This paper expounds the nature of community in the early Christianity and suggests ways and means to found and foster communities through new media in the postmodern age after that model. In the process this paper not only explores some postmodern ecclesiological perspectives but also elucidates the characteristics of new media that parallel the characteristics of early Christian community. Finally justifying the online communities in light of new media studies and recent magisterial documents related to media recommends the same for founding and maintaining communities in a postmodern missionary context.

Biblical Ecclesiology

As this paper is concerned about the parallels between communities in the Church and in New Media, at the outset let me clarify what is signified by community. The term community derives from communis[1], which originally means a “people with common interests living in a particular area” or “a body of persons or nations having a common history or common interests” in which common[2] denotes “belonging to or shared by two or more people or groups.” The early Christian community was literally characterised by the meaning of the word communis as they were a community in sharing.

Biblical terminology used to denote the present day Church will shed light on to the ecclesiological perspective this paper is adopting. In the letters of Paul the word “church” (it appears rarely in the Gospels and other New Testament writings[3]) refers to all Christians throughout the world as a unified whole, the one “Body of Christ.” The word etymologically derives from the Greek word kyriakon (kuriakon), meaning “belonging to the Lord” (Schwarz 1982) with various significances such as “the Lord’s people,” “the Lord’s community” and “the Lord’s house”.

Another important word “ecclesia” derives from the Greek ekklesia (ekklhsia, a combination of the preposition ek = “out of” and the verb kalew = “to call”). Thus, an “ecclesial” community is literally a group of people “called out” of their homes to “assemble” or “congregate” (gather together) so that they can live and pray and worship together as one community (Sandoval and Just 2012). Ekklesia does not necessarily signify a Church as originally it was a secular term, referring to any gathering of people to deal with political or juridical matters (Schwarz 1982).

Communion or koinonia is a very significant word that did not find an important space in the popular or theological parlance to signify Church until Vatican II developed a communion ecclesiology. A glance into the nuances of this term will help this paper to locate its thesis. The Greek word communion i.e., koinonia[4] (koinwnia = “placed in common”) related to koinon (koinwnew = “to share”) and koinonos (koinwnoV = “partner”).[5]

The first usage of koinonia in the Greek New Testament is found in Acts 2:42-47, where a striking description of the common life shared by the early Christian believers in Jerusalem is given which makes the basis of this paper as well.

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the communion, to the breaking of bread and to prayer…All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need…They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people” (Acts 2:42-47)

Koinonia refers to a relationship of fellowship among believers based on participation in Christ (Phil 3:10; 1 Pet 4:13) and sharing common life in the Spirit (2 Cor 13:13; Phil 2:1) by way of baptism (1 Cor 12:13) and the Eucharist (1 Cor 10:16-17)[6]. In addition, this communion is demonstrated by sharing goods in common use (Acts 2:44; 4:32; Gal 6:6). Paul’s ministry to support the poor financially in the Jerusalem church is a sign of this communion (Rom 12:13; 15:25).

This is sense in which communion and community are used in this paper. Though the word koinonia summarises the communitarian way of life, two other aspects namely kerygma and diakonia are integral part of this community. All these three dimensions of Christian life have developed in a very ideologically and existentially hostile and multicultural context dominated by Romans and Jews.

Kerygma is a process of witnessing and responding to the faith in Jesus through which a countercultural community is formed (Nessan 1999). This community again perpetuate the process of kerygma. Their proclamation and witness is “not an abstraction about Jesus” but a “declaration of his presence among them” (Nessan 1999, 4).

Koinonia signifies primarily God establishing communion with humankind. Secondly it is the community of Jesus’ disciples exemplified in the “Twelve” (Mark 3.14). The community of Jesus is not an amorphous mob but the Twelve who are called the Apostles later are at the core of it (Benedict 1996). The kingdom of God meant for Jesus a “community of egalitarian friendship under God’s grace” (Nessan 1999, 4) as this community is inclusive of sinners, tax collectors, lepers, Gentiles, as well as women and children. After the death and resurrection of Jesus the koinonia continued in the ritual eating of Eucharist. Eucharistic communion is central to the Christian koinonia as the community of disciples experienced its culmination in the last supper.

The Chrisitan community that has experienced God’s sharing of unconditional koinonia and the apostle’s sharing of Christ experience in kerygmatic witnessing cannot but extend their hands of charity through sharing to celebrate their fellowship meaningfully. This is the aspect of diakonia. However, it cannot be reduced to mere charitable work but is comprised of a wide range of aspects such as healing, reconciling and feeding (Nessan 1999).

