It was a communication breakdown. MySpace, Facebook, Friendster, Photobucket, Skype, AIM, personal websites, e-mails—unavailable. All we could do was relate to . . . each other.
Mere miles would not have hindered access to family and friends—but between our schedule, a computer shortage and the expense of overseas phone calls, the usual flow of electronic communication slowed to a trickle. Sometimes, not even that. At first, frustration crept in as people found their usual connections curtailed. Nevertheless, 15 Jewish believers (all but me college age) found ourselves eating, studying, praying, worshiping, living and growing together for nearly three months, first in Israel, then India. We’d gone for discipleship, Jewish studies and outreach. In the process, we became a community.*
IN “SECOND LIFE,” THE 3-D CYBER NETWORK, PEOPLE CREATE COMPLETELY NEW IDENTITIES, INCLUDING NAME, GENDER, LOOKS, CAREER—EVERYTHING.
E-communication definitely has benefits. The technology is amazing. How else could you find people interested in Kazakhstan, Johannine Theology and wine tasting? It’s easy to invite others into your online world to share thoughts, pictures, music and friends. Electronic photo albums, favorite songs—even “wallpapers”—enable us to express ourselves and our taste continually, and connect with those of like interests. In “Second Life,” the 3-D cyber network, people create completely new identities, including name, gender, looks, career—everything.
The Internet also makes it easy for seekers to inquire about the Bible or Jesus privately, from almost anywhere in the world, and without fear of reproach. We should be all over the Internet looking for creative ways to serve God and minister to people.
Our choice is not whether technology will affect our faith communities, but how. And, as far-reaching as this technology may be, it has limits. Will we take advantage of the techno routes when and where possible, and look for other avenues to take us where technology cannot go? Or will we trust technology to help us do “virtually” everything?
Discipleship, for example, is an age-old concept. In the first century, small societies of talmidim (disciples) sprang up around certain sages. Pupils lived together, spent time talking about all aspects of life, and especially how they might apply the teachings of their particular teacher. Those disciples committed themselves to their rabbis much the same way as Y’shua’s followers committed themselves to Him.
Being and making disciples for Y’shua is not optional for those of us who believe and want to obey Him. But are the ancient models still relevant in light of all that technology can do?
As we think about Jewish believers in Y’shua today, there may be many approaches to discipleship, but any successful approach requires . . . (drum roll) . . . community. If discipleship is tree-planting, community is the soil in which those trees grow. And the depth of community in electronic communities is limited. You get to maintain your contacts with a maximum of personal control and convenience and a minimum of cost and continuity—none of which is particularly conducive to true community. Here’s why.
THE INTERNET CANNOT ADEQUATELY MEET OUR NEEDS IN THE AREA OF DISCIPLESHIP BECAUSE IT CANNOT PROVIDE A LIVING EXAMPLE OF GODLY CHARACTER.
We customize our online communities to tell as much or as little about ourselves as we care to. We present ourselves as we choose and perceive others as they choose. The amazing level to which people can customize their virtual lives reflects the value we place on personal choice and individual control. But too often we control what is seen, while what is unseen (our hearts) remains undisciplined and out of control. Community is the classroom in which we learn to control our impulses and reactions to situations and circumstances beyond our control.
In real life and real community, personal choices are militated by the needs and goals of the group, unforeseen circumstances, and most of all, God’s will. Jesus set us a high water mark:
“Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).
Convenient versus Costly Commitment
In virtual communities, we connect with people conveniently: when and where we choose, with whom we choose and for the duration we choose. Convenience relates to control as it allows us to determine how much or little we will exert ourselves, i.e. what cost we are willing to pay. Convenient commitment is not real commitment, and without commitment, there is no community and no discipleship.
