It’s a situation that is becoming more and more common: the parish rector maintains an active presence on Facebook. A parishioner sees the rector’s posts and becomes offended, perhaps at a very innocuous comment misunderstood or taken out of context. Then problems develop in the face-to-face parish community because of problems that started in the digital community. Versions of this scenario are played out throughout our heavily-networked society, and the church is not immune to them. They sometimes result in hurt feelings, a loss of good-will, broken relationships, or even missed employment opportunities. As clergy approach the practice of social networking, they do so with trepidation: how much digital self-revelation will be welcomed by the face-to-face community? Will I be allowed to be authentic, or must I be careful? Ought I to express my own opinions or to represent the views of my parish? Are the very real ministry opportunities that digital networking provides worth the hassles and misunderstandings that seem inevitably to crop up?
When we think about how to support a healthy digital parish community, it should be axiomatic that we are not building the edifice out of perfect stones. We can be fooled by our own collective piety into thinking that church people will always act as Christ would act, both in person and online. But the fact is that most of us, clergy included, are really half-formed pagans still coming to Christ. We have learned our values and relationship habits elsewhere than at the foot of the cross, and we are loath to think critically about them. A healthy digital community made up of Christians should actually be expected to display both good and bad behavior, both biblical and worldly values, both healthy and unhealthy relationship habits, if it is “a net cast wide, containing all kinds of fish” (Matt. 13:47). Clergy, ideally, should be more formed into the image of Christ and set a tone of Christian charity in their digital world. This should include a broad acceptance of people across the whole spectrum of opinions and ideologies for the sake of the Gospel. St. Paul set us this example: “I have become all things to all people, that I might by any means save some” (1 Cor. 9:2).
But what can be done when the half-formed pagan on the other end of an exchange finds that very inclusiveness offensive? When she or he considers that all good people ought to think thus and so about this or that issue or this or that candidate for public office, or when they think that any broadness displayed on the clergy’s part constitutes a traitorous stand alongside the bad guys? In American society, this kind of polarization is becoming more common, and this is especially visible on social networking media. Or what if the half-formed pagan on the other end simply has not yet realized that Christians are bound even in their private thoughts by certain authorities: Holy Scripture, sacred tradition, and the collective discernment of the church? Clergy are usually well-trained in keeping these boundaries (or at least in knowing where they are), but our lay people, especially in the Episcopal Church, are largely used to exercising unfettered freedom of opinion on all matters. And, having exercised our freedom, we often go on to deny that same freedom to others: “I just can’t understand how any rational, Christian person would vote for [Candidate C].”
We learn these values from our culture, not from the cross. Culture trains us to take a stand and fight; the cross trains us to stand nowhere but with Jesus and willingly to die. Culture trains us to link our politics and our religion as often and as vehemently as we can; the cross trains us to separate them and cleave only to the one thing that is needful. As we build healthy digital citizenship in our parishes, we cannot expect our people to be used to this training of the cross. And social networking media, by their nature and construction, do not often reward sacrificial charity. The church needs to teach and preach about mirroring Christ in our digital citizenship or else that formation will never take place. The point bears repeating: digital charity can and must become the topic of sermons and Sunday school classes and every other method through which we form Christians. It is emphatically not too contemporary or too trivial or too far afield from our exegetical concerns. Almost every one of our parishioners maintains a digital life, and the Gospel must be applied to it. The digital life functions as a window — sometimes too clear and direct for comfort – into the souls of people. And, despite the famous maxim of Good Queen Bess, the Church is always looking for windows into the soul, that it may shine therein the light of the Gospel.
Fortunately, we are in the right business for dealing with half-formed pagans – they have been the Church’s particular care for as many centuries as the church has been alive. We know what to do with the half-formed: form them. The Great Commission itself is a rallying cry for Christian formation: “As you are going, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them to obey all things I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19–20). The offended parishioner, expressing by his ire the fact that he has not yet learned to put Christ above all, is a person in whom God is working and for whom Christ died. The digital world offers its share of moments of spiritual testing, each of which can also become a moment of conversion. Seeing a post from a fellow churchman with which we radically disagree is itself a test of faith: just how much will I love this person for Christ’s sake? Will I “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving my neighbor as myself” (BCP 1979, p. 305), even across political or ideological boundaries? Is Christ to be all in all?
What God asks of us in our digital life is the same that he asks of us in our face-to-face life. He demands neither understanding nor empathy nor to agree with everyone nor to make everyone agree with us nor to right the world’s wrongs nor even virtue: God asks us for simple faithfulness. To put him first and ourselves and all others behind is the definition of discipleship. Whether I am the digitally-offended or the digital offender, authentic Christian community demands a high price, that we each and all put the love of Jesus above every other concern, bar none. As this is the recipe for a healthy face-to-face community, so also it makes for a healthy digital community.