Thus we can see the fundamental characteristic of the early Christian community is sharing, networking and collaboration which is expressed through kerygma (faith sharing), koinonia (Eucharistic sharing and communion) and diakonia (resource sharing) (Acts 2. 42-27). The communion ecclesiology is fundamentally Trinitarian and it has specific Christological and Pneumatological thrusts (McDonnell 1998).

Communion Ecclesiology

Foundations of communion ecclesiology can be found in the documents of Council of Vatican II, which employed the language and concepts of “communion” though the council did not develop a definitive theology of communion or explore all of its practical implications (Lennan 2007). This fundamental shift in ecclesiological perspective occurred consonance with the social and cultural change of the time (Monteiro 2004) as well as the some significant theological developments such as Eucharistic ecclesiology and ecclesiology of communion, a fruit of the dialogue between Catholic and Orthodox theologians[7] (Ouellet 2013, 2012). At the heart of this communion ecclesiology is the koinonia dimension of the Church. Commentators of Vatican documents including Walter Abbott (1966) and Austin Flannery (1975) could not construe the depths of this ecclesiology initially evidenced by their indices which do not reflect any recognition that “communion” expresses a particular way of characterising the church (Lennan 2007). However, exponents like Tanner (1990) recognize the Vatican II’s understanding of the church central to communio thinking. The roots of today’s communion ecclesiology has to be strained from various documents of Vatican II developed on several planes including the divine, the mystical, the sacramental, the historical, and the social (Doyle 2000).

This ecclesiology of communion accentuates Church’s sociological dimension, with its structures of participation based on the common priesthood of the faithful and on the charisms the Holy Spirit by which the Church can accomplish her universal mission. The idea of “People of God” developed in Lumen Gentium refers to this dimension (Ouellet 2012).

Community

Having seen what is Biblical ecclesiology and communion ecclesiology let us now focus on community. Ferdinand Tonnies (1887) distinguishes between community (Gemeinschaft) and society (Geselleschaft). Community is a pre-industrial phenomenon, which resulted in enduring, genuine, and intimate relationships, rooted in family, kinship and creation of bonds arising from shared understanding, language and customs. Society, on the other hand, was defined as the newer industrial concept – a superficial, transitory artefact, which was contractual in nature and where all relationships were impersonal and individualistic. On a functional level community can be solidarity institutions,[8] platform for interaction,[9] or institutionally distinct groups[10] (Effrat 1974). Though the traditional understanding about communities has at its core attributes such as Common beliefs and values,[11] direct and many sided relationships between members,[12] reciprocity[13], the technologically mediated communications has significantly changed the shape and functioning of communities (Taylor 1982).

New Media and its Characteristics

It will be easier to talk in terms of technology than ideology to understand what New Media is. It is any medium that is digital and interactive as well as depending on Internet technologies especially web 0.2. A computer, a digital camera, a video game console etc., are all digital devises and the data they contain or generate are digital in character. Interactivity signifies not only the ability to handle the hardware of these devices (such as switching on or off) but the users can engage with the content by   literally interacting with the text, image, games and so on.

‘New’ in new media does not signify recent or contemporary, rather it means ‘the cutting edge,’ a special space which is “invested with claims and hopes attached” and expected to “deliver increased productivity and educational opportunity and open up new creative and communicative horizons” (Lister 2003, 11). The newness does not consist in technology but in ideology and dynamics with which these media work.

Martin Lister (2003) identifies certain characteristics that makes new media ‘new’ among which interactivity, hypertextuality, network are elaborated here for the purpose of this paper.

Interactivity

New media offer interactivity in contrast to ‘old’ media, which offered passive consumption. It signifies a more powerful sense of user engagement with media texts, a more independent relation to sources of knowledge, individualised media use, and greater user choice. Being interactive signifies the users’ ability to directly intervene in and alter or manipulate the images and texts that they access making the audience active ‘users’ rather than passive ‘viewers’ of visual images or just ‘readers’ of literature (Lister 2003, 21-25).

Hypertextuality

Hypertext is an interactive or navigable text or image, which carries a number of pathways to other units. This simple facility that allows jumping from one page to another leads immediately to all sorts of new text forms. It permits fully non-sequential writing in contrast to the traditional pen and paper writing, which is sequential. A strong ideological overtone of hypertextuality is that it challenges the very concept of formation of meanings (Lister 2003, 25-30).

