by Andrew Zirschky
Editor’s Note: Read Teens and Social Technology: Searching for Intimacy – Part 1 and Part 2 here.
In a faceless face-to-face world, young people are turning to technology to search for relationships that are meaningful and intimate. This was among our conclusions from part 1 of our look at teens and social technology, and we ended part 2 recognizing that the church has focused more on having a Facebook presence than being a “community of the face” or what the New Testament might term koinonia. You’ve likely encountered the Greek work koinonia in its common English translation of “fellowship,” such as in Acts 2:42 which speaks of the believers devoting themselves to the “fellowship” (koinonia). There’s nothing wrong with that translation except we’ve reduced “fellowship” to cups of coffee and doughnuts between services, or we sometimes call fun youth ministry events that have no spiritual component “fellowship events.” But when early Christians talked about koinonia they didn’t have doughnuts and coffee in mind. Rather, they were talking about communion (another English word used to translate koinonia), which means an intimate relational oneness of community. The Christian community is supposed to be a koinonia, a deep and intimate communion together.
It turns out that what young people seek through social media is a quality of relationship present in Christian koinonia, which offers a community in which youth are known to the point of identification with God and others. It is in the communion of the Holy Spirit that the human desire for connection, so poignantly expressed through young people’s use of social media, is ultimately fulfilled.
In other words, the church has been prepared by God to offer young people the very thing they seek, but we’ve substituted faceless fellowship and disconnected belonging. And we’ve left the establishment of anything deeper to other venues including the online world of social media.
It had been some time since I’d seen Melissa, a former youth group kid, but she popped up on my IM list one evening and we began to chat. We talked for some time about the recent separation of her parents, and along the way the discussion turned toward online community. “Technology gives a larger community and an opportunity for a different level of that,” she told me.
“Different level?” I asked. “As in deeper? Shallower? Just different?”
“Depends,” Melissa said, “but look at us now. I haven’t seen you in how long and here we are having an actual conversation, as opposed to if I actually saw you around and was like, ‘Hey, what’s up? Well, nice life. Catch ya later.’”
Her comment pierced me to the core because I could remember numerous Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings where our discussions closely resembled that quick and trivial dialogue. What I realized in that moment is that we don’t merely live in a faceless face-to-face society, our churches are often just as faceless.
For example, consider worship services. We crowd people into a room, face them forward and at some point during the worship service engage in 30 seconds of friendliness: “Good morning. The peace of Christ be with you. How are you? See you next week.” You know the drill. If your church is particularly friendly there might be an exchange of names. If your church is particularly spiritual, someone might say, “I’ll be praying for you.” Then we go back to our proper positions facing forward, and in too many cases we won’t have any more contact until the same time next week.
The “turn and greet one another” style of many American churches represents the kind of faceless interaction that teenagers hope to avoid—not only because it is awkward, but because it is so completely unfulfilling. Too often the relationships our teenagers find in our churches and youth groups are just another variation on the endless sea of faceless interactions they encounter daily.
What all this means is that the gratuitous addition of technology to your ministry doesn’t create relevance but actually breeds irrelevance. In our desperate attempts to remain hip, cool, and cutting edge we may actually fail to offer teenagers both the very thing they desire, and the unique reality of koinonia that the church is called to offer.
Many in youth ministry are convinced that social media is essential for effectively ministering to contemporary youth, and to the degree that social networking and text messaging assist the community of Christ in living as true koinonia, then those technologies should be utilized. On the other hand, the congregation that engages in outrageous use of social media but fails to live vibrantly together as the body of Christ, or neglects to incorporate teenagers in meaningful relationships in the congregation, fails in the ministry for which it has been called and created. The church is to be a communion, not a Facebook group.
What the Facebook phenomenon signals for youth ministry is not primarily the need for a social networking presence, but the importance of our youth ministries and churches to be communities of the face—places where teenagers know and become known in a community that is being transformed together by the Holy Spirit into the body of Christ. Unless we seek this koinonia (communion) as the hallmark of Christian existence, teenagers will find the church to be irrelevant to both their deepest desires, and the church’s greatest promise.
Such a Spirit-empowered, transformed community does not result from mere human desire and effort, but from the work of the Holy Spirit in, through, and amongst the church. The Holy Spirit, says Jürgen Moltmann, “permeates them through and through, soul and body, and brings them to a new community and fellowship with one another.” Most importantly, this fellowship is not merely with other humans, but with God.
But if communion is a gift of the Holy Spirit, and it does not come about by human effort or technology (whether Facebook or doughnuts and coffee), do we have any role in the transformation of a mere congregation or youth group into a community that is communion together? I believe we do have a role.
If we look carefully at the account of Pentecost in the Book of Acts, we recognize that the community prepared itself for the coming of the Holy Spirit. The community of Jesus’ followers gathered in a way that defied normal social expectations and modeled reconciliation as they included women in their prayer gathering. In 1 Corinthians 11, we see Paul encouraging the Corinthian believers to similarly eschew normal social configurations by including believers of every socio-economic status equally. The testimony of the New Testament seems to be that communion is both evidenced AND prepared for by signs such as radical belonging and acceptance, identification with the downtrodden and the unattractive, the extension of reconciliation that overcomes estrangement, and action that goes forth into the world for the life of the world. It is in such practices where we gather and call upon the Holy Spirit to transform us and our efforts—to do in us, through us, and with us what is impossible for us to do alone—that we prepare ourselves, as the body of Christ, to live and be communion together.
In a faceless world young people are looking for a community of belonging where they will find acceptance, identity, and intimacy regardless of their perceived social value. One thing that is clear in our networked, social media world is that love and friendship are extended to those who prove themselves worthwhile and socially useful. Teenagers are quick to adopt this utilitarian social system at the same time they desire to escape it and to find depth of relationship without having to prove their value. When the church lives into its calling to turn outward and include the unattractive in a community of radical belonging, then not only are all young people released from the anxiety of proving themselves socially worthwhile, but the church opens itself to transformation by the Holy Spirit.
What makes sense in an age of social media is that we give more attention to the kind of communal life we’re fostering than the kind of technology we’re using. It turns out that in a social network world teenagers don’t want or need yet another friend request, another connection. They need more than anything the communion of the saints, the Body of Christ, to be the community we were created and promised to be.
 Jürgen Moltmann, The Source of Life, 1st ed. (Fortress Press, 1997), 104.