Recently an e-mail arrived in my in-box from a woman in my congregation who wanted to know if anyone had camping gear she could borrow. Within 24 hours she had arranged to borrow the needed equipment and sent out a follow-up e-mail to thank everyone who had offered to share their gear with her. As I read her e-mail I felt encouraged by the generosity of the people in my congregation. But when I read an e-mail from another member of my congregation, a man who serves on a church committee with me, my emotional response was anxiousness. I couldn’t tell by his words whether he was angry, joking, or simply trying to make a factual statement. Without the cues that come with face-to-face interaction, I had insufficient resources to understand what he intended to communicate.

Given these disparate experiences, which are common to many of us, is e-mail good or bad in connection to the formation of relationships and community in the local church? What shaping power might technologically mediated communication have on communities that are to be marked by love and grace and primarily shaped by God’s story of life, death, resurrection, and redemption?

Beyond that, what is the shaping force of the larger technological system on our congregations? As a way of accessing issues pertinent to this larger question, I have examined how a listserv—basically an e-mail list to which people can voluntarily add their names—is used in my congregation. The way listservs work is that an e-mail sent to the main listserv address automatically goes to everyone whose name is on the list. A listserv is one very small part of the Internet, which in turn is only one part of the bigger technological system. However, I suggest that the listserv acts as a fractal—a piece that replicates the patterns of the larger systems in which it is embedded. While this form of technologically enhanced communication is hardly new or cutting edge, I believe that by exploring it we will gain insight into the bigger systems.

I’ll lay my cards on the table. While I use computers every day and am one of the more tech-savvy people in the theological school where I teach, I am resentful of the intrusiveness of technology and suspicious of the Internet’s ability to foster gospel-shaped community. However, my experience with our church’s listserv has challenged me to nuance my reactions.

Building Social Capital 

I first got to know Kevin and Renee Kraemer during the social time after our worship services. We soon found ourselves together on a team that serves monthly meals at a local shelter. Their oldest daughter and my youngest son are in the same Sunday school class and were in a play group together for a couple years. We have a connection that has come about through the relational web of our church. So when the Kraemers sent out an e-mail on the listserv asking for help with their cross-town move, I felt a moderate level of obligation to pitch in. When moving day rolled around, a group of people from our church showed up and we worked together to load and unload the moving truck, wipe down shelves, and set up beds. This shared experience produced social capital.

In sociological terms, social capital refers to the sense of connection, good will, trust, and mutual obligation that exists in webs of relationships.1 Strong communities have a high level of social capital. They have it because they engage in the types of activities that generate social capital. In theological terms, social capital within a congregation can be equated with the things that bind us together in the body of Christ—things such as concrete acts of serving one another in Christian love and shared experiences. Coming together to help friends move is an example of a social-capital-generating or body-building activity.

The ways in which the Internet contributes to social capital can be summarized as follows: it can transform it, diminish it, or supplement it.2 In relation to the Kraemers’ move, the listserv had a supplementing role. If the listserv communication had not been accompanied by face-to-face interaction, social capital would not have been generated. But the listserv was used in a coordinating role for a face-to-face event that did produce social capital in our congregational community.

As Steve, a member of our congregation, battled cancer over a two-year period, his wife Mary sent out updates to the community via the listserv. The listserv allowed for the quick dissemination of information (often within hours of a visit to the doctor). If Mary had waited until we were all together for worship she could have told a few people in person, but not everyone since that sort of communication is time-consuming and tiring. Perhaps an announcement could have been made during the worship service, but such announcements aren’t always possible and can’t include as much detail as an e-mail message can. The e-mail updates Mary sent allowed us as a community to walk more closely with Steve and Mary and their family through these trying times. We gained insight into their fears and struggles and we were drawn into prayer for them. Many people sent e-mails to Steve and Mary to let them know that they were praying for them and to offer other forms of emotional and physical support.

In this case the community was built up by means of the listserv itself. Without this way of communicating we would have been less connected to Steve and Mary’s journey. We would not have had as much insight into Steve’s physical situation and to his and Mary’s emotional state. Without the listserv Steve and Mary would not have received as many words of support, nor received these words as quickly. The listserv wasn’t the only way the congregation participated in Steve and Mary’s journey—meals were delivered, visits were made, and child care was provided—but the listserv was certainly a significant means through which others walked with them. The listserv itself was the context for the creation of social capital.