Networked

The characteristic of network allows connecting between information technology devices as well as people working at the different corners of the world. Starkly contrasting with broadcast media the networked computer technology is capable of receiving large amounts of data as input as well as making equally large quantities available for downloading to another networked computer. Here the distribution of information is not necessarily centrally controlled and directed but are subject to a radically higher degree of audience differentiation and discrimination. Many different users can access many different kinds of media at many different times around the globe using network-based distribution. Ideologically network primarily relates to the media audience. The new media are no longer mass media… sending a limited number of messages to a homogeneous mass audience. Because of the multiplicity of messages and sources, the audience itself becomes more selective. The targeted audience tends to choose its messages, so deepening its segmentation. This networked audience is decentralized and transforms media and communication processes (Lister 2003, 30-35).

Online Communities

Cyberspace or online space is a special kind of social place constructed technologically where human interaction, communication and commerce can take place through interconnected computers via phone lines and data networks. These computer networks allow one-to-one, and many-to-many forms of communication. Through the countless millions of transactions through the Internet the computer-mediated communication has fostered building of virtual communities – a new form of real life communities.

Online or virtual communities are a phenomena in the new media age (Jones 1998). Rheingold (1993) contends that virtual communities are social aggregations that emerge from the Net when people carry on public discussions with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in Cyberspace. Indeed these “social spaces” facilitate face-to-face meeting and communications with its new definitions of both “meet” and “face” (Stone 1995, 85). They unite people with common beliefs and practices but are physically separate. Hence they are “incorporeal” communities that are not wedded to geography, or contained by national borders (Bugliarello 1997).

The composition and functioning of virtual communities differ from real life communities in some fundamental ways. They are aspatial (it is not constrained by geographical, territorial boundaries of the interacting individuals); asynchronous (except for chat sessions, its communication does not often take place in real time); acorporeal (there is a complete absence of face-to-face interaction and members are physically not present to each other); astigmatic (virtual communication is free from stigma such as race, gender, and physical appearance); and anonymous (interactions are capable of being more anonymous than in real world communities) (Smith 1995).

Though the virtual communities are characterised as being detached of time and space they have been found to be similar to physical communities. In both types there is communication and building of relationships. Members offer each other social support, a sense of belonging, and solidarity. They help each other, work together, cooperate and engage in trade. People basically do the same kinds of activities in both physical and virtual communities – they discuss, argue, fight, reconcile, make friends and amuse themselves (Rheingold 1993). These similarities suggest that virtual communities are really extensions of or virtual substitutes for their physical counterparts[14].

Virtual Communities− Advantages and Disadvantages

The advantageous aspects of online communities include building relationships possible between people without regard to geographical and time constraints and various handicaps that limit physical co-presence. It is possible to have aggregations of a larger number of people in virtual communities than in the real world. They also offer a safer meeting ground (as compared to cities). They allow members to experiment with and explore new identities and personalities, leading to more uninhibited interaction than in the real world. They bring together people from all walks of life regardless of their social status, class, race, gender or age. People in the same virtual community may never meet in real life, yet they can share a tangible relationship through their computer modems.

The problem with virtual communities is that members cannot be identified or held accountable for their actions and words. While this may encourage people to shed their inhibitions, it can also lead to unpleasant encounters in some virtual communities and the only recourse is to deny the offender access to the virtual community.

Fragmentation of Community in the Mass Media Age

On a sociological level it has been observed that during the mass media age sense of community was decreasing in society chiefly because of the decline of the institutions of the Middle Ages (Tönnies 1957; Weber 1963; Nisbet 1953). This transformation was the result of three important developments namely the intensification of globalisation, the detraditionalising of society, and the expansion and intensification of social reflexivity (Giddens 1994, 4-7). However, in a later analysis Giddens (1991) argued, “media are as much an expression of the disembedding globalising tendencies of modernity, as they are instruments of such tendencies” (p. 26).

Online Religious Community

Technological and mediated communication and fabrication of online communities have significantly affected the traditional religious communities in both positive and negative ways. Online spaces are increasingly becoming avenues for ‘doing religion’ (Helland 2005) with sacramental and ritual efficacy. Christopher Helland (2002) differentiates all religious activities in the cyberspace into ‘religion-online’ and ‘online-religion’. Religion-online presents information about religion, while online-religion is an interactive religious environment for the web practitioner. Scholars and social scientists (Brasher 2004; O’Leary 1996) claim that cyberspace can serve as sacred space, a space for religious travelling and gathering, and to practice virtues and purify vices. Jennifer Cobb considers that “cyberspace can aid humanity’s spiritual progression” by serving as an “important way station” on humanity’s journey toward a greater spiritual evolution” possibly because “the sacred is present in computers” (Cobb 1998, 98).

