One of the things I love about life in a rural/small town community is the sense that one’s place actually matters. I don’t mean one’s place like one’s social standing or prestige, and I also don’t mean place like a general understanding of location. I mean place like this place. The community that lives in and around a certain location, in many rural and small-town areas, crafts a sense of this place, a communal identity that is shared by virtue of where people, things, and facilities are, that grows by participation and familiarity. In this place, folks tend to feel at home, and generally share a sense that the vitality of this place depends upon the folks here keeping it up together, which includes care for all these local people, things, and facilities.
As many small towns do, my current home community throws a local festival every year. Ours is called Spunktacular days, named for the lakes (Upper Spunk, Middle Spunk, and Lower Spunk) that largely define the local landscape. It is a weekend of kids’ activities, craft and local artisan sales, live music, and a fireworks show on its final evening. I bring this into focus because part of what makes Spunktacular days what it is, other than its name, is the deep locality of its content. The local Lions club has a booth and sells pork chops. The local churches generally run food stands throughout the festival. A local petting zoo/farm usually has a space, and every year there’s a bit of confusion over whether folks need to supply their own turtles for the turtle races. I’d like to suggest that an essential part of making this festival what it is, of making this place what it is, is the fact that we don’t get to choose who shows up to participate or to identify with this place. Sure, visitors abound, but this is also the people of this place. They don’t always see eye to eye, and they’ve had quarrels and discomforts both recently and over the years, but this place matters.
What follows is a brief rumination on this place, when its form is changed by injecting the placelessness of virtual and online community, where folks do often get to choose who is in the group, and can easily opt out of quarrels and discomforts in favor of finding like-minded enclaves who allow speech and participation only in the keys that feel good to them. If rural Christianity has often been a pillar of the local rural or small-town community of this place, then it cannot but bring that witness to the ways that Christianity lives placelessly online.
The sociologist Robert Wuthnow, in his book The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Small-Town America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 2018), argues that much of rural and small-town America’s self-understanding takes the form of “moral community,” a term he borrows from Émile Durkheim. For Wuthnow, a moral community is “a place to which and in which people feel an obligation to one another and to uphold the local ways of being that govern their expectations about ordinary life and support their feelings of being at home and doing the right things” (p. 4). A moral community is not about ethics; it is about identity. For many folks who hail from rural and small-town areas, home is the place defined by the local school, or the local church, or a set of trusted local businesses, or more likely, a combination of these and myriad other layers of locality.
One of the facets of this concept that carries importance for Christianity, as I see it, is that the moral community, the community of this place, includes a sense of obligation. This, coupled with the recognition that such obligation has to do with locality and simple proximity at least as much as (and sometimes more than) shared perspectives or agreements, makes the moral community a truly fascinating social reality. For example, my next-door neighbor and I see eye-to-eye on very little if anything politically and socially. However, this place matters, so on occasion he waters my outdoor plants when he sees they’re stressed (I have nearly zero skill in gardening), and I blow the snow from his driveway on those days I get to it before the other neighbors do. My experience in this is hardly unique, and that is the point: when this place matters, it brings with it obligations that take little account of agreements or disagreements. For the moral community, this place includes everyone here, not just those with whom I share similar viewpoints.
Placelessness in virtual community
The Covid-19 pandemic forced a great many of us, church communities very much included, to reckon quickly with the reality (or approximation) of online community. Church services have been live streamed, Bible study groups moved onto Zoom, and preaching came through computer speakers more than through the sanctuary speakers. As far as I can tell, we all did what we could do to make our communal and religious lives work through that difficult period that still stubbornly hangs on.
This pulling-together-in-order-to-make-it-work is a good thing, but it exposed one of the ways online community challenges the social wisdom of this place, of the moral community and the church’s role therein. As one small example, while I might church-shop in person to the extent that it is possible in my local place, online church can give the impression that such shopping can easily be placeless. I can tune into whatever church I want, whenever I wish. To be clear, I don’t actually have any objection to making worship as accessible as we possibly can online; accessibility is essential, and creativity in approaching it I think is well-advised. Instead, what gives me pause is the prioritization of my own preferences that tends to be baked-in to online community. If my chosen online space gives me any hint of something I don’t want to hear, or perspectives that make me uncomfortable, the medium itself facilitates my exit from that community and entrance into another.
Put succinctly, this place is not easy to craft online. Feelings of “home” can be quite easy to fabricate, but a sense of obligation that does not depend on shared viewpoints can be much more difficult. To be sure, obligation does exist in online community, but it tends to be obligation that is voluntarily selected, rather than given by one’s location and identity. Digital factionalism, be it in politics, religion, or some other space, tends to divinize one’s own preferences, and rewards that idolization with feelings of belonging that are due not to the deep human connection of locality and proximity, but to only the fragments of human reality that people and communities choose to divulge online. In a word, this place online becomes an empty shell, painted beautifully, but without the lifegiving substance of the moral community.
Witness of the rural church
Rural Christian churches have a great opportunity to provide witness in the face of online community’s placelessness. By prioritizing this place, rural and small-town churches can show what it means to forge a community whose vitality is not threatened by disagreement or diverse approaches to important issues. More than this, rural and small-town churches often understand in poignant fashion what it means to be obligated to the local, to craft a home for folks in this place. Often (though not always) financially strapped and logistically stretched thin, everybody makes a significant difference in rural and small-town churches. This only holds together if folks are formed in a deep sense of shared purpose (the moral community again), something that rural social reality—when it’s healthy—grows prolifically.
This is not to suggest that rural and small-town churches hold some kind of magic that can make online community perfect. Far from it. Rather, I want to maintain that there is a social and ecclesial wisdom that comes from rural and small-town churches that online communities—including church communities—have yet to fully appreciate. What would our shared church lives look like if this place mattered both in-the-flesh and online? How could our discipleship—online and in-person—be re-formed by a renewed sense of obligation to one another, not because we like each other or don’t, but simply because we all are here? I have hope, that the social wisdom of the moral community, of this place, can grow from the rural and small-town churches that form it, into the wider, sometimes placeless community of online Christianity.
What kind of online presence does your church community have? What does that online witness say to the importance (or not) of this place? Consider offering to have a conversation with your church council or pastor about not simply the content of your church’s online presence, but the way your church witnesses to healthy Christian community online.