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Kingdom-living in a virtual context

What implications does our rapidly changing technological culture have for the Church?

by Jessica Stenz

I am not a techie. But when I learned about an opportunity to participate in Eric Whitacre’s third Virtual Choir, performing his composition “Water Night,” I jumped at the chance.

I first performed “Water Night” while singing with Nordic Choir at Luther College, my alma mater. We experienced the music through one another physically (by holding hands) and fully engaged intellectually and emotionally as, together, we regenerated the composer’s creation. Participating in a community—one that is holistically engaged in forming something beautiful—is a means of powerfully experiencing God.

Performing “Water Night” with the Virtual Choir was quite different. The requirements were simple: Learn your part from the materials provided and record a video of yourself singing it while following Whitacre’s conducting. No audition required, just the ability to record and upload the video. My husband, Andy, was able to easily set up recording, and we submitted my video. In the end, 3,746 people from 73 countries did the same. Then, Whitacre’s technical team connected all the contributors by mixing our voices and videos to create one large virtual choir. And together, we sounded amazing.

At the same time, the experience left much to be desired. It eliminated some of the nonverbal means of communicating—the play of reactions and facial expressions, for example, between conductor and singers. And because the members of the Virtual Choir recorded at different times and in different places, I missed hearing my voice among others. Without that engagement with the larger community, my individual contribution to the piece lacked the passion that happens when a choir moves together. Even though I was part of this project along with over 3,000 fellow singers, I did not interact with them in any way.

As my first foray into a large-scale, web-based global community collaboration illustrates, the virtual context that we live in today offers lessons of both possibility and challenge. How are technological advances changing our ability to build community across time, space, and influence? And what are the implications for the Church?

New technologies, new possibilities

Whitacre’s Virtual Choir is part of a larger phenomenon of community-based activities birthed from recent technological advances. Participants in flash mobs use Facebook and Twitter to organize strangers for dance and musical performances. Entrepreneurs use Kickstarter.org to share their ideas and solicit support. Skype has replaced chat rooms and enables face-to-face video networking. Lenders provide microloans at Kiva.org to empower individuals in resource-poor areas around the world.

When European explorers found they could sail west and reach India, it closed a vast nothingness of space and increased access between destinations. So, too, the distance that separates us from one another is decreasing with improved communication means. We have access to each other like never before. The telephone began to connect voices in just the past century; then cell phones eliminated the need for wires. Now, data is transmitted across space in milliseconds.

We can connect not only across space but also the divide of time because of the internet’s means of stored, shared knowledge. Participants in the Virtual Choir, for example, learned and recorded their performances on their own schedule; we did not have to be active at the same time in order to have a coordinated final product. Whether I want to sing, research, or buy something at 3 a.m., I can go online, find what I need, and probably instantly chat with someone else around the world who’s doing the same thing. Gone are the days of waiting—for anything.

The combination of immediate, mass sharing of information among limitless parties fosters tremendous opportunity for innovation. In an interview with National Public Radio, media expert Clay Shirky proposes that the last decade’s digital developments have resulted in the largest increase in expressive capability in decades, as millions of individuals can make public their thoughts and find a community willing to receive them. User-generated content dominates the web. Producers are now also consumers in “many-to-many” sharing. We have access to others’ knowledge and their creative new thoughts.

Digital developments have also challenged the barrier of influence. We no longer have to rely on a select few leaders; any voice possessing a medium to relay his or her message can be influential. As people speak out and find others sympathetic to their cause, a wave of like-minded people comes together to take action. Recent revolutions like the Arab Spring and large-scale movements like Occupy Wall Street were born from grassroots online action. There is momentum when people find a common voice and a common cause.

Thoughtful engagement

This exploding virtual frontier is a unique opportunity for the Church to engage culture in a relevant way and speak into a broken world. As Brethren in Christ, we have a part in bringing healing and restoration to places where there is brokenness. Believers’ expansion of online activity related to this call can mobilize the Church and influence others, enhancing real-life interactions and connections.

These expanded boundaries mean that Christians around the world can work together globally in new ways for Kingdom-building. People who would once never have met are now able to work in tandem. For example, believers in a remote area might be able to connect to other believers for personal mentoring by Skyping, or access quality resources (teaching, craft ideas, music, etc.) that would otherwise be unavailable in their community. A church in one location might choose to partner with another church in a distant community, providing an opportunity for both to learn how Jesus is at work and share their physical and spiritual burdens. Believers who put together a publication like In Part can upload its content for open sharing with the larger Church to help increase Kingdom impact around the world. That “friend-of-a-friend” on Facebook might read your recent post and witness the love of God in action.

My own experience in the virtual choir helped me realize that technological interaction is not perfect, and there are some drawbacks. We must make a thoughtful approach to technology use and consider our participation. In order to be loving God and others as we are called to, we must realize that we are part of a larger body and interact on a deep and meaningful level. If we in the Church are only internally focused, soloing without seeking to blend our voice with those of others in the body, we may only hear ourselves. Rather, we need to step back and be aware of God’s masterpiece as it works out through the larger community.

We must remember that, like a choir, the Church is not a single voice but a whole host of voices coming together to create a single voice. Whether it’s through Facebook or face-to-face conversations, it’s only when many form into one that community becomes reality.

This article originally appeared in the fall 2012 issue of In Part magazine.
Jessica Stenz

Jessica Stenz and her husband, Andy, attend New Vision BIC Church in Pewaukee, Wis. She has a B.A. in music and enjoys online conversations about local healthy food and stewardship.

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