The online models of religious community presented by Heidi Campbell (2005) include a community in which people relate with God (Mystical Community), a community that draws its significance from a narrative story (communities as story) or as a virtual community of networked members (community as network). Online communities can explore their spiritual identity on two levels namely Spiritual and the Sacramental; the former offers experiential and experimental locus facilitating spiritual enlightenment or innovation often in non traditional concepts while the latter in itself is virtual “holy” ground, which enables people to describe online activities as part of their spiritual life (Campbell 2005, 53-67). It is recognised as a place, which can be constituted as a sacred environment. It acknowledges technology’s ability to alter individual and communal religious practices.

Defragmentation of Community in the New Media Age

Though mass media had been instrumental to fragment the traditional communities during the industrial era and the electronic mass communication era, the same have facilitated convergence of people around media artefacts such as radio and TV (Jankowski 2002; Matheson 2006) or other fictional narratives (Castelló 2007; Hever and Silberstein 2002; Wisse 2000; Forges 2003). Communities arise around shared images and other cultural practices (Morgan 2007) and these traditional institutions of society are still very much relevant as sources of meaning and protection (Slevin 2000) though they are technologically mediated and virtual in nature. Though new forms of technologies have fragmented the traditional societies at the same time it has also conglobated masses into virtual communities.

The postmodern community is no more limited to the traditions and geographical confines, but is growing globally, breaking the geographical boundaries. As “community is an expression of communicative force within the modernity” (Delanty 2010, 158) belongingness is experienced through communication and not in being physically proximate. Technologically mediated communities can thus be seen as renaissance of lost communities (Rheingold 1993). The reality of virtual communities in contrast with organic or physical communities is an established fact today (van Dijk 1997).

Possibilities of New Media in Mission Ad Gentes

New media is a powerful space where communities of faith can be formed and organised safely and meaningfully. When we think of new media in connection with mission ad gentes we think of how can we ‘use’ this technology for evangelisation. As we have already elaborated above the dynamics of new media requires from us to go and grow beyond the instrumental use of New Media. If media are understood as space (Lovheim 2005; Nitsche 2008; O’Leary 1996; Smith and Kollock 1999), or a ritual (Couldry 2003), as practice (Couldry 2004) or as culture (Carey 1992), we may able to overcome this perspectival crisis and increase efficiency and productivity in engaging new media with mission ad gentes. If media is understood as a space a new media missionary needs ‘to be there’ in that market place (Babin and Zukowski 2002) to meet them personally, to engage in meaningful discussions and to promote them to participate in creative mission for the Kingdom of God. If media is understood as practice or ritual we ourselves may engage with them meaningfully and open similar space for millions of people who want to involve in such meaningful and creative practices. If media is understood as culture let us promote a media culture that is positive, creative and meaningful. Let us invite millions of people to that cultural avenue where they could find meaning for their unanswered questions of life, participate in a culture of life, and become productive promoters of that culture.

It is an encouraging fact that the Church officially has advocated these ideologies by using new media and by promoting its dynamics for evangelisation. The world communications day messages of the last few years are emphatic about this. They endorse new media communication as dialogical, building solidarity and creating positive relations (Benedict 2011) as well as its dynamics can fulfill and enhance the new search for truths and meaning (Benedict 2012). As the church broadens her outlook to view social networks as new mission field (space) where Church should make its presence felt (Benedict 2013), we are exhorted to explore the potential of networked communication to bring people closer and to build a more just world. Therefore, it is necessary to “integrate the message into the ‘new culture’ created by modern communications… with new language, new techniques and a new psychology” (RM 37.c)

The implications

The new media follows the logic of the postindustrial or globalized society whereby people construct their own custom lifestyle and select their own ideology from a large number of choices (Manovich 2001). This means rather than pushing the same objects to a mass audience we need to address and target each individual separately.

Engaging with new media for the purpose of mission ad gentes will facilitate radical shifts in our ecclesiological perspectives and the very nature of living the Church. This changed perspective will be based on the communion ecclesiology developed by Second Vatican Council and is fundamentally Eucharistic (Ouellet 2012). This can open up dynamic thinking in the study of ecclesiology and develop better ecclesiological outlook that even goes beyond communio ecclesiology adequate to the challenges of postmodernity. This will be an ecclesiology that recognises the community’s many voices, which become the ultimate site of ecclesial authority and where leadership is validated in its attention to the sensus fidelium (Mannion 2007).

