I Love Shane Hipps But I Disagree a Little


Shane Hipps is a Mennonite pastor in Arizona and the author of The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture and the recently released Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith. His first book had a profound impact on me, and I’m excited that he’s expanded on some of the thoughts in that book in applying them to a broader, more general audience (beyond “church ministry professionals”) with his latest book.

Hipps appeared at the National Pastors Convention in San Diego this week to promote his new book, and I was keenly interested in what he had to share there. My friend (and compatriot in Digital@LeadNet blogging) DJ Chuang uploaded a clip of Hipps speaking about “The Electronic Gospel,” but I was especially excited to see this short interview clip from Christianity Today‘s Out of Ur blog editor Skye Jethani:

Reverse Engineering the Gospel for Virtual Reality
Hipps is clearly big on the Incarnation (as am I), and he readily admits, “For me, it’s really really hard to understand how you incarnate the Gospel in a discarnate setting.”

This comment reminded me of a term coined back in the early ’00s by Andrew Careaga, author of E-Vangelism, eMinistry, and Hooked on the Net—the term is “reverse incarnational.” It’s like reverse engineering the Gospel for disembodied/discarnate/virtual space.

I wrote about (well, essentially, quoted excessively) this “reverse incarnational” approach to online interaction by followers of Jesus in a 2002 article entitled “Cyber-Ministry.” This article was published as part of a large e-book compiled by Trevor Macpherson of the Underground Railroad network entitled the Underground Ministries Handbook*.

Here’s what I quoted Careaga in 2002 as having written (probably from his book E-Vangelism):

“Effective evangelism on the Internet requires believers to do a bit of ‘reverse incarnation.’ We must enter the culture of cyberspace and dwell among its inhabitants, in essence becoming ‘incarnational’ in cyberspace (even though we are leaving our bodies — our ‘carnals’ — behind). We need to take John 1:14 — ‘the word became flesh and dwelled among us’ — and turn it inside out, so that we flesh-and-blood Christians become words in cyberspace and dwell among others in the cyber environment.

“For this to happen, the church on the Internet must be about more than just slapping up a static web page. The church — and by this I mean believers of all stripes — must actively engage in the cyberculture through the more interactive avenues of instant messaging, chat, blogs, online communities … At the same time, the church must always be incarnational. Cyberspace does not replace physical space. Cyberpresence does not replace physical presence.”

Real or “Just” Perceived?
I guess my gentle pushback on what Shane Hipps’ is saying about the importance of “incarnation” is that it doesn’t negate the significance that people feel (whether real or only perceived) from online interactions and electronically mediated relationships. I think Hipps would agree, perception is often reality, and I don’t think he, in his comments in this interview, is discounting this. In fact, he’s probably trying to counter this truth by presenting what he feels is a better way to live and connect with people and form “community.”

My struggle with this is the same as when I hear arguments against homosexuality based on “God’s original design” for male-female relationships as laid out in Genesis chapter one. My reaction is basically this: That’s a great ideal to have, but we’re living thousands of years after the Garden of Eden (or, in this case, the Incarnation of Christ), so I’d prefer to deal with reality and not theory. In this case, the reality is that millions of people are finding significant connection with other people and even finding spiritual/religious “community” through Internet-mediated experiences. The ideal might be to always have face-to-face, skin-to-skin contact, but the reality is we are moving faster and faster in the opposite direction.

I think Hipps has much to teach and challenge us on regarding “unplugging” from the discarnate technology and systems we find ourselves in. But I also think we need wisdom for engaging and participating in a redemptive way, because “social media” is about people, real people, who exist in flesh and blood on the other end of the fiber. The only connection we may have right now (or ever) is on-line.

*As a sidenote, other contributors to this 2003 “manual” for underground ministry were Andrew Jones (writing on “Understanding Different Sub-cultures,” “Post Modern Church: Are we there Yet?”, and “Alternative Worship”); Mark Humphries, former editor of Semaphore ‘zine; Peter Wohler of Source Ministries; Bruce Wright from The Refuge in Florida; Brad Culver; Dan Cleberg; Glen Galloway from Soul-Junk; and others. Sadly, Steve Malakowski’s zine art is no longer intact in the document, but fortunately it lives on at OutcastPress.org.

UPDATE 2/15/2009: I’m still planning to respond to Zach Lind who kindly offered a clarifying question in the comments (see below), but I had to post this update directing your attention to John La Grou’s response to Hipps, entitled “Fearing the Virtual Ecclesia.” (Note: John was one of the main organizers of the first Wikiklesia book, which I was a contributor to.) John is much smarter than I am—he was, after all, invited to give a 3-minute presentation at the recent TED conference in California!

