July 23, 2021

Digital Literacy: Building community

Digital Literacy: Building community

How do you build a group of people who are helpful, don't bicker, and make each other better? You might think that's impossible. I mean, have you seen what's going on in Facebook land? Well, it's more than possible. While social media is both an easy target and the butt of almost every joke about online relationships gone awry, it's also a powerful tool to build positive relationships as well.

This week I try to help you be an influence for good in a place many have already abandoned.

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Be good and do good.


In this episode of Balancing the Christian Life, we talk about creating a community online.

Welcome to Balancing the Christian Life. I’m communication professor Dr. Kenny Embry. We’ll talk about how to be better Christians and people in the digital age. Let’s go.

So it’s another Thursday, and for the last year I’ve gotten into a rhythm about what happens today. I’m thinking about what I’m going to say for the podcast. I sit down behind my computer and type on my little Lenovo laptop. I don’t like letting this part of the podcast go to chance. In episode 58, Wes McAdams talked about the advantage of writing is you can be specific in what you say and how you say it, and as a communication professor, I know words matter, so I try to choose them carefully. If I’m writing the intro to an interview, I think about what I learned in the conversation. If I’m writing an essay, I think about the essential points I want my audience to get by the end. Then I put myself in my audience’s shoes. What is likely to sound confusing? What promises can I make and deliver? How can I help them be better? If it’s an interview, what parts stand out? And all the while I’m writing, I’m thinking about four people. The first person I think about is Jake, my son. Jake just turned 18, and I know he has some fundamental questions he’s interested in knowing the answer to. He’s a very new Christian, so I know what he asks is going to sound simple, but often has fundamental importance. I need to be clear enough for Jake to understand and not get distracted. I also think about Jorge. Jorge is someone who is in his 40s and both trying to serve the church where he worships and live a good example. I know he’s looking for something practical. He wants to be able to find the application in the words and not just understand concepts. He’s trying to translate good ideas into doing good, and I appreciate that. The third person I think about is Sandra. She’s someone who has a lot on her plate. She’s a single mother who is looking for inspiration. She’s also looking for perspective. She’s looking for someone who has faced similar or greater struggles and found God in the madness, because that’s where Sandra is. Sandra isn’t a complainer, but she often relates quickly and deeply with others who rely on God. Finally I’m thinking about Ann out in Oregon. She has a daughter in Tampa. She’s a church secretary, devoted to God and she’s interested in the people I talk to, but she’s more interested in learning about God and seeing how he acts through others.

Four different people who I know are listening right now. I have to confess, Sandra is several people I know and could name. If you think I’m talking about you, I probably am. Four people who are part of this community. Some of you know each other, and many of you don’t. Some of you were brought to this podcast by a friend. Some of you stumbled on an interview you thought might be interesting, but now you’re here because you are curious about what you might find this week.


You see the beauty of this podcast is you and I kind of know each other. We talk. Some have reached out on Facebook. Some have shared an episode or two. Some have sent me a note. But even if you haven’t done any of those things, you downloaded this episode and you’re listening which tells me you’re at least curious. And put altogether, you’re a part of a community I’m trying to serve as best I can. And this community couldn’t exist in a physical place. Looking over my downloads, this podcast has been heard in 40 countries and 840 different cities. Yet, we’re not 840 communities. We’re just one. And I think that’s amazingly cool. 

I’ve been talking about digital literacy in this series of essays and I feel certain some ideas have been more interesting than others. We started out by talking about the importance of harnessing your attention, then looked at figuring out what stuff is worth thinking about or not. We then looked at managing your identity and reputation online. Then about putting context around the stuff we’re finding. And in the last essay we talked about how you can be a participant online in a constructive way. Social media and digital communication changes all of this stuff, and, I think are important to being a positive part of the online culture. In other words, there’s an important part for Christians play online, and we should make our virtual surroundings better by being there.