Our church is part of the Anabaptist tradition, which has historically emphasized mutual aid as a central aspect of Christian community. In Amish settings this might take the form of a barn raising. In our urban Mennonite setting this often takes the form of passing on no longer needed appliances, lending out a minivan, or providing rides to the airport. Recently a family from our church sent out an e-mail asking if anyone had a microwave they no longer wanted. A second family had recently moved into a new rental unit and the previous tenants had left behind a microwave. That family saw the query on the listserv and offered the microwave to the first family. The listserv provided a quick means of matching a need with a resource, a way of participating in mutual aid.

In another situation, a young couple had out-of-town family members coming for Thanksgiving. This couple loves to host large holiday meals with family and friends, but their small apartment makes this difficult. So they sent out an e-mail asking if anyone in the church who would be away over Thanksgiving would be willing to make their home available for this feast. A family who was indeed going to be out of town for Thanksgiving readily offered their home. The young couple felt more bonded to the community because of the offer, and the family offering the house felt a sense of satisfaction from being able to make it. The communal bonds were built up for both the receivers and the givers—even prior to the actual use of the house—because these sharings in the community operate on at least two levels: the sharing meets actual physical needs and it simultaneously fosters a community atmosphere marked by reciprocity, good will, and generosity. These exchanges have ripple effects in the larger congregation. As bystanders see the types of requests being made and the eager willingness of others to respond to these requests, they become more likely to enter into this cycle
of generalized reciprocity themselves.

Enhancing Discernment 

The listserv has also provided a way for our congregation to learn about important topics ranging from social justice issues to church history. Leading up to an election, informative e-mail exchanges took place in relation to the ballot initiatives. I was fascinated to see the angles from which people came at the discussion. One person brought sociological expertise into the conversation, another brought theological insight, and still another brought her professional experience into the discussions. In this way the listserv operated as an educational forum.

This educational function is connected to the process of discernment. Our tradition places a high value on seeking the input of others in our decisions. Whether it is a discussion of foreign policy or a request for parenting tips, the educational element helps us to draw on the wisdom of the community as we make decisions. It is not the only way this wisdom is accessed, but in our context—where members are spread out across a metropolitan area, traffic is heavy, and schedules are full—our discernment is assisted by this form of communication.

Complicating Conflict 

However, there are drawbacks to the use of listservs too. Occasionally an e-mail exchange results in hurt feelings. While face-to-face communication is not immune to this problem, with face-to-face communication misunderstandings or personal offenses can be perceived and addressed in a shorter amount of time. In face-to-face communication we have a range of nonverbal cues to draw upon. In particular, we pick up cues related to a person’s emotions, willingness to work cooperatively, and trustworthiness.3 While we often have little conscious awareness of these cues, they nonetheless constitute a major part of our communication. We make a feeble attempt to replicate this body language in e-mails by using symbols for our emotions. But most of this layer of communication is simply lost in e-mail.

These problems were present in the following situation: Melissa sent out an e-mail asking for a recommendation for an auto mechanic. Within hours several people had made recommendations. One recommended a local shop called Mike’s Auto. This elicited responses from several others who shared negative experiences they’d had with Mike’s Auto. Then Drew, who stated that Mike’s Auto was one of his best auto parts customers, sent out an abrupt e-mail responding to the negative reviews of Mike’s Auto. It simply said, “These are very serious accusations.” After a few more e-mails were exchanged on the listserv, Drew sent a terse e-mail saying he wanted no part of the listserv anymore, and asked to have his name removed from it.

From my perspective as a bystander, Drew seemed to have misunderstood what the “accusers” were saying. What I heard to be testimonies of specific bad experiences Drew apparently heard as sweeping condemnations. In face-to-face conversation this tension between Drew and the “accusers” could have been worked through more easily and more quickly. But with the listserv the pace of communication can be laborious. Some people on the listserv check their e-mail only every day or two, and even those who check more often don’t always read the listserv e-mail or reply to it immediately. Thus, when this e-mail conversation took a negative turn, slivers of hurt feelings and misunderstandings festered in the community for several days. The on-line communication around this situation soon ended, but tensions between Drew and the broader community lingered. The situation was not worked through or brought to healthy closure via the listserv, and perhaps not at all (those of us not directly involved in the exchange were never made aware of whether the parties directly involved were able to talk this situation through in person).

These deficiencies in e-mail communication feed my conviction that the listserv is not a good venue for working through conflict. God has created us as diverse and unique people and, as a result of these differences, we can expect conflict in our congregations. E-mail is not well-suited to working through these conflicts in God-honoring ways. In conflictive situations the emotional content is high, and this emotional content gets passed on poorly via e-mail.

