em- bedded” in their “trust relationships,” as Facebook’s Zuckerberg sees it?

Social networking isn’t new to Christian community. But the social media tools many use for networking today are new, and those tools are changing Christian community. The new tools are generating new patterns of behavior that affect not just Christian practice, but also, potentially, patterns of belief. Thinking theologically about living in a socially networked world has become an essential task for the community of faith. 

The new social media world is not a fad, a temporary disruption that Christian communities must endure while holding on to the essence of faith until all is well again. How we communicate the gospel in a new age is at stake. The Pew Research Center’s 2010 study on Millennials – Americans age eighteen to thirty-nine – says 75 percent of Millennials have created a social networking profile, and fully 80 percent have used their cell phone to send text messages in the last twenty-four hours. (See http://

The same study reports that these technologically savvy young adults are avoiding church. Millennials are more likely to be unaffiliated with a religious tradition than Generation X was at this age (26 percent vs. 20 percent), and are twice as likely as Baby Boomers were to be unaffiliated at this age (26 percent vs. 13 percent).

Younger clergy in the Millennial age range re- flect their generation. A May 2011 survey of sixty-six young clergy by the New Media Project shows that 97 percent have a personal profile on Facebook and 83 percent use Facebook in their ministry. The New Media Project is trying to learn from young clergy and help them reflect theologically about the technology they use with the ease of their generation.

The church can wring its hands about new media. Or religious leaders can recognize the new con- text in which the church exists today and become a positive interpretive voice in this new public square. But we can’t do anything sitting on the sidelines hoping that all will be well. 

Verity A. Jones ’89, B.A. ’95 M.Div. is the project director of the New Media Project (http://www.newmediaprojec- and a Research Fellow at Union Theological Seminary in New York. She is the former publisher and editor of DisciplesWorld and the past president of the Associated Church Press. Her work has also appeared in Christian Century, Biblical Preaching Journal, and Journal for Preachers. She is ordained with joint standing in the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). She lives in Indianapolis.