Last year I participated in an intensive, nine-month workshop called "Working From the Heart." I wanted to integrate two seemingly divergent eras in my life. In the first era, I was part of the founding group of Sojourners and helped build community, lead worship, work in the inner city, and write for the magazine. The second era began with a mid-life crisis. I left Sojourners, formed my own software company, and worked as an independent computer consultant.
How could I integrate these two periods in my life-community and computers, technology and social change? When I asked these questions to the people around me, no one understood or felt the same energy that was driving me. Sometimes I got blank stares, muffled laughter, or outright hostility. "Computers are technological toys of the white, male, educated, privileged class that complicate our lives, feed our addictions, destroy real community, and increase the pace of our already too hectic lives. And history shows that all of these new technologies inevitably promise more than they can ever deliver and ultimately do more harm than good."
I had to find a place where I could ask my questions among those who had more sympathetic ears. My first real experience of "computer-mediated community" came when I subscribed to Ecunet, a church-based electronic conferencing system that is the home for many who are exploring creative ways to use this new technology within the context of the church.
One of the first people to reply to the questions I posed was Dale lature, who lived in Cincinnati and was asking the same questions I was. We soon became "electronic soul mates." A flurry of notes went back and forth between us as we formed one of the many computer-mediated "mission groups" that comprise Ecunet. Earlier this year, when Ecunet held its second annual conference in Baltimore, "Ministry in Cyberspace," Dale stayed with our family for several days, and we continued to build the relationship that had been born online.
My experience with Dale was not unique. Howard Rheingold's The Virtual Community chronicles the many ways that this new technology is helping people to find each other, work together toward common visions and dreams, build relationships, and help create a better world.
THE LAST DECADE has seen the computer primarily used as an office automation tool, as a fancy typewriter, a smart calculator, or an automated Rolodex. This next decade may show that the greatest social impact of the computer is not as an office automation tool, but as a communication tool, as a community-building tool.
There is a technological revolution happening that will dramatically change the way groups of people communicate with each other. Advances in communication software and networks are bringing new ways for geographically dispersed individuals who share common goals to connect with and resource each other. Increasingly, the computer is being used to organize politically and build movements of people who have common interests and agendas.
It is odd that an impersonal technology such as the computer may be responsible for a revival of the lost art of personal letter writing, as more and more individuals use communication networks to reconnect with old and new friends. Pastors are finding ways to help each other write their Sunday morning sermons. Youth leaders are using the internet to stay connected with college students. Churches are setting up "home pages" to make their local neighborhoods aware of their work. Many different church-related groups are collecting resources that can now be globally accessed. Seminaries are hosting online classes and making available a wide variety of biblical and theological resources. Commercial services are soliciting the presence of religious publications, as evidenced by America Online's new "Christianity Online."
Through the internet a person can as easily connect to the work of Bishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa as that of Canadian theologian David Lochhead on the theological implications of communication technology. A person can as quickly reach the Taize community in France as Peacenet's collection of progressive political resources in California.
This new technology offers new possibilities for how Sojourners members can connect to each other. It could become a useful tool for helping us find each other and the resources we need to do the work we feel called to do.
We are aware of the many pitfalls along the way. We don't want to baptize uncritically an emerging technology and overlook some of its inherent dangers. The technology is evolving, and there are still many problems to be solved. We know that there is an inherent injustice in its all-too-limited access. And we wouldn't want "virtual" community to replace the face-to-face community we experience each day with our close friends and neighbors.
Nevertheless, this new frontier is one that the church needs to explore. Our first step into this world is the creation of Sojourners Online (see box). We invite you to join us in our experiment to find creative ways of using this new technology for the work of the church in the world.
Bob Sabath is web technologist of Sojourners.