Four years ago, my wife and I signed our two kids out of school and traded the merry-go-round of our everyday lives for three weeks in Tuscany. The idea was to park ourselves in a medieval hill town and soak up as much of the gentle rhythms of Tuscan life as we could.
To that end, we rented an apartment that overlooked vineyards, rolling meadows and cypress-lined country roads. The apartment was a wonderfully eccentric old place filled with curiosities, such as a stuffed stork, age-worn tapestries, ancient oak furniture and huge double-shuttered windows. As we crossed the threshold for the first time, my wife and I took it all in, sighed and traded glances that said, "Perfect."
The kids had run ahead, and from up on the third floor we heard an ecstatic "Coooool!" "What did you find?" we hollered, anticipating a suit of armour or a Medici bust. "It's got Internet!" they squealed.
And so it did. From their perch in a centuries-old town in a timeless corner of Italy, the kids spent a big part of the three weeks on msn.com, chatting with their friends back home. It was the beginning of a habit that remains unbroken to this day.
It was also the moment when it dawned on me that the idea of community has undergone a profound and lasting transformation. My kids and their peers have never known life without the Internet and the electronic communities it has spawned. Their electronic relationships are becoming as much a part of their world as their physical relationships. As time goes by, the distinction blurs. Their electronic communities offer protection, affirmation and comfort -- a sense of belonging. They can also challenge, threaten and hurt. Just like communities in the physical world.
Understanding this transformation is vitally important, I think, for people who are part of the communities that call themselves churches. The other day I was surfing through wondercafe.ca, the United Church's experiment in electronic community. Wondercafe, and the media campaign that supports it, is designed to encourage young non-churchgoers to try out a church community some day. Since its launch last fall, I have been surprised by the number, variety and depth of the discussions taking place at Wondercafe. This most recent visit, I found myself struck by the possibility that maybe this is as far as it goes -- that for many people today, these electronic communities are church, and we just haven't gotten around to calling them that yet.
Some of the inhabitants of Wondercafe seem to feel this is the case. One of hundreds of discussion groups asks, "Has anyone tried the United Church because of Wondercafe?" A respondent code-named Pinga replies: "In a way, this is church for me," and goes on to describe how taking part in lively online give-and-take is like "attending a United Church study group," while other times, when things get heated, "I figure I'm on a conflict resolution course."
The message seems clear: mainline churches need to come to grips with the fact that face-to-face isn't the only way people interact anymore. Theologians need to wrestle with what it means to be a Christian community in this day and age, and what it might mean in the future. Will electronic communities replace communities as we know them? I hope not, but we'd do well to take seriously the likelihood that future communities will exist in two worlds, and that we ought to be our best in both of them.