John gives a much better response to Hipps than I’ve given: “Contrary to Hipps’ position, I think virtual community establishes an authentic shared identity, a sense of belonging, a shared history, and a sense of permanence. That virtual community cannot offer physical gathering simply restates the obvious. … It is ALL community. Physical and virtual community works together as one continuous idea. In the same way that Gutenberg’s press added a profound new dimension to our shared experience, so are virtual tools are opening up profound new opportunities for shared social access – rich resources that augment and enhance our ability to connect and share the human experience. And I think this holds especially true in ecclesiastical communities.” Read the whole thing!



Posted on 02-14-2009


  1. Zach Lind says:

    February 14th, 2009 at 10:03 am

    Interesting stuff. I can’t speak for shane, obviously, but I guess I’d start by asking you which of the three “ingredients” for community that shane outlined in the clip that you find unnecessary. Because if all of those ingredients are indeed essential, then whatever connections we form online aren’t community. They may lead to or provide a fraction of what true community offers, but never authentic community, unless you want to redefine what community means altogether.

  2. John L says:

    February 15th, 2009 at 1:55 pm

    Steve, I hadn’t seen your post or I would have tracked-back. Thanks for the thoughts and link to my post. Good to see Shane at the center of all this. I have a lot of respect for him.

  3. Peggy says:

    February 15th, 2009 at 1:58 pm

    Thanks for this post, Steve — came over from John’s post and your comment there.

    As I commented over at The Blind Beggar, this is not a zero-sum game … we need all options for community open and available — as well as balanced. Sometimes our local IRL situation does not provide healthy options for liminality that can lead to incarnational communitas. That which is received virtually can sometimes be the impetus to recognizing opportunities IRL.


  4. Liz says:

    February 15th, 2009 at 2:19 pm

    My first reaction to Shane’s comments is that I am opposed to him using the phrase “true community” and I found myself thinking “why does it have to be one or the other – why can’t there be more than one kind of meaningful community”. Then I read John’s response and saw that he had summed up my thoughts well. My experience is that I enjoy and benefit from both physical and virtual community.

  5. Zach Lind says:

    February 15th, 2009 at 6:19 pm

    I’d love to hear some examples of how online/text based communication by itself creates a shared history or fosters permanence. I’m sorry but reading the same blogs and tweeting each other doesn’t amount to a shared history. If that’s the case, then I’m afraid we’ve dangerously overestimated the disembodied communication we enjoy on the web. The point isn’t to say that all web based communication is invalid or can’t be meaningful. Web based communication can aid and in some cases lead to authentic community. The point is that “virtual community” only provides a fraction of what face to face community offers and is therefore is not an example of authentic community. If both are equal, then maybe just send an email or tweet your friend when her mother dies rather than be by her side. It’s all the same right?

  6. Steve K. says:

    February 15th, 2009 at 8:42 pm

    Zach, I realize you’re hyperbolizing a little to make a point here, but I think this is illustrative of the limitations this black-and-white, dualistic approach is, to use the terms John La Grou used in his critique. No one is suggesting that people should only send emails or text messages or tweets when a friend’s loved one dies. If you can enjoy physical presence, then by all means, we are wired for that, and it far surpasses the depth of virtual-only relationship.

    But the point is some relationships are only (and can only be) mediated electronically, and yet they are still—again, whether “real” or “just perceived,” and I would argue “perception is reality”—very significant. For example, I know a group of people on Twitter who call themselves “twurch” (“Twitter church”) because they’ve connected with each other from all over the country (and all over the world, actually, with “members” in the UK, etc.), and they experience relationship/friendship with one another where they share details about their lives, pray for one another, etc.

    Is this really “church”? I understand Shane might not think so, as he’s advocating for “true community” which to him requires physical presence. But you asked me to address Shane’s four ingredients for “meaningful missional community” specifically, so here goes:

    1) “a shared history” – When does “history” begin? I’d argue that “history” begins with the first encounter, whether it be virtual or physical. Shane says a shared history “helps establish” a sense of identity and belonging — but there are things in the virtual world that “help establish” identity and belonging. Are profile pictures of someone the same as physically seeing their face or shaking their hand? Of course not, but both “help establish” identity.

    Online groups/networks/causes “help establish” belonging. If I join the “People Against FOCA” group on Facebook, other people in that group (or even outside that group) can identify me as someone who is taking a position on that legislation and either accept me based on that or not. Either I “belong,” in their minds, or not. My point is, that’s a type/level of “belonging.”