Members of true communities don’t connect or disconnect with the click of a mouse. We don’t usually get to handpick who’s in our community any more than we handpick our parents or our children. A variety of people come together and are expected to “stick it out,” whether or not it’s convenient. It is not convenience, but the annoying inability to have things just as we please that brings out the best and worst in people, and allows them to see one another as they truly are. Jesus never offered any bargains on the cost of discipleship. He often required people to leave their possessions, their professions, even their parents. He said,
“Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33).
The Internet cannot adequately meet our needs in the area of discipleship because it cannot provide a living example of godly character. No doubt young believers can benefit from regular interaction with more mature believers online, but a life of faith is ultimately grasped through experiencing it lived out.
Relationships require continuity in order for a disciple to know how theory is put into praxis. Lifestyle must be seen over time to be believed and emulated.
Jesus demonstrated how to pray, how to dialogue with antagonists, how to deal with death, how to demonstrate God’s love to others and a myriad of other necessary skills. He spent years with His disciples. When He said,
“This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12),
He could point to His track record—the disciples had experienced His love for them in various ways,
through various circumstances. He’d fed them, scolded them, comforted them . . . and washed their feet.
The Massah Experience
Following Jesus and telling people about Him are sometimes seen in juxtaposition, when really neither is complete without the other—and community is so important for both. I’m not saying that Massah, the Israel/India trip I referred to earlier, is the only or even the best way to approach these things. Messianic congregations are an obvious context for combining discipleship and outreach in a community context. I would love to hear examples of how some of you are accomplishing this, and maybe we can inspire and help each other. Meanwhile I wanted to offer a snapshot of our “low-tech” experiment.
Massah was one of the longer “short-term” opportunities that Jews for Jesus has offered. We’re still evaluating and figuring it out, but I think it’s a program with a future. A committed group of Jewish believers chose to spend their summer learning to follow Y’shua more closely and sharing His love with others away from the comforts of home. Careers were put on hold, studies postponed, income sacrificed; family commitments temporarily set aside. Each team member sacrificed something to serve God with this group.
We spent so much time together that our lives opened up to one another in meaningful ways. Deep discussions led to prayer. People were challenged to examine and address their issues in light of Jesus’ example and the examples of fellow believers.
Our example wasn’t lost on the unbelievers we met. In India for example, marijuana grew freely wherever we went, and Israelis smoked it everywhere. They frequently commented on how we didn’t smoke. At first they were puzzled, but most came to recognize our commitment to God and to living in purity (which is difficult in the absence of sobriety) as something they could commend.
Much of our effort this past summer had to do with becoming a team. On more than one occasion we discussed how
various group members would naturally have gravitated to and become friends with one another, while others would never have hung out together at all. We faced struggles and breakthroughs and became a community of followers. The struggles tested us in areas of weakness, and brought to light things that God was dealing with in our lives. Ultimately, we stood united in our love for Y’shua and in sharing that love with others.
There’s no doubt that online social networks provide new and creative ways for us to interact with one another. But a group of committed believers is not nearly as powerful through online networks as it is when people unite in person to do something for God.
Being and making disciples of Y’shua is hands on work and it requires commitment. It demands a personal example that reflects the fruits of the Spirit, and a passion to serve God. It requires a relational community where a believer can observe, interact, try, fail and try again. True community isn’t always convenient, and it may not reflect all our personal preferences. It isn’t always fun nor does it always fit into our schedules—but it’s essential for us both as individuals and as a community of believers.
What do you think? Post your opinion on the web. For now, you can write a comment on this article at http://www.jewsforjesus.org/comments-vd
In the future, we hope to do more with Havurah online and use the Internet to help share ideas. Why not take advantage of the technology?
* This was our Massah (“Journey”) program—see details and photos at http://www.jewsforjesus.org/join/massah_israel
Aaron Abramson is the leader of the New York branch of Jews for Jesus. Aaron brings a global experience to us. He was born in the US but grew up in Israel. He has a bachelor of arts degree in Biblical and Intercultural Studies from All Nations Christian College in England. Aaron is currently in a graduate program at New York University. He is married and has three children.