Shane Hipps on Virtual Community

Shane Hipps and Zach Lind Discuss Virtual Community. from Zach Lind on Vimeo.

Last week at the National Pastors Convention in San Diego Shane Hipps sat down for a brief conversation with Christianity Today to discuss the concept of “virtual community.” You can view the video here. As a result of this clip there have been several folks who’ve pushed back on Shane’s point that virtual community is not authentic community but provides only a fraction of what face to face community provides. You can read discussions on the clip here, here, here, and here. So the video above is Shane’s response and clarification of his original point expressed on the Christianity Today clip.

If you haven’t checked out Shane’s new book, Flickering PIxels, to uncover more on this subject, check it out here.

20 thoughts on “Shane Hipps on Virtual Community

  1. Zach & Shane: thanks so much for this. Shane’s conversation has just been transformed from black & white (“virtual community is not community”) to nuance and texture (“1 string guitar v. 6 string guitar,” etc…). I think few would disagree with that, in principle.

    Virtual community is not a substitute for flesh & blood interaction. I don’t think anyone in this conversation has proposed anything different. We’ve simply been looking for some balance – and I think we just found it.

    And, Zach, I’m sorry for hurling the F-word (“fundamentalist,” etc.). That’s how I describe rigid black and white posturing (religious or otherwise) – and in the original context I stand by my characterizations. But our context has just shifted. Shane’s clarifications have moved the conversation from either/or to a continuum of possibilities. From fundamental to generative. This is very healthy.

    In 2007, forty writers explored the issues of virtual spiritual community in a 500 page book called the Wikiklesia Project. I would encourage anyone interested in this topic to get this book, along with Shane’s work. Wikiklesia is a not-for-profit project – all proceeds benefit the Not For Sale Campaign (

  2. I wish I could watch this now, but work doesn’t support the plug-in. What’s up with that?

    Thanks for sharing with us Zach, can’t wait to see it.

  3. Good follow up Zack. I really commend Shane for his advocacy to understand things before we embrace them. It’s truly important to understand that the media we use are not neutral, they have power, and they may shape is in ways we do not want.

    I am really looking forward to hearing more about what Shane’s new book. I totally agree with him that media like twitter and facebook, perhaps unintentionally, promote a form of narcissism. Very interesting.

  4. Shane Hipps is not just brilliant and helpful but he’s also interesting. I had the pleasure of listening to him and asking him questions at the NPC in San Diego this week. I think his book, if people read it, will be explosive. He’s on to something very relevant, timely, and fresh.

  5. It’s funny, I distinctly remember Shane conceding on the Out of Ur video that online communication provides a component of authentic community. So I don’t believe this is the first time Shane has been nuanced in his explanation. It’s just a case of one line being extracted out of the larger context of Shane’s point and feelings being hurt as a result.

  6. Zach, not to belabor the point, but since you brought it up… here’s what was said:

    “…virtual community of any kind is one without the other…we’ve radically altered the definition of the one, so, it’s virtual but it ain’t community… It’s dangerous to use the word ‘community’ to describe [virtual community]…don’t call it community because it isn’t.”

    This isn’t “one line” taken out of context – nor is it “nuanced.” But whatever.

    Virtuality cannot replace F2F interaction, but can greatly enhance and augment it. Our children and grandchildren will employ virtual tools more and more as part of their schooling, work, play, faith, and so much more. In two or three generations, I expect virtual-ecclesial interaction to represent two or even three “strings on the guitar.”

    I haven’t received Shane’s book yet. I’m hoping he presents a generous and balanced picture that wrestles with both the benefits and dangers of virtual-ecclesial life.

  7. What you are dreaming of sounds like a nightmare to me. Not that I disagree that virtual tools, as you put it, are going to help enhance our lives. But maybe you have more faith in the human race than I do. I think Wall-E is probably more of an accurate depiction of where we are headed than this virtual utopia where we all hang out online and “share life.” We humans have this pesky attribute of not seeing what’s at the end of our noses, or in this case, our laptops and we tend to misuse our technology without even realizing it.

    As you anticipate more strings being used on the virtual guitar, I’m anticipating folks will be either less motivated or downright threatened by F2F community because it actually requires risk, vulnerability, honesty, and conflict resolution. Why deal with all of that when you could just avoid it all with one click of the mouse?

  8. Another way to say it, I’d say, is that virtual communications has opened up more channels for communicating and relating, and in so doing, expand and enhances the human experience and community building.

    I’d say when we avoid certain channels, we lose out on the potential fullness of building community. To use the metaphor of strings, to build community without the “E” string, avoiding virtual communications, then that real-life live community wouldn’t experience the full frequency possible.