One woman in our congregation, realizing that she had opened a can of worms with her e-mail to our listserv, quickly asked people who wanted to continue the conversation to e-mail her directly (not via the listserv) and she then followed up in person with them. She astutely recognized that the issue would not be worked out constructively through the listserv but would require more personal interaction.

While conflicts and tensions do pop up now and then on our listserv, they are actually fairly rare. This is probably because this virtual community is connected to a face-to-face community. Anita Blanchard describes a community like this as a “place-based virtual community.”4 Place-based virtual communities are connected to a geographic region, so they tend to work in concert with face-to-face communities. People in place-based virtual communities are likely to interact in person as well. In contrast, a “dispersed virtual community” has no geographic mooring and participants therefore seldom, if ever, see each other in person. The physical proximity of those in a place-based virtual community encourages a sense of civility because, as Putnam and Feldstein point out, when you know that you will soon interact with a person face to face you are more likely to remember your manners in your e-mails.5 In this way positive communal pressure exists to constrain hurtful or embarrassing comments, though it does not eliminate them. So it appears that the low incidence of negative interactions on our listserv results from the fact that the listserv community is connected to a physical congregation that meets together at least once a week. The biblical idea of accountability is promoted in our virtual community because it is connected to face-to-face community.

Problems of Exclusion 

Another point of concern has to do with the circle of participants. The listserv can make some people feel excluded, out of the loop, or uninformed. Not everyone in our congregation has signed up for the church’s listserv. Some don’t want to deal with the extra e-mail in their in-boxes. Others aren’t aware of the active nature of this virtual community and so don’t bother to sign up. Some may not have ready Internet access. In a congregation with lower levels of education or income, the issue of Internet access and computer proficiency would be even bigger.

When our church needs to communicate important information to the whole church, the listserv by itself is not an adequate means of doing this. One of the strongest functions of electronic communication is the transference of information, but other means must be used as well in order to include all our people. Information must also be passed on through the bulletin, through announcements during the worship service, and through physical mailings. As we seek to live as followers of the One who always looks out for the marginalized, we must carefully consider ways we might contribute to that marginalization by over-reliance on a form of communication that can exclude some.

Considering the Culture 

If a church would like to try using a listserv in these ways, consideration of congregational size is important. Our congregation has around 150 regular worshipers. What works for us could be difficult for a congregation that is significantly larger than ours, though for a congregation smaller than ours a listserv could probably function in a similar way. Another consideration is whether the existing church culture lends itself to a listserv functioning in some of the ways I’ve described
. I know of a congregation that set up a listserv in the hope that it would work the way ours does, but because their existing congregational culture differed significantly from ours the listserv didn’t function in the same ways for them.

As Marshall McLuhan so aptly pointed out, the medium we use for communication significantly impacts the message (or, in his words, the medium is the message).6 As Christians we are a people with a message, and in order to be faithful stewards of that message we cannot blindly embrace every medium offered to us by the technological system. We need to carefully discern the ways in which different pieces of the technological system work for or against our living as gospel-shaped communities so that we might live faithfully as the people of God.

1. A similar definition is set forth in Robert D. Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), 19. Important definitional background can also be found in Marleen Huysman and Wulf Volker’s “Social Capital and Information Technology: Current Debates and Research,” in Social Capital and Information Technology, ed. Marleen Huysman and Wulf Volker (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), 1.
2. Anabeth Quan-Haase and Bary Wellman, “How Does the Internet Affect Social Capital?” in Social Capital and Information Technology, ed. Marleen Huysman and
Wulf Volker (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), 116.
3. Robert D. Putnam and Lewis M. Feldstein, Better Together: Restoring the American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003), 175.
4. Anita Blanchard, “The Effect of Dispersed Virtual Communities on Face-to-Face Social Capital,” in Social Capital and Information Technology, ed. Marleen Huysman and Wulf Volker (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press,
2004), 55.
5. Robert D. Putnam and Lewis M. Feldstein, Better Together: Restoring the American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003), 235.
6. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), 7.

Questions for Reflection 

  1. In what ways is a sense of community or social capital fostered in your congregation?
  2. Do you think a listserv might contribute positively to your congregation’s identity and mission? Why or why not? How might your congregation’s current culture relate to this?
  3. What types of technology does your church use? What are the benefits to the congregation? What is made more difficult or ruled out because of the use of this technology? Evaluate the trade-offs and discuss how they relate to the identity of your congregation as the people of God.
  4. What messages does the broader culture give us about technology? How does this impact our ability to thoughtfully consider the intersection of technology and Christian discipleship?