When I see the way my students communicate with one another through social networking, I wonder how I ever survived college without a smart phone (or knowing what that was!) For them, social networking has not created a new need which students before them didn’t have; it fills an old need in a new way. In particular, I have noticed that the large, modern university is no match for the small liberal arts college when it comes to building community. Large class sizes, highly competitive fields, and increasing numbers of commuters and distance students creates an environment where it is difficult to find a place to belong and people to belong to. Often, students “do community” via social networking using the same content but different methods as they did when I was in school: they share ideas, plan projects, and exchange movies or recipes. They create insiders and outsiders (as every community does).
Yet social networking as community has its limits. There are the usual critiques: it tends to be consumer-driven and highly individualistic (just think of the newly-coined term, “selfie”). The deeper problem which prevents social media from becoming a fuller form of community, however, is its lack of rootedness. As (primarily) postmoderns, students are longing to be connected to a story bigger than themselves. They tend to move regularly, change jobs often, and be generally disconnected from the traditions of their heritage, finding that meaning and belonging continually escape them as circumstances change (in sociological terms, they lack a metanarrative).
Fortunately, the Church has been in the business of creating story, rootedness, and belonging for nearly two millennia. We know exactly what people are looking for in social networking and should therefore be able to see its many strengths- as well as its weaknesses. Our churches can be the places where these students come to ask the bigger questions of meaning and belonging they aren’t getting answered on their twitter feeds. What do you think it would look like to receive an entire generation coming from this context? As I’ve mentioned before, they don’t tend to share their parents’ personal hang-ups with the Church, but they have no time for anything they perceive as “fake.” What they’re looking for is an experience of meaning that can show them where they’ve come from and where they’re going. And that is exactly the story of our faith!