  9. All good points. Thanks. If you ever need any kickass studio recording equipment, give me a shout – love to support artists that care. (

  10. “Another way to say it, I’d say, is that virtual communications has opened up more channels for communicating and relating, and in so doing, expand and enhances the human experience and community building.”

    You may be partly right. But what about the ways in which “virtual communication” will actually endanger the human experience and undermine person to person community. That’s what seems to be missing in the early adopters enthusiasm for all things new and efficient. A blind acceptance that more connections are inherently better regardless of how they may undermine the the connections we have with those living across the street.

    “To use the metaphor of strings, to build community without the “E” string, avoiding virtual communications, then that real-life live community wouldn’t experience the full frequency possible.”

    Really? Did human beings did not “experience the full frequency” of community before the virtual communication was possible? That’s a pretty flimsy assumption.

  11. No. We have not experienced the “full frequency” of community.

    The underbelly of religion is defined by unhealthy hierarchy and walls of denominational separation. The Internet is busting those walls down. For the first time in history, a local tribe can connect directly and immediately with the global tribe. We are becoming less separated by physical and ideological boundaries. Some fear this. I embrace it.

    Just as the printing press facilitated an epochal shift in religious community, so the church is again being profoundly (re)created by global-virtual interconnectivity. The average age that children begin using micro-based devices is now 6.7 years old, down from 8.1 years old in 2005. Web social activity (blogs, Facebook, etc..) has now surpassed all non-social web components. We are witnessing the beginning of a large-scale cultural shift.

    The disconnected “universal body” is shrinking into a true global town square – a “global home church” where people connect 24/7/365. Our identity as a body is being recontextualized from predominantly local to a simultaneous embrace of both local and global relationships – what Roland Robertson calls “glocal” community.

    The Constantinian model where we “go” for a “service” is being reimagined as a glocal community that is always engaged in “being” church – 24/7. Local-physical gatherings are enhanced by what’s been happening in our mission-shaped, globally engaged lives throughout the week.

    And, Zach, I don’t assume that virtual community is right for you, or Shane. If virtual interaction and communication does not ultimately enhance your experience of F2F community – if it doesn’t add resonance and harmony and music to your guitar – then it is a waste of your time and to be avoided.

  12. If what you say is true, then it must be impossible to know if we have or will experience all that community has to offer at any point time– past, present and future. There will always be new technologies that arise that will change the manner and frequency of our communication, so then how are we to be sure we’ve ever experienced full, authentic community. Did Jesus and his disciples or the early Church not experience full, authentic community? How can you begin to make that claim? I just don’t see that.

    From where I sit, our primary difference on this issue is that for you more frequent communication with more people regardless of the format can only serve to make community all the more possible and enhanced. While I would concede that virtual communication can enhance how we relate and connect to one another, it can also cause great harm in the way we approach relationships. While the web is great for getting in touch with many, it’s also an entirely customizable experience that reinforces individualism and breeds narcissism.

    And I use what you call “virtual community” every day and I enjoy it immensely. I just know that there is a danger if I view my connections online as interchangeable with my connections with folks face to face. For you, we’ve sat across the table from one another but strangely I don’t have that same memory. I think that’s a healthy distinction to make and in no way do I cheat myself if I hold true to it.

    And I’d love for you to answer my question about the hypothetical real estate agent. If I see an ad in the paper for a real estate agent and call them about a property they have listed, would I then be in community with that person? Would that be considered an encounter?

  13. I tend to believe that virtual communication will never be able to accomplish what face to face interaction will.

    For me, its as simple as the fact that we as humans communicate with more than just words. There is something to being around another body. They way they move in conversation, the way they smile, laugh, cry, shrug their shoulders, look into your eyes, etc. Even the way they may smell or feel. Saying “hello” on the internet will never replace a welcoming hug, a handshake, or a fist bump.

    True community really starts to become something magical when we are vulnerable with each other. Virtual communication will never be able to heal hurt or loneliness like a well placed hug, or held hand or shoulder could.

    I think there are huge benefits to all of this technology and it can support and augment community and it should not be feared. But we must be careful because the future from Wall-E is a possible path our world could take.

  14. Zach asks, “how are we to be sure we’ve ever experienced full, authentic community.”

    We know in part. We see through a glass darkly. We’re broken ikons. We have logs in our eyes. I’m not sure we’re capable of “full authentic” community – or “full authentic” anything.

    Our communities can only reflect who we are as individuals, and all of us are deeply flawed. All of the communities I’ve experienced – F2F or virtual – are models of fragmentation in one way or another. Yet despite all that, we are called to community, to grow and learn together.