    2) “permanence” – Shane says, “It’s how you get shared history.” Maybe it’s just semantics, but whether something is “permanent” (i.e., lasting forever) or not does not validate or negate whether something is significant in one’s life. I’ve been a part of a number of churches/communities that no longer exist that have been influential on and continue to be significant in my life. Perhaps “persistence” would be a better word? Or even “experience”? Shared history is what we get from doing things together. If I have sex with someone only one time, I still have a “shared history” with that person, don’t I? That could be a “significant,” “meaningful” event in my life, right?

    I appreciate what Shane seems to be after here — fighting against the “transient,” consumeristic nature of many seeking Christian community — but I question the legitimacy of this second point, again, on the basis of his limited definition of what is “meaningful”/”significant.”

    3) “proximity” – Shane says, “You have to be with one another in order to create the kind of meaningful connections to have community.” I disagree that “meaningful community” is dependent on physical presence. I think this completely discounts the many types of connections that happen online everyday, which are considered “meaningful” by so many people. Just because they think of these connections as “meaningful” and Shane Hipps does not, does that negate how “meaningful” they are? I think significance absolutely depends on the individual.

    I’d also question the definition of “proximity.” Again, Shane is defining this solely on physical presence, and I would argue that the emotional definition is far more important and valid. For example, I can feel emotionally “closer” to someone who I only know online and have never met, than I do with my next door neighbor who I see everyday but have no real relationship with. Is this a “good thing”? Probably not, but just because I am in close physical proximity (perhaps even sleeping in the same bed!) with someone does not guarantee real intimacy/community. (My wife, the sexologist/relationship coach, could share a lot of examples to illustrate this point!)

    4) “a shared imagination of the future” – I love the way Shane frames this one! I love the language that he uses. And he acknowledges that the online environment is a legitimate space where this occurs, in fact, he says, quicker than it happens in the “real world.” But … it’s as if he’s suggesting this is just another way of saying “we all believe the same things” or “we all share the same theology,” which is something I deeply question (and I suspect he does too). Even with a group of people who connect online and have a “shared imagination of the future” there are going to be deep points of disagreement — and that’s a good thing!

    I think one of the things that diminishes what Shane is trying to get at it is the way he mockingly refers to online interactions, when he imagines a conversation between one person who says “Remember that time I posted that comment on your comment board?” and another who reacts non-chalantly, “Yeah, it’s written right here …” (as in, “So what?”) This kind of dismissive caricaturization (not sure if that’s a word, but I’m going with it) of online interaction is really unfortunate. There are all kinds of online interactions — including the conversation we are having right now in the comments section of this blog (which, BTW, I don’t know anyone who would call this a “comment board”! 😉 — that are “meaningful” and “significant” for people.

    I think, as a pastor who obviously desires “deeper,” more significant experiences for his flock, Shane has got to recognize that this is the reality. So I’d like to deal with the reality and have a conversation about how we can positively, constructively engage with the online world. I know Shane has much more to say about all this, so I’m excited to read the new book and keep this conversation going!

  7. Zach Lind says:

    February 16th, 2009 at 1:13 am

    the fact that something like twurch even exists and is claimed to provide “community” is indicative of lowered threshold in how you’ve chosen to define the word “community”. something like twurch exists because face to face communities and the challenges they bring are too much to bear. The need for some other kind of “community” that requires zero risk, no physical presence, and minimum conflict arises. I think what you’re talking about is a redefinition of what community is and that’s ok by me. But the danger with an uncritical acceptance of “virtual community” is that it lessens the motivation to participate in face to face, embodied community. It’s also setting folks up for disappointment when they perceive themselves to be a part of authentic community when they really are experiencing is a mere shell of what authentic community offers.

    Community is important, it’s sacred for Christians. The term “virtual community” for Christians might as well be the equivalent to virtual parenting or virtual marriage. In this case, I agree with Shane that it’s one but not the other. Like I said earlier, online connection can be meaningful and extremely helpful, but that doesn’t mean it’s community.

  8. Todd Wold says:

    February 16th, 2009 at 6:57 pm

    I, too, love Shane Hipps. But to your credit, Steve, I also have problems with what he said in the clip. Making a blanket statement that something is “not community” because it doesn’t meet certain criteria is not all that helpful.

    I do think his critique of online community is certainly in order, and we can benefit from making comparisons between the carnate and discarnate/ mediated and unmediated forms. When Hipps discusses the four criteria that he puts forth, he does an excellent job of showing how each can shed light on the efficacy of the other. Great stuff to explore there. But he oversteps by making a definite judgment.

