Here’s how it happened.
In 1898, a bunch of like-minded people were meeting in small groups in fifteen church buildings and school houses, all served by a couple brothers who were preachers, all within a circle about 12 miles across. Some of the places had preaching services, some of them had Sunday school.
Some of the people in these small gatherings came from other churches, responding to a new (for them) understanding of what the Bible taught. Others came from no church at all. There was great excitement about the new things God was doing, and some resistance from those who had learned the old way.
In 1900, the railroad decided to build a town and the spreadout groups started talking about a central location. In November, 1901, a church building was dedicated. In January, 1902, the first train went by. In February, 1902, the first plat of the town was filed.
At the time, people from the congregation saw each other all the time. They lived within walking distance. They shopped from each other, traded goods, chatted while at the post office or hardware store. They lived local.
Much of the conversation was, I’m guessing, pretty mundane. People talked about weather and sick animals. They mentioned that they needed to get some work done. They mentioned coffee.
This mundane conversation was, however, the fabric of community. You can’t talk about deep spiritual concepts all the time. Sometimes you just talk. And in that chatter grows connection and in that connection can grow faith. Particularly when you watch what happens in a life across time, how a person handles crisis.
Community is formed in communication and communion, interaction and intimacy. The more of both, the deeper the relationships.
In churches, that kind of interaction doesn’t happen easily anymore, at least not for large parts of a congregation. The technology of the car has made it possible to travel further to church, to shop, to eat, to live. A community is less defined by geography.
Churches, at least wise ones, respond by creating additional times of interaction. We create small groups or Sunday school classes where people can share life together. Or that’s what we hope. And sometimes people are aware of what is happening in each other’s lives daily, and sometimes not.
And for a long time, no one has known any better. We’ve known that more communication and communion would be nice, that our sense of community was suffering, but we figured that we were like the rest of American culture, feeling the disconnection that comes from distances.
And then came a new set of communication tools. They are simple enough for almost anyone to use. They are cheap enough for almost anyone to afford (as cheap as a free library card if necessary). We call them social media. We could call them “small town streets”
Just like people were able to chat with each other while heading to the store or waiting at the mill or taking the milk to the creamery, people now can chat while sitting at home. And some of the conversations sound the same, about weather or work or coffee. Or the neighbor’s odd behavior at midnight every night.
At first, only one or two people in a congregation knew about these tools. The first person to talk about Twitter or Facebook or Myspace was viewed as peculiar. When it was explained that this was an Internet thing, all the stories about bad people lurking in chat rooms to injure children were mentioned.
A funny thing has happened, however. More people are becoming aware of these tools. Parents and then grandparents discover new ways to see pictures of the trips that their children or grandchildren are taking. And then conversations like this happen as a small group from a church gets together.
A: “How was that phone call this afternoon?”
B: “It was great. He’s doing well.”
A. had heard about the phone call from looking at B’s facebook status.
To look at social media as a new evangelism tool, just like broadcasting was viewed, misses one of the core values of social media: transparent interaction. Rather than thinking of social media (facebook, twitter, myspace, youtube, blogs, flickr) as a new broadcasting tool, churches are probably wisest to think of it as a way to live life together away from Sunday morning, to live in the community as a community, like churches that make a difference usually do.
There are some cautionary notes, however.
- We can’t fall into believing that this way is the best way, that people not on Facebook are somehow missing out. In fact, congregations using social media have to be more aware than ever of the need to be redundant, to provide key information in as many forms as possible, to foster communication and communion wherever possible.
- We have to remember that what is online is a search away. I have chuckled sadly at the times I have read online comments about how to reach people on the Internet, how to convert “lost people.” There has been a complete lack of understanding that those “lost people” can read what is being said about them.
- Social media is a place where the new is addictive. I spend time bouncing from platform to platform wondering if there is something new, if someone said something that I need to respond to. This fear of missing out (FOMO) is an addiction of sorts. Of course, people probably spent too much time chatting in front of Grabill Hardware, too. But no one ever thought the answer was to tear the porch off.
Technology is not relationship. Jesus did not talk about technologies, he talked about people. However, it the technology allows more frequent interaction, even about the details of life, then maybe we can build the same kind of community that happened in the early days of our congregation.
For more on online/offline as a difference on tools rather than a difference between real life/fake life, see Liz Strauss’s wonderful post Online Culture: is your definition out of date?.
For history on Grabill, Indiana see Grabill.net.
Grabill Missionary Church is on facebook at www.facebook.com/grabillmissionary.