Last year was a tough one. Global concerns raged around us, including images of climate crisis and state-led violence that continued to swirl.
I watched my church community formally come apart, by vote, in a deeply divisive scenario.
Of course, there are many dynamics at play in such situations, but the element I find most grievous was the inability for us to operate well as a community.
In my view, our congregation didn’t have a great capacity for talking to one another before COVID, and it feels like the separation we experienced during the pandemic exacerbated the situation.
Ability and desire for being together to talk about difficult things was weak and weakened over time.
2023 was also the year that many would perceive that technology took a frightening leap forward with the “artificial intelligence (AI) revolution.” Online tools like ChatGPT put human-like communication with all the info on the internet at our fingertips.
While what we’re now calling AI isn’t human consciousness, companies are pushing toward something like it. Some call it artificial general intelligence. Whatever it is now, it’s very effective at what it’s meant to do.
I’ve recently become more aware of the implications of technology on community.
The work of media and culture theorists Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman have been pushing me to think about technology in its more broadly affective, rather than effective, ways.
At the risk of oversimplification, McLuhan and Postman posit that no technology is neutral; it all affects us, and the big question we need to ask is how it affects human community. (If they were around today, they would likely explore its effect on non-human life as well.)
In so many ways, the ongoing march of technology has pulled us apart and created division and loneliness. Watch The Social Dilemma or Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones on Netflix for two interesting and very different ways of looking at the concerns.
You will be pleased or dismayed (there seems to be little middle ground here) that I asked ChatGPT what community is, and whether the concept is falling apart.
It told me that traditional community seems in decline because of these factors: urbanization and mobility; digital connectivity; changes in social structures; economic factors; and cultural and generational differences.
This sounds about right and was underway long, long before ChatGPT. Some argue it started with the advent of the printing press.
I don’t mean to suggest that technology was at the root of my congregation’s weakened community, but I do want to propose from personal experience that community as we know it is under immense pressure.
I used to use Hebrews 10:24-25 with friends as a tongue-in-cheek way of goading us to get together: “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
Now I recognize those verses for the prophetic words they seem to be in 2024.
May God bless all your community interactions. Please, don’t forsake meeting together, even when it’s tough. In fact, I urge you to lean into meeting even when it is tough.
Also, let’s be real: this is hard work, and I’m too often not up for it. Lord, have mercy.
A blessed 2024 to you.
Darryl Neustaedter Barg is the associate director of communications at Mennonite Church Manitoba.