Recently, our congregation discovered Facebook. “Discovered” isn’t quite the right word, of course, since many of us were already part of the online community reputed to have a mind-boggling billion users around the globe.
But someone started a “secret” Facebook group—meaning it isn’t publicly visible and requires an invitation to join—and it quickly garnered 136 members in a church of 200.
We are a big-city, commuter congregation. Most of us see one another in the flesh only every seven days. We jam meetings, greetings and feedings into three hours a week, in our desire to build Christian community in that brief interlude we call Sunday.
But Facebook did something different: It created a village.
Not a “virtual” one, because we do remain committed to regular face time. But the kind of village that knows a little more intimately the everyday struggles, joys, challenges and questions its members face. Facebook has become a forum for sharing prayer requests, offers of spare furniture, musings on faith, news from afar, reflections on loss, thanks for creative worship and provocative sermons, pointers to Young Voices pieces on Canadian Mennonite’s website, and reminders about upcoming events. We have used it to encourage one another in good work, to rally support on a social justice issue, and to answer needs. Teachers have used it to provide follow-up reading; preachers, to invite reflection on Scripture in advance; pastors, to convey sad and joyful news; and debaters, to carry on a lively give-and-take on issues.
As in any community, it is the more verbally extroverted who appear most prominently, while many are content to listen in. Sometimes this online conversation points us to areas where we must learn to “agree to disagree in love.” Often, it highlights our unity. There’s nothing like seeing a comment light up with “likes”!
While the group is unmoderated, it isn’t a free-for-all. Members are expected to treat each other with respect and tolerance for different perspectives. Occasionally there’s a gentle reminder that some critique is best done in a more private, Matthew 18 kind of way.
No one member owns or runs the group, or can claim to represent it. It is a rich, multi-voiced community in which it is our collective speech that is “the church.”
It occurred to me at Canadian Mennonite’s annual board meeting in March that this magazine, at its best, is a similar kind of community. It is both for the church and of the church, not meant to be an official mouthpiece for any part of it, but a multi-voiced chorus.
Like our Facebook group, it shrinks the geographic and psychological distance between us during those long stretches when we don’t meet face to face. When we read about the struggles of an Alberta church, it has resonance in Ontario. When Manitoba churches grapple with a social justice issue, ours can learn from their experience. Articles that make us think get others across the country talking, too. Letters that leave me nodding in appreciation, or shaking my head with dismay, do the same for readers across Canada.
Like our Facebook group, Canadian Mennonite is a place where many perspectives should appear, reflecting our diversity. Sometimes, we won’t agree. Often, those perspectives will challenge official church positions. But if we’re doing the magazine right, they will reveal the reality of our village.
Canadian Mennonite isn’t a free-for-all. It’s moderated by staff and guided by a mission statement and values you can read on the page opposite. Yet ideally, when the work of reporters, columnists, editorial writers and letter writers comes together in these pages, it offers the same rich, diverse “multi-logue” and sense of community as our congregation’s Facebook page.
The dilemma in these days of instant communication is how to bring the village-style immediacy of social media to the print medium. Canadian Mennonite’s website, with its comments and blogs, and especially the Young Voices initiative—which also promotes lively discussion online—are attempts to do that.
As a board, we’ve suggested that Canadian Mennonite’s staff do even more to focus on a multi-voiced style for the magazine itself, perhaps by putting a news report on an issue, commentary from a church leader on that issue, and an invitation to readers to respond, on the same or consecutive pages. That sends a message: As Mennonite Christians, we don’t speak with one voice, but with many. That is our strength and our joy.
Doreen Martens is a Mennonite Church Canada rep on the board of Canadian Mennonite Publishing Service, which publishes Canadian Mennonite.