What the Church Can Learn from Facebook

In their book, Transforming Christian Theology for Church and Society, Tripp Fuller and Philip Clayton argue for the necessity of local congregations to connect the work they do with deep, sustained theological reflection.  I have been thinking about other areas of life that should be linked with deep theological reflection, and for me one of these areas is popular culture.  Another aspect is the changing nature of technology and communication in the culture in which we live.  In Thy Kingdom Connected:  What the Church Can Learn from Facebook, the Internet, and Other Networks, Dwight J. Friesen provides rich theological reflection on the state of “relationality” today, providing one of the most insightful accounts of how the church not only should be, but truly is, that you are likely to find.

Friesen’s book is not a how-to.  He does not lay out a seven-point plan for successful congregational life in the twenty-first century…thank God!  What he invites readers into is something much more complex, rewarding, and life changing.  He encourages us to embrace new eyes with which to see the world around us…specifically new lenses to see the reality of our interconnectedness and interdependence on each other and everything in the created order.  Friesen reveals that new advances in technology, communications, and science reveal what has been true all along…existence is relational.  Even though this is not a how-to resource, Thy Kingdom Connected is rich with practical implications for denominations, local congregations, cohorts, and individual believers.

He divides his text into five clusters each containing two or three chapters.  After he opens by adjusting our eyesight to see connectedness, he reveals the depth and complexity of “God’s Networked Kingdom.”  Here, he draws heavily on Martin Buber’s notions of “I & It,” “I & You” relationships, for example, to reveal the selfish exploitative relationships we must transcend to become a communal “We.”  Friesen then considers the implications of such interconnectedness on leadership.  Can hierarchies and individual leaders exist any longer in this networked kingdom, or must our notions of leadership undergo fundamental changes?  For Friesen, leaders become less like “imparters” of knowledge and more like active connectors putting people together with each other and with ideas to produce life-giving, transformative relationships.

The nature of our local churches changes as well.  Friesen proposes a notion of “Christ-Commons” where “Christ-Clusters,” enlivened by the Holy Spirit, meet to grow spiritually and advance the Kingdom of God on earth.  Put more directly, “Through the dynamic union of Christ-Commons and Christ-Clustering, the local church lives.  The Christ-Commons provides form for clustering, while the Christ-Clustering animates the Christ-Commons” (126).  Finally, Friesen discusses “Connective Practices,” which include what he cleverly calls “Missional And’ing” (“living as an agent in God’s mission of reconciliation” (133)), practicing “Network Ecology” (caring for the connections), and then spiritual formation (privileging notions of networked-set configurations over open- or bounded-set configurations.

Being deeply immersed in popular culture…as many of us are…I was particularly struck by one comment that Friesen made early in his book.  He writes, “The good news of Christ invites us to wholeness, uniting body and soul, sacred and secular, male and female, Jew and Gentile, even God and humanity:  one God, one creation.  It even unites church and world in such a way that releases the gospel from the control of the church” (28).  This is a bold claim indeed…but what an exciting one!  While this might frighten some readers, it comes as something of a relief to me.  Think of the potential for gospel-encounters in this now widened, yet simultaneously closer, world.  No matter the networks in which we live and move, this assertion encourages us to see the work, voice, or movement of the gospel beyond our congregations, denominational viewpoints, or cohort gatherings, even in the movie theaters, at the art galleries, through iPods, and on television programs with which we are already engaged.

Friesen’s book is, quite simply, a must-read for everyone either inside or outside a “traditional” community of faith (but perhaps more for the former!).  It truly will be amazing to see what types of communities and connections flourish around this most important book.

Dwight J. Friesen will be participating in Theology After Google, March 10-12, 2012, at Claremont School of Theology.  I look forward to hearing more of his thoughts there and hope many of you can attend as well.