    Certainly community is/will be different online. Very different. And depending on the mediation, the qualities of the community experience (both real and perceived) will vary. Just as face-to-face people don’t always get community right (how often do we ever?), community via media is a moving target (as technology and behaviors evolve at a tremendous rate). For example, I see a vast qualitative difference between a livestreaming video chat or event between people with shared history, and random community “events” like the mega-church style services involving avatars in Second Life. There is a continuum here that can benefit from Hipps’ critique; and, if I might add, some communication research (this is wide open territory). Nonetheless, I think you are right to push back.

  9. Jesse Turri says:

    February 16th, 2009 at 7:41 pm

    Hello everyone, great conversation.

    I must agree with Zack and Shane on this matter, virtual community is one but not the other. Zack is right, face to face community is so important to Christian living, and living in community is hard. Church communities are made up of all types of personalities, and living in authentic Christian community takes hard work, discipline, patience, love, kindness, understanding, devotion and commitment. In contrast, It’s very easy to find people like you on the internet, that’s why sites like facebook, myspace and twitter grow, and for that matter, die out so fast.

    I think we can all agree that “virtual communities” have their place, and that they can certainly be meaningful on some level. We can also agree that it is not a substitute for real community because it is something different than real community, they are not the same. One thing I learned from Shane Hipps’ first book is that we critique far too soon, we must first seek understanding. Before so readily accepting new technologies we should first understand how they work and what they can do to us.

    I live in Pennsylvania and go to a Mennonite church. I also know many Amish. An interesting fact about Amish is that they do accept new technologies, they just do it really slowly. Before accepting a new technology they prayerfully contemplate and consider how this new thing will affect their way of life, their community and how it will change them. Let’s not fool ourselves, technology, including “virtual communities,” are neither good nor bad, but they are not neutral!

  10. Mark R says:

    May 7th, 2009 at 12:08 am

    Interesting. I came across Shane’s perspective a while back after hearing a talk he gave at Mars Hill.

    I find his arguments and the arguments here and a few other places very intriguing. And from what I have read and heard from Shane and from various other sources it seems to me that this conversation (or should I say webersation?) illustrates Shane’s point. This set of comments are among the most civil I have read, and I do not detect much hostility. However this does not hold true in other places.
    One of the things that I have gleaned from Shane’s (Zach and Jay) points is that physical interacting community takes a certain amount of courage and vulnerability to participate in. The virtual does not always, because a person is “protected” by fairly high degree anonymity. Which one could argue allows for the potential of greater vulnerability, but does it? There is probably a greater potential for insincerity and shallowness online then in f2f, because you would need to be very crass person to act thatt way to someones face. Which if anyone,aside from Zach, has listened to Shane’s podcasts he goes into some detail about cyberbullying and the effects thereof. Which is the interesting part of virtual community when it extends into physical life (whole other topic)

    Virtual/physical community is kind of like saying that I play a mean guitar, when I only have ever played Guitar Hero, I am playing guitar, but I’m not _playing_ the guitar. It has the net effect of playing some tunes but in no way do I posses the skills to play a stringed instrument (1). This may be a simplified example but to the way I understand these conversations, this is what is boils down to for me. Now Guitar Hero is the closest thing that I will get to playing a guitar, therefore my perception and therefor my reality, is that Guitar Hero becomes for me actually playing.

    To say that we the church needs to adapt to the culture is an interesting idea. I am coming to the realization that Jesus’ message was very subversive and counter culture. I am also beginning to think that adapting to the culture, either blindly or not, is selling out. Jesus’ message and ultimately his life was about the freeing people from the slavery of oppression and living against God (sometimes called sin). If the general culture is trying to find meaning in disembodied encounters then the power of the church is in having and sharing meaning in embodied encounters. Because then we are offering freedom from tyranny of facelessness and physical disconnectedness. I believe that the very reason that social networking sites, twitter etc are so popular is because people crave connection with other people, we are hardwired for it. Yet our everyday lives are reduced to sound-bytes, headlines and 60 second clips, we are generally losing the ability to think, act and feel deeper than a puddle. To me the greater church is missing the opportunity to provide more substance and less fluff. So what if we get it wrong the first time, being offended is not a bad thing it just means someone is ignorant and we need to work together to find truth. And that is the crux of community, not being afraid of conflict, how does it go? “as iron sharpens iron”…
    Well my quarter ran out…


    (1)Rob Bell used the analogy of Guitar hero in a different context, but I think it was applicable and I have to give props.

  11. Theology and Social Media | knightopia.com | the online home of Steve Knight says:

    November 30th, 2009 at 3:41 pm

    […] into the whole debate over “virtual community” with Shane Hipps, which I’ve written about elsewhere. And here’s another gem from N.T. Wright that I had planned to include in my talk, but […]

Leave a Comment

Leave a Comment via Facebook