    I don’t understand the real estate question. Community is intentional. It is not an accidental by-product.

    Steve notes, “I tend to believe that virtual communication will never be able to accomplish what face to face interaction will.”

    Agreed. But virtual vs. F2F community isn’t an either/or proposition. They are complimentary. Communication builds community. That’s why Paul wrote his (virtual) letters. And I hope it’s why we’re spending time with each other here. If it’s not, then I would ask, what are your intentions?

  15. Your logic here is self defeating. On one hand, we are inherently flawed beings that can’t be trusted to know or participate in full, authentic community in any setting. But on the other hand, because we’re developing technologies that make communication more frequent and broad, we trust that human pursuit uncritically to the point of refusing to admit that virtual communication can be anything other than “complimentary” to the pursuit of authentic connection. You both underestimate and overestimate the human race all in the same breath.

    Maybe it might be helpful to define “full” here. By “full” I’m assuming we are talking about “the full potential of human beings to connect and share life.” You may be right that there is a more lofty definition of “full” that puts it out of the reach of human beings, but how can you know that for certain? Is a mother breast feeding her new born infant not an example of a full, authentic encounter between humans? I’d love for you to break down specifically how you might begin to know that with any certainty.

    I also find it amusing that this whole conversation began because some thought Shane was undermining the value of relationships formed online. But what you say here, in my view, undermines and devalues every relationship formed in human history. The irony!

    Lastly, just so you know, we actually haven’t spent any time “with each other.” How you can believe that is the case is truly, to use your term, creepy. 🙂

  16. Zach – I appreciate the thoughts, but disagree with both your logic and conclusions of the last comment.

    Nobody I know is participating in virtual community “uncritically.” I think we’re all, to some degree, aware of the potential pitfalls and limitations. We’re learning as we go – we’re pioneers in a new territory. We make mistakes. Nobody is claiming to have the final answers here.

    Moreover, nobody I know has “refused to admit” that virtual communication could in some cases be detrimental to the pursuit of authentic connection. There are endless examples of dysfunctional ecclesia – physical and otherwise. But none of those negative experiences should prevent us from a lifelong pursuit of challenging relationships, wherever we might find them. That’s how we grow.

    Has anyone experienced a “fullness of community?” Using Shane’s definition of community (shared identity, a sense of belonging, a shared history, and a sense of permanence) I think the answer can be both yes and no.

    “Yes” because any shared ecclesia engenders some kind of mutuality (belonging) and history, no matter how brief that history might be. “No” because a healthy ecclesia is always in process – always in the race, but not at the finish line. We are always growing a deeper sense of belonging, identity and shared history. I think community is defined far more accurately in the latter – as a work in progress.

    OK, you find “creepy” the idea of “spending time with each other online.” I respect that conclusion and am not going to try to convince you otherwise. But tell me this – do you consider a telephone call “spending time” with someone? How about IM’ing someone? Or video-Skyping? Or how about when you and Shane did your remote video for this blog post – were you spending time with Shane?

  17. Cool, let’s agree to disagree. But it’s been fun.

    In regards to your questions at the end, I don’t consider any of those activities as “being with” someone because they aren’t. Shane and I weren’t “with” each other when we were video chatting. We were spending time online, in front of our computers, staring at a screen.

    Your unwillingness to see that as objective fact is very odd to me and makes me all the more convinced that we need folks like Shane to help point out how virtual communication re-patterns how we view relationships.

    Best of luck to you, John. Maybe we can meet each other face to face someday and “be with” each other for the first time ever. 😉

  18. Thanks for this. Shane is basically noting that there can be a dark side to technologies and that we need to be aware of them. Ok. It was nice to see him backpeddle, hedge and squirm about big generalizations. It reminded me of Thomas Aquinas’s Treatise on the Virtues we just read for Stanley Hauerwas’s class. Aquinas reflects on what is virtue and what are the possible ways things could go wrong. Aquinas is exploring what Shane calls “the shadow side” because he wants us to live better. I can see how Shane’s meandering warnings are trying to do something similar.
    On this Shane is so very right. We all have the potential to be narcissistic. John Owen, “But all this is nothing compared to the deceit that is in man’s heart toward himself.” To combat this, we need to clear thinking, self-examination, intentional right habituation, and the counsel of friends.

  19. this was great. thanks for this. i posted a blog on out of ur today in response to shane’s original video and scot’s follow up. shane’s a smart guy.

    i am unplugging (today is my fat tuesday) 🙂 for lent. shane’s thoughts on the narcissism of it all is spot on. i know because i’m Narcissus…at least i have been for a while.

    a year ago i would have argued til i was blue in the face with this. now i just nod and learn and shut up.

    thanks again.

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