But creating a community is unique because before the internet, these kinds of communities just weren’t possible. Look, if all of you who have listened to the podcast wanted to come visit my family and me in Tampa, you’re welcome to the pull out couch in the front room, but I’m afraid we’d have to find other places for many of you to sleep. Even if you wanted to come worship at my local congregation where my family and I attend, we’d need a few buildings to fit you all in.

I’m not trying to brag about the popularity of this podcast, but I am trying to get you to see the power these tools have.

I want to make an argument for Christians to start intentionally using online stuff to create communities which help spread Christianity. I know many who already do, and it’s been a true honor to get to know people who are already doing this. The last literacy we talked about was participating online. If participation has to do with understanding your audience, setting goals, and motivating your audience to action, then community creation has to do with helping people get along while they’re doing that thing you want them to do.

Every group you’ve ever been a part of has two functions. The most obvious one is accomplishing what you’re trying to pull off. If you’ve got an event you’re trying to coordinate, then getting that done is pretty important. But a secondary goal every group has is to try and keep from killing each other while you’re doing that thing. If i was talking to students, I would talk about the dynamics of group productivity versus group cohesion. How do you get stuff done, and how do you get along while you’re doing it. That group cohesion is community. 

The family dynamic is a great metaphor we’ve used in just about every episode of the podcast for good reason. Families have goals like getting kids through school, paying off debts, or even as simple as getting people out of bed. But in the background are these relationships. It’s how you feel about one another. It’s who you gravitate toward, and who you try to avoid. 

Online communities are more than just goal setting, but they’re relationships. To help build these relationships, Christians getting stuff done online need to learn how to serve, learn to build trust, and learn how to navigate conflict productively.

Philippians is one of those books I love. In the second chapter, Paul talks about how Jesus, the creator of the universe, intentionally became a servant. He served the father, he served his apostles, he served his disciples, he served everyone who came in contact with him. We should do the same. In verse 4, Paul says, “let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” 

If you’re wanting to help create a positive community online and build relationships that matter, and I hope you are, a big part of that is figuring out how to help others very specifically. That doesn’t always mean you’re giving people what they want or that it’s always comfortable. I think a lot about many of the people I’ve talked to. Matt Bassford, Ginger Hubbard, Keith Stonehart and Jeremy Dehut  all have stories which are difficult to listen to, but all of them make us better. All of them help us see God clearer. 

Being a servant makes you important to others. In Acts 9, we read about Tabitha being brought back from the dead. In Luke 7 we read about the healing of a centurion’s servant. In Philemon we read about Onesimus being converted by Paul. All of these were praised for serving others. That was the reason they were singled out.

One of the gifts of this podcast has been meeting people who I hope I’m serving well through it. Again, when I write an episode or ask a question from a guest, it’s impossible for me not to think about you and what might help you. I think about many of you by name. When I choose guests or decide to tackle topics, I’m thinking about what might help you to become better or get a better perspective. And I’m not thinking about a general you. I’m thinking about how Jorge would ask this question or how I can help Sandra understand this perspective better. I’m not claiming I always succeed doing this, but it’s always the intention.

In online communities, helping others goes a long way to building community. How can you help people do something hard or understand something complex? When you make others important, you become important to others.

But we can only be important to people who trust both our intentions and actions. 

For a moment think about the closest relationship you have. I’m not talking about God, but someone who you would consider your closest friend or relative. Now, tell me, how much do you trust him or her with stuff that matters? I realize all of us might mess up on occasion, but your closest relationships are the ones who you are most vulnerable around, and you have to trust this person isn’t going ot hurt you. Otherwise, out of sheer self preservation, you’ll put up a wall around yourself. You have to. 

In online relationships, theorist Joe Walther talks about developing intimate relationships with those we have never met face to face. A huge component of building those relationships is building the trust we need. Part of building trust is being trustworthy, and that’s directly related to making boundaries. Look, one of the things we learn as we grow older are the limits those around us have. 

Growing up, one of the memories I have is when dad thought he would fix his boat throttle. My dad is a great physician and a terrible fix it guy. He had taken apart this boat throttle hoping to fix a problem with it and before long, he noticed he had more parts he didn’t know how to place in reassembly. It was a humbled man who went to the Bass Pro Shop with a brown paper bag and a good story. Look, you can trust my dad with a lot of stuff, but please don’t call on him to fix your boat.