This ecclesiology lived and experience through new media’s ideology and technology opens up broad avenues for interreligious dialogue as well as ecumenical endeavours. In ecumenical theology, then, as in other areas of ecclesiology, promotion of the church’s koinonia requires the conversion of all members of the church in order to realise the church as other than a fixed, unchanging, and narrow reality (Mannion 2007).

Koinonia as lived by the early Christians (Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-37) had social implications. Our striving for social justice needs to be rooted in the life of God/Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The diakonia of the early Christian communities does not emerge from a concept of social justice nor was it entirely a separate activity but rather as an extension of their worship. On a social plane new media can facilitate this sort of a koinonia and diakonia as an extension of our lived community experience.

Interestingly, communication through new media can very well parallel the divine revelation within Avery Dulles’ theoretical framework of revelation as symbolic communication[15] (Dulles 1983). This optic will help us understand the Internet’s potential for the transmission of revelation and confidently employ new media to communicate divine revelation.

If a physical counterpart is maintained, the virtual communities will exist meaningfully and productively. They will not only break the barriers of canonical and ritual jurisdictions but also will address the issues and challenges of postmodern culture.

Notes

[1] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/community

[2] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/common?show=0&t=1382867531

[3] In the NT, it designates the community of Christian disciples who gathered at least weekly for common liturgy and prayer. The word “church” is used 114 times in the NT, but only three times in the Gospels (once in Matt 16:18 and twice in Matt 18:17). In the letters attributed to Paul, the word “church” is used 62 times, most often to denote the local Christian community or clusters of communities (Rom 16:4; 1 Cor 1:2, 14:33; 2 Cor 8:18; Gal 1:2; 1 Thess 1:1), or occasionally to refer to the whole church (Gal 1:13; 1 Cor 12:28) in a universal, cosmic sense (Col 1:24; Eph 5:29).

[4] For a detailed etymological exposition see (McDonnell 1998).

[5] Koinonia signifies community, communion, joint participation, sharing and intimacy. It can also mean a jointly contributed gift. The word appears 19 times in most editions of the Greek New Testament. In the New American Standard Bible, it is translated “fellowship” twelve times, “sharing” three times, and “participation” and “contribution” twice each.

[6] Communion itself was the breaking of bread and the form of worship and prayer. It was in the breaking of the bread that the Apostles “recognized” Christ and it was in the breaking of bread, called Communion, that they celebrated Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection in obedience to his Last Supper instruction: “Do this in memory of me.”

[7] Theological writings of Nicolas Afanassieff, Jean Zizioulas, Walter Kasper have later enhanced the perspective of these ecclesiological approach.

[8] Those spheres or institutions of society that promote solidarity and are potential integrators of society having characteristics such as rules, norms, and roles that produce feelings of warmth, closeness and belonging, thereby placing a strong emphasis on the normative aspect of community. (Eg. family, ethnic groups, voluntary organizations, and residential groups).

[9] These relationships stemming from interaction are primary and informal, and describe the way that people relate to each other over and above the necessary requisites.

[10] This notion of community involves a group of people who share a range of institutions (economic, social, or political) on the basis of their belonging to some familiar social category. (Eg. include community of scholars, doctors, etc.)

[11] There may be variation in the range and the degree to which these are shared, articulated, systematized and elaborated. Communication has not been taken as a separate characteristic of communities, but has been subsumed in shared values and beliefs. While shared values and beliefs generally promote communication, the presence of communication does not necessarily result in shared values.

[12] Relationships are not mediated by institutions, representatives, leaders, codes or abstractions.

[13] Relationships and exchanges exist which exhibit some form of co-operation and sharing galvanized by short term altruism and long-term self interest, or a mixture of the two.

[14] Some physical communities maintain an online counterpart which can be named ‘communities online’, while ‘online communities’ are purely born in the virtual domain.

[15] Avery Dulles argued that revelation was symbolic communication in that both revelation and symbolic communication have a similar fourfold structure as they unfold in the context of the community. He designated the key moments in this fourfold structure as participation, transformation, influence on action and behaviour, and opening to new awareness. Both symbol and revelation draw one in, leaves one transformed as is evidenced by one’s behaviour and actions, and opens one to new awareness, the horizon of which is always broader than one’s particular understanding. For a detailed study on this please see (Zsupan-Jerome 2009)

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