For several months I have been contemplating the question, “Is individualism killing America?” This question arises from studying various cultures for our D Min essays. It has become clear that America is very individualistic, while many world cultures are collectivistic, wherein the community matters more than the individual.
As I read Networked Theology: Negotiating Faith In Digital Culture by Drs. Heidi Campbell and Stephen Garner, my question began to deepen to become a matter of profound concern. The question may be refined to ask, “Is individualism killing the Church in America?”
Networked Theology provokes good and broad theological thinking and provides practical helps for processing an engagement with new media. In this brief blog I am highlighting passages and thoughts related to issues of individualism and isolation
To set a context for this concern we must remember the metaphor given by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 12: that the Church may be understood as the Body of Christ. We know that a body is a fabulously coordinated whole, comprised of significantly different parts that always live and function in concert.
My theological concern is the individualism and isolation fostered by electronic networking that draws us into a way of life contrary to our design as humans, created in the image of God, and intended to be fully engaged members of the Body of Christ. New media causes us to consider the manifestation and tangible experience of community. Christians are citizens of the Kingdom of God, where dying to self for others is the key value. Network community has the potential to foster and facilitate too much individualistic decision making and personal priority.
This concern within an American context is demonstrated by the reality that one could do all Christmas shopping, including the delivery of gifts, without ever leaving home. What once was an engagement with community in the downtown-purchasing and personal-delivery of presents may now be an activity in isolation. One may order from Amazon, who will deliver to a provided address. This process “saves time and energy,” but at what cost?
The authors write about a television add for on line banking. “…a man walks into a bank. A little while later he leaves in a distressed state…he has just signed up for the bank’s internet banking service and will never need to come to the bank again. On the one hand, the customer now has access to a range of online banking services that the bank claims will make his life better. On the other hand, the human relationships the customer has developed at his local bank are now in jeopardy.” 
In his book The Road Ahead, Bill Gates “stated, ‘The network will draw us together, if that’s what we choose, or let us scatter ourselves into a million mediated communities.’” 
The ease with which a person can unwittingly choose to be isolated is concerning. I continue theological engagement with this concern with a reminder that humans are created in the image of a Three-Yet-One God Who eternally exists as community. To be created in the image of God is be created to live in community. Theologically, we must sound a warning not to allow media to draw us away from our original design. It is hard to imagine God the Father sending Jesus an e mail. Even when Jesus was on earth and away from the Throne, the Gospels teach an intimacy between the members of the Trinity. Jesus said that He did what He saw the Father doing, not what the Father e mailed to Him.
But being networked is not bad. The leaders of George Fox University Portland Seminary obviously believe the network can be a place both of community and of promoting the work of the Kingdom of God. Without the internet we would not exist as a D. Min. cohort.
Campbell and Garner wrote, “The network both unites people and fragments them into specialized groups; it promotes both collaboration and individualism. The network is a social environment that builds a new space that both draws together and excludes.” 
We do collaborate in our cohort, and this form of engagement is a version of iron sharpening iron (Proverbs 27:17) as we respond to one another synchronously and asynchronously. As such we exist as a kind of community different from a geographically connected church or mission. (From start to finish, LGP6 will actively exist for about 972 days. Of that time, we will be physically in one another’s presence only 28-30 days. In that regard perhaps we all sensed the difference in our relationships once we were physically together in Hong Kong.)
This thought points to a phenomenon written about by Alan Hirsch in The Forgotten Ways. He references the work of the anthropologist Victor Turner and states, “Communitas…happens in situations where individuals are driven to find each other through a common experience of ordeal, humbling, transition, and marginalization.”  Communitas is a community dynamic created in groups through shared experiences, often in a geographical place away from home. The intensity of the group experience contributes to the sense of community. It’s hard to imagine communitas arising from group interaction online. If LGP6 wasn’t together in Hong Kong, UK, and South Africa our sense of community would be lacking.
Campbell and Garner write, “Finally, many individuals respond [to new media] with considered ambiguity, in which the intentions and consequences of technology and media form an ever-shifting evaluation of their worth and effects.”  They also tell us, “Thus, new media culture becomes a double-edged sword; it is a place of both empowerment and control. It is a space for new social engagement and community building and one that can promote the individual above the group.” 
One might be tempted not to take seriously a discussion on technology and its relationship to culture and theology. This would be a mistake because of the powerful and continually dynamic mutual effect between culture and technology. We must give serious consideration to technology’s influence in and on culture, and the potential influence of Kingdom culture on and in new media.
It would be folly to attempt to reverse the trend toward being a networked world. Our attempts, therefore, should be focused on (1) how best to use the realities of the network to Kingdom advantage and (2) how to guard against the potential down-side of isolation and individualism, in order to help the Church be alive and vibrant.
 Heidi A. Campbell and Stephen Garner, Networked Theology: Negotiating Faith in Digital Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016) 33.
 Ibid., 5.
 Ibid., 8.
 Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007), 220-221.
 Campbell and Garner, 37.
 Ibid., 51.