In good online communities, good relationships are built on knowing the limits to your trust. One of the most consistently positive communities I’ve participated in online a a chapter a day group moderated by myself, Kris Emerson, Keith Stonehart, Andy Cantrell, Jady Stevens and Nathan Cox. Every day in that group we read another chapter. RIght now we’re in Matthew. And every day in that group, good questions are asked. I hope I’m not jinxing this, but so far, I haven’t seen any destructive conversations. There are disagreements, but I don’t see any name calling, I don’t see any ill will. I don’t know if when those people disagree if they change each others mind. I’m okay with that. We trust one another to be serving to the best of our ability. But we don’t necessarily trust each other to have the same point of view or to have the perfect answer. Good. When you trust people, you learn to respect their differences.

But those differences almost always create some kind of conflict. In every close relationship, you’re not going to get along all the time. And frankly, you don’t want to. In the disagreements I see in that Bible study group, the people I disagree with make me look at something different. I often have to consider a point of view new to me, or one I’ve rejected in the past, and that’s a good thing. Look, if I’m truly serving others, and if I trust their motives, conflict makes all of us better, even if it’s not fun.

When I do conflict poorly, it’s because something is out of whack. It’s because I’m being too selfish, the other person is or we both are. And that doesn’t mean I always land on the same conclusion as the person I disagree with. I’ve said several times one of my closest friends is Mark McCrary, and we have a long laundry list of disagreements. He’s an Apple fan, and I’m squarely in team Android. He loves DC, and I love Marvel. But our disagreements go far past these ridiculous topics. I won’t bring up the substantive things we disagree about, but I will say this, there’s not anything where we disagree that I don’t come out better. Why? Again, Mark has served me for over 20 years as a close friend. I trust him. I have told him several times I will always fight for his right to be wrong, and I think he’d say the same. I am better because he sees things differently.

Good conflicts in online communities can serve the same function. Look, I think all of us love watching destructive fighting because we have a side. We want Donald Trump to look like an idiot or Joe Biden to be proven wrong because we aren’t fans. But good, functional conflict focuses not on personalities, but on ideas. Look, if McCrary ends up being right about something, it’s not like I lost. It’s the idea that won, and I did, too, because I get a better idea in the process.

Paul would say something similar when he talked about people preaching Jesus for the wrong motives. So long as Jesus is taught, good can come of it.

If you have chosen to participate online, then go the next step and help create a community with others built on service, trust and productive conflict. It’s really nothing more than being decent to the people who come in your path.

So with this podcast, I’ve worked very hard to serve Jake, Jorge, Sandra and Ann. I hope in the process I’ve served you as well. I hope I’m building a community of people who are good to one another, who learn stuff worth learning, and who practice Christianity in a way that makes people around them better. I’ve done a lot of things that were, frankly, a waste of time. This isn’t. one of those things. I hope it matters to you as well. And I hope you take seriously the literacy of creating a positive community around you, whether online or face-to-face.

As for the good thing I’ve been thinking about this week, we recently got back from our little trip to the Florida panhandle and I’ve been thinking about silence. We were up near a lake watching the sunset, and I am reminded how good it is to simply be quiet for a bit and listen to what’s going on around you. I hope you get an opportunity to just sit and observe for a bit and think about what God’s given you. That’s always helpful for me.

I want to again thank those who have financially support the podcast like Jorge Sanchez, Barbara McElwain, Kevin Hanson, Mark Russell, Craig Embry and my parents. 

Also, if any of these episodes have helped you, do me a favor and share them with your friends.

Next week, I plan to release a conversation about leadership I had with Max Dawson. He’s fabulous guy, and I loved what he had to say. I’ve also got that interview with Nikki Lee and Julie Adams, and a second interview I had with Keith Stonehart. Again, there’s too much good out there, and I’m very blessed to be on this journey.

So until next week, let’s be good and do good.