Online communities face three distinctive challenges: clarity about terms (what does “online” mean?), engaging an audience, and motivating people to form a community. Understanding these challenges are foundational to online ministry with real people and making real connections in digital spaces.
Challenge #1: CLARITY
We live in at an interesting time, as we don’t quite know what to do with the word “online.” It’s just a bit foggy. On one hand, there’s worry about deception (TV shows like Catfish), loss of intimacy (books like Alone Together), corruption of personhood (porn, violence, gambling, gaming, and so on), brain rotting (losing depth of thought, shortening attention spans, etc.), and triviality (“It’s just online. It’s not IRL/in real life.”). There is trolling and griefing and dogpiling and harassing and abusing and terrorizing.
I don’t want to minimize these things. In many ways the Internet showcases the worst of humanity. I often say that it’s a mirror, reflecting what’s already true of us. But it’s not the whole story. Yes, the Internet is awful but, on the other hand, it’s beautiful. We’ve embraced as normal meeting spouses online, getting advanced degrees online, keeping in touch with mom online, and discovering generous communities online. I could keep going.
Others have asked: Is there even such a thing anymore as “offline”? (There’s a fantastic Idea Channel video on YouTube talking about this.)
We keep wanting a binary answer: Is the Internet a good thing or a bad thing? Will it ruin us or save us? Is this a valid place to have relationships and do ministry, or not?
Three ideas are helpful to me; these have become my Motivating Beliefs for Ministry in Digital Spaces. I’ve written more extensively on the subject elsewhere.
First core idea: All communication is mediated.
Even IRL (in real life), communication is mediated. Face-to-face, intimate; still mediated.
Second core idea: All media are real.
Yes, all are real and valid. BUT, some are more appropriate than others, depending on what you are trying to accomplish. You have to think and be intentional about what you want to do and what you want to communicate. So rather than using “in real life” to mean the same thing as “life when I’m not on the Internet”, I’ve tried to be very careful with my language, saying: Online vs. offline. Digital spaces vs. physical spaces. Digitally-mediated real life. I really want to get away from virtual vs. real, or, “It’s just online.
Third core idea: All people long for unmediated.
With our physical bodies, we can never achieve unmediated. But this is a basic foundation for spiritual journey and practice. This longing to know and be known.
Takeaway #1: Be clear with language.
Practice saying what you mean. It will feel awkward at first, but you’ll quickly get used to it.
Challenge #2: ENGAGEMENT
All media are real. Not all are equally adept at what you want to do and communicate. There is an inherent tension between designers and users. The difference lies between how I might want to design something and how others want to use what I’ve made. This tension between designers and users never ceases, particularly not in the rapidly changing world of the Internet. The structures, protocols, and content of the Internet are constantly changing. The means of access are constantly changing. How users are engaging, and what they want, is constantly changing. Cyclical at best, definitely not linear. All of this heightens the importance of working to understand users. A few patterns emerge:
How do you engage them? How do you find them? How do you attract them? These are all great questions. Worth your time. But I’d also encourage you to focus a good bit of your attention on all three types of your active users.
Active users: Observers
Please don’t call them lurkers. They’re observers; they’re the ones who just want to watch. But don’t look down on them because you never know how active they are when you can’t see them. First and foremost: How can you give them what they want? How will you know what they want? Secondary question: How can you encourage them to become Creators and Connectors?
Active users: Creators
How can you support what they’re doing? How can you make creating easier? How can you keep it interesting? Secondary question: How can you also encourage them to become Connectors?
Active users: Connectors/Networkers
How can you support what they’re doing? How can you make it easier? How can you keep it interesting? Secondary question: How can you also encourage them to become Creators?
Takeaway #2: Work to understand and engage your audience.
There is an ecosystem of roles, like in almost any social setting you can think of. Sports teams: different types of players, coaches, managers, fans, support staff. Startup roles: Hacker, Designer, Hustler. RPG roles: Tank, Healer, Damage Dealer. The point is: Don’t ask everyone to do the same thing. Embrace the different roles. Help everyone shine in their role. The challenge is engagement.
Challenge #3: MOTIVATION
Why would people want to be part of this community? How do you know who is inside, and who is outside? How does one move from the outside to the inside? Or from inside to outside? As an alternative to these questions about communities, let’s sidestep by talking about Affinity: something in common that draws people together. A centered set, not a bounded set. Think about locations that affirm affinity groups—with particular interest in the location itself. Libraries, community gardens, clubhouses, a sandlot, basketball court.
Focus on the spaces themselves—it’s the field of dreams tagline, “If you build it, they will come.” You put a basketball court just about anywhere in the world, and kids will play on it. In this way, Affinity Spaces are better than communities, where you have to figure out who is in and who is out. Affinity Spaces just attract anyone looking for that shared interest. Affinity spaces have a Generator that creates the space, a Portal that allows access to the space, and Content and Interactions that define how users will experience the space.
Takeaway #3: Understand your context.
What is built? Who is gathering there? How do they get there? What is their experience like? Your task is to critically examine both the spaces you’re using and the ones you want to make yourself.
With clear language, efforts to engage the audience, and understanding the context, ministry in digital spaces can be an opportunity and adventure in following Jesus into places and toward people that he loves.