Building Relationships Online, Offline, or Both?

This is a piece that I wrote for The Congregational Resource Guide (CRG) Blog that was originally posted on January 2, 2012. The CRG recently announced that it will be closing and that some of its materials will be managed by either The Alban Institute or The Indianapolis Center for Congregations. Given the uncertainty of how or when the CRG content will be online again, I am reposting this piece here on my personal blog.

A friend of mine recently asked me an important question regarding relationships in the context of our local congregations. He asked whether or not the focus of the individuals and leaders that collectively represent congregations shouldn’t be on building relationships offline before engaging social media to this end?

Setting aside the social media aspect for the moment, the question really boils down into two critical points for consideration. The first is finding a model that can best guide our relationships as individuals, leaders, and congregations. The second is to locate how we, as a community, can best embody this model.

For the Christian author and theologian Sallie McFague, these two points come together in her book Models of God in which she examines three models for God: God as mother, God as lover, and God as friend. Through these models, McFague explores God’s relationship with the world as creator, savior, and sustainer. The relationship of God as sustainer, as friend, is one in which we are invited into a collective relationship that is intended to be a partnership with God in caring for the needs of the world. McFague describes this model for friendship as inclusive, one that can be imagined as individuals standing “side by side, absorbed in some common interest.” God as friend and sustainer invites us to be in a community “which is a gathering of those committed to the vision of a healed, liberated world.” This is an important distinction from some of the more classical models of friendship which tend to be selective, exclusive, one-to-one and focused more on the needs of the individuals.

And how do we as a community fulfill this type of inclusive friendship? McFague suggests that it is when we openly invite others to join us at the table in the shared meal. Hospitality, in this meal, is not extended only to friends but to all. The shared meal is not unique to Christians as many religious traditions celebrate a shared meal: Muslim iftar, Hindu prashada, and Sikh langar to name a few. McFague suggests that through the shared meal we can begin to break down the fears we maintain of others, of the stranger. And furthermore that it is only by inviting the stranger into our community that we can truly begin to understand others and thus care for the needs of the world.

So back to my friend’s question, should this type of relationship precede our involvement with social media?

If you have been following along with me these past few months you will know that I’ve been thinking about social media as a framework, and as such there is no one size fits all approach. For this reason I feel that there is not a single answer to this question. However I’d like to suggest that we consider social media’s ability enhance our relationships. The type of friendship and relationship building suggested by McFague is applicable to all facets of life — both online or offline. Much like participating in the shared meal can enhance our relationships, social media is a means by which we can gather in community and extend our hospitality to others — including strangers. Social media does not replace our need to gather as a community, but in today’s context the opportunity exists to leverage social media to stand side by side with others, focused on a common vision to heal and liberate the world.