For further exploration of the themes in this article, hear Andrew Zirschky during his NYWC Louisville seminar, Relational Youth Ministry in an Age of Networks, Saturday November 21 at 1:45 PM in 102-103.
Meet Rachel. She’s 15, a committed Christian, popular in her high school, and a cheerleader. “But I wouldn’t say most of those girls are like, my ‘friend’ friends,” Rachel says of the cheerleading squad with whom she spends hours daily. That’s because like the majority of the teenagers you minister with, Rachel is also a networked individual. Her life weaves in and out of a variety of different groups — student council, cheerleading, church, family — but her social support and identity are not derived from any of these groups, per se, but from the individuals that she weaves together into her personal network.
Sociologists such as Barry Wellman and Manuel Castells contend that Americans, like Rachel, are rapidly adopting a new social operating system that they call Networked Individualism. Among other things this new way of operating socially includes the continued move away from traditional communities of family, neighborhoods, and churches to what Castells calls “personalized communities embodied in me-centered networks.”
As a social logic, Networked Individualism informs teenagers—and truly all of us—about how to be socially successful in the digital world. If you’re a networked individual you don’t find a community, rather you form your own egocentric network from which you hope to receive care and support. It’s important to keep the network growing by constantly adding new weak-tie relationships (“connections”) to the edges of the network. And it’s important to keep your network engaged and entertained by presenting your life in ways that are shined and buffed, staged and produced. At the same time, since time and energy are limited, as networked individuals we are driven to be selective about who’s worth spending our attention on.
There are some significant negatives to Networked Individualism, yet our relationships together (both online and offline) are increasingly being formed by this social operating system—and our use of social media is undertaken in service to it. As such, being truly “relevant” as the church in a digital age has little to do with adopting the latest trends and social media apps. Rather, the church (and youth ministry) in a digital age is relevant when we live out of a social logic that contrasts sharply with the dominant social operating system of the world around us. The most powerful form of youth ministry in the digital age is enfolding teenagers into a community that lives from a radically different social operating system—the operating system of Christian communion (koinonia).
Today, communion refers to a ritual meal that Christians eat together, but for early Christians, communion (koinonia) was the social operating system that determined how they lived and interacted with one another—and how they ministered to the world around them. When Paul explores the nature of koinonia in 1 Corinthians 10-12, he’s talking about how Christians are bound to one another equally—regardless of social status—by their sharing (koinonia) in Christ’s life (see 1 Corinthians 10:17). We learn from Paul that Christian communion is not some sort of fuzzy feeling, social extroversion set into overdrive, or human ritual that unites people in the sociological ritual of dining together. Rather, communion is the work of the Holy Spirit incorporating us into the body of Christ, such that we become one with Christ and with one another. When we look closely at 1 Corinthians (which I do in my book Beyond the Screen: Youth Ministry for the Connected But Alone Generation), we find that communion is expressed in social equality, diverse unity, and selfless self-giving. In the communion of Christ there’s no room for the kind of connective behavior that undergirds Networked Individualism.
Being connected and being in communion are fundamentally different. Connections are based upon the principle of selective sociality: I choose with whom to connect based upon the person’s commonality to me, desirability to me, usefulness to me. I become the center of my social network—so there’s a level of narcissism involved in connection—as I ask, before adding you to my network, “Will you be of value to me? What do I receive by being connected to you? Will you help my popularity? What do we have in common?”
Communion, on the other hand, joins together “Jew, Greek, Slave, Free” — and we become one in Christ Jesus regardless of social standing or network value. Our reconciliation and relationship is on account of Christ, through the Holy Spirit at work in our midst, and so this is more than a human connection. Communion is marked by a radical mutuality, that carries one another’s burdens beyond what is expedient or necessary. Why? Because the church as communion is brought together by the self-sacrificial sharing of Christ who gives us his body and blood and calls us together to be his blood and body for the life of the world.
Being the Body of Christ in a networked world means living together and loving one another in ways that contrast with connective behavior under the demands of Networked Individualism. In koinonia, youth are released from anxious self-accomplishment because belonging does not depend on personal effort. In the Christian experience of koinonia, teenagers are not loved because they’ve proven themselves worthwhile or “good” enough, but they are worthy on account of Christ. In the communion of Christ, teenagers are meant to receive love and belonging when they have no social value, and they in return are invited to give love without considering the social value of others. In the communion of Christ the worthless and uninteresting are not unfriended, but are clothed “with greater honor” (1 Corinthians 12:23).
In a networked age, our temptation is to appear relevant by attending to social media, but the most powerful youth ministry is undertaken by congregations who are attending to their koinonia. The state of your ministry’s communion together matters far more than the state of your Instagram.
Andrew Zirschky (Ph.D. Princeton Seminary) is academic director at the Center for Youth Ministry Training, and assistant professor of practical theology and youth ministry at Memphis Theological Seminary. He has more than 20 years of youth ministry experience. His new book Beyond the Screen: Youth Ministry for the Connected But Alone Generation will be launched by Abingdon Press at NYWC IN LOUISVILLE.
(This article is adapted from Beyond the Screen: Youth Ministry for the Connected But Alone Generation, which will be released from Abingdon Press at NYWC Louisville. Adapted and used with permission.)
 Manuel Castells, The Internet Galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, Business, and Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.