Real Formation in a Digital World
The Internet cannot do the job of formation for us. This might seem like a strange thing to say on a blog that regularly covers technology and faith formation, but it seems to me that we must accept this idea from the first if we are to properly apply the immense power of the Internet to this purpose. After all, it’s only when we are clear in our minds about what the Internet can’t do that we can be clear in our minds about what it can do. And as it turns out, while it can’t do the job of formation by itself, it can do an awful lot to help us as we are formed in Christ.
Why can’t the Internet do the job of formation, then? I can only speak from my own experience here. I have spent the last two years living in St. Hilda’s House, an intentional Christian community based in New Haven, CT. St. Hilda’s is centered around formation through service. My time here has changed me significantly, both perceptibly and imperceptibly. The most powerful instrument of that change, however, was not a bare programmatic structure: it was the fact that I was constantly encountering others who challenged me to see the world in a new light.
Now, we encounter plenty of people online (indeed, we probably encounter more people online than we ever will in real life, if only when we see their comment at the bottom of a news article or YouTube video). The form of these encounters, however, is of a different kind to those which have affected me so very deeply.
The Internet privileges communication as the primary form of relationship. But what changed me most in community was not just conversation: it was time spent being with others, even when there weren’t many words to be spoken. Outside of World of Warcraft (perhaps), it’s difficult to build online relationships on the basis of extensive shared experience, especially those unremarkable experiences which so often form the basis of the loving relationships which form us.
The Internet also allows us to log off from our relationships with others. It allows us to curate the opinions we hear. What challenged and changed me most in community, however, was learning to live with those who were radically different from me and who I could not hide from my timeline, so to speak.
There is not, of course, an absolute distinction between online and worldly interaction: we can just as easily neglect to spend quality time with others in our daily lives, and we can just as easily block out those voices which we don’t want to hear. The peculiarity of living in community, however, was that these things became nigh on impossible, and I believe it was this fact which led to such genuine transformation in my life.
Why, then, should we bother with the Internet? What’s the point of digital mission if formation itself is an offline process? Here're my answers: the Internet can inform how we approach and interpret those relationships. It can serve as a means to carry the stories told and the lessons learned in different communities across the whole world, such that the stories of one community can inform another. Above all, it can serve as a means to fulfill our responsibility to bear witness to and hear the gospel, to help the light of Christ shine a little brighter in the world.
My official job title at St. Hilda’s this year is digital missioner. What does it mean to be a digital missioner? I can honestly say that I’m not sure yet: it’s an evolving job, one which I am exploring along with other people across America.
What I can say is that a central part of what it has meant so far this year is that I have been blessed to help share my housemates’ stories. I have been blessed to help Will share his experience of co-ordinating a food pantry in an economically divided city. I have been blessed to help Megan share her experiences of wrestling with her privilege as she works in a soup-kitchen and of living with the expectation of being a ‘good Christian girl’. I have been blessed to share reflections from Hildans past and present on what community is and means. I have even been blessed to share some of my own journey from militant atheism to Christian community, as well as how I broke the news of my recent engagement to the kids of the school I also work in.
None of these stories can or should supplant the lived experience of others, but they can serve to inform the experience of others. They can help those walking similar paths know that they are not alone. They can provoke thought and discussion and lead to otherwise impossible dialogue. They can bear witness to the wonderful diversity of Christian lives. They can ensure that the lessons learned on the ground are not kept silent and forgotten, but are instead read, reread, remembered, and then relearned in ever new ways in ever new places. Finally, they can shine a light on the opportunities that exist in this world to try and live Christ-centered lives, opportunities like Saint Hilda’s and the Episcopal Service Corps, and so help others as they seek to discern a path along which they might be called.
The Internet does not negate the importance of relationship, then. Just as the printing press revolutionized communication but didn’t alter the importance of gathering together in a worshipping community, the Internet is changing the way we communicate with each other without reducing the importance of living with and for each other.
Within this movement, however, just as the printing press did before, the Internet is also broadening the horizons of our experience. It is allowing us to testify to what we have seen in new ways and to hear the testimony of those we would have never heard otherwise. And as we are faced with new ways of bearing witness to Christ, so we are opened up to new ways for Christ to call us into relationship with him. If all this hearing and witnessing is to be real formation in a digital world, of course, then we must heed the words we read and answer them, not just with our keyboards but with our lives.
I cannot say how this will look in particular cases. I can, however, say that when we read of Christ in the lives of others, we must then go on to turn our eyes from our screens and seek him in our neighbors, whether by throwing ourselves further into the communities we already know or going out and seeking new neighbors to know and love. It is important that we share what we read online. All the same, e-Formation will be formation first and foremost when online words provoke offline action. I pray, then, that as we continue to explore the possibilities of this ever evolving digital world, we might let the stories of others inform our lives. And I pray that, in doing this, our lives might be formed anew in Christ.
Edward Watson is the digital missioner for St. Hilda’s House (@StHildasHouse), an Episcopal Service Corps site in New Haven, CT. The Saint Hilda’s House blog updates on Mondays and Thursdays, and you can like them on Facebook here.