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Feast of the Digitally-Integrated Incarnation

modern-pastry“And the word became flesh and lived among us....” (John 1:14)

Last summer, one of my Facebook friends I’ve never met, Tracy Pasche-Johannes, a fellow Lutheran pastor from Muncie, Indiana, and her husband, Jeff, were in my hometown of Boston on vacation. “We’re in Boston! Would you like to meet in person?” they asked in a Facebook message.

We had never met before and we had a pretty thin connection to start with: we shared one common friend, who, at one point thought it would be a good idea for us to know each other and introduced us on Facebook. We had observed one another’s status updates, messaged back and forth a few times, but that was pretty much it.

We agreed to meet up for an Italian dinner in Boston’s North End. Over pasta and Chianti, canolli and cappuccino, we fleshed out one another’s status updates and blog posts, putting a voice with our writing, describing our families, locating one another within our ministry and community contexts.

Over the course of the meal, all the words, links, and video we had shared back and forth on Facebook became embodied and enfleshed, and our digital connection grew into a deeper personal relationship. Our dinner was, in the Johannine spirit of “the Word made flesh,” a feast of the incarnation.

Words Made Flesh

Much of the reluctance among ministry leaders about integrating social media into their ministry practice is the worry that digital relationships will eclipse face-to-face engagement. In fact, studies show that people active in social networks are more likely to be engaged in face-to-face volunteerism and faith communities. This is because people who long for community seek it out in many forms, and people who connect in meaningful ways enjoy opportunities to extend that connection in both online and offline settings.

However, it is also true that we can become overly reliant on digital social media for nurturing relationships. People understandably worry that time spent on Facebook and Twitter takes away from “real” relationship. Many see this danger as an argument against the use of social media in ministry. On the contrary, it is one of the strongest arguments in favor of it.

As we are reminded in the seasons of Advent and Christmas, Christianity is a religion rooted in the incarnation—in the divine Word made flesh in Jesus Christ. We regularly gather around the miracle of the incarnation at the Eucharist, where bread and wine become Christ’s presence in our midst.

Ministry leaders, who are steeped in this incarnational imagination, can remind those of us in digital social networks of the importance of nurturing relationships through both digital and face-to-face encounters. They can help blend and make mutually reinforcing these online and offline connections by embracing invitations to meet in person, creating opportunities for offline connections like Tweetups and Meetups, and shepherding relationships from the Facebook newsfeed to face-to-face encounters and back again.

In short, ministry leaders should name digitally-integrated incarnational moments when they happen and help create opportunities for them when they don’t.

In those moments, where our digital presence becomes embodied and we enter into one another’s lives and realities more deeply, we are brought into the experience of where the Word, Christ, was made flesh for us. Every moment of incarnation points beyond itself to Christ’s Incarnation, just as every moment of resurrection recalls Christ’s Resurrection, which makes all our daily resurrections possible.

Can I Tag You?

When Tracy, Jeff, and I parted ways after dinner, the customary good-byes that one might associate with the beginning of an extended time apart were noticeably absent. They were replaced with questions like “can I tag you?” and comments like “this would make a good blog post.” For, we knew we would see each other again soon—momentarily, in fact—on Facebook, where our newly incarnate connection would continue until—or if ever—we meet face-to-face again.

Photo Credit: Shinya Suzuki

This post originally appeared at the New Media Project at Union. Reposted with permission. Copyright, 2011. New Media Project.

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