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Online and embodied

August 15, 2012
By Jim Rice

The Christian church, in the broadest sense, is many things. It is universal, uniting believers across time and space. It reflects both human frailty and divine mystery. And it is necessarily embodied, fleshed out in the real world—just as the Word was made flesh, so must be the church. That is, even as the church transcends time and space, it exists in the here and now, comprised of and ministering to real people with real problems, hopes, and joys.

And just as the church must be embodied, it follows that the actions of the church—including activities in the digital realm—should reflect that embodied nature. In other words, just as the church does not exist solely in the spiritual domain, likewise the church’s online activities should not be restricted to the virtual world, but be embedded in and connected to the physical world and (especially but not exclusively) human community.

As the New Media Project research fellows discussed possible recommendations for using social media, we talked about various criteria that might be helpful in evaluating particular online practices. One area of discussion focused on a set of incarnational criteria for making those evaluations. While acknowledging that incarnation and embodiment are not the only values by which to judge digital activities, these principles point to central commitments of the church and thus are appropriate considerations in looking at our life online.

Here are a few possible criteria to apply (and questions to ask) in making an incarnational evaluation of social media:

  1. An appropriate way to evaluate new media proposals is on the grounds of the Incarnation. Do they lead us and others closer to the Word made flesh in Jesus, in the church, in his beloved poor? Or do they lead more deeply into fascination with ourselves, condemnation of others, disdain for or disregarding of the poor?
  2. A primary goal of new media use should be the deepening of embodied relationships in particular neighborhoods and face-to-face with people.
  3. Does a particular use of social media help the church—as God’s own body, flesh and blood, in the world—become more embodied, more in love with the neighbor, the poor, the enemy, and God-self, rather than less?
  4. Do your choices in the area of social media fit the people with whom you work and interact? Are they appropriate for your particular setting?
  5. Are you listening to the voices of the people with whom you engage in your social media work? Are you open to feedback from them—and perhaps more important, are you open to being changed by the feedback you receive?

Of course, many other questions can and should be asked, regarding embodiment and a host of other issues, as we take part in the “ministry” of social media. What’s most important is not so much the particular questions, but that we stop and ask—that we engage in these pursuits with eyes wide open.

Jim Rice, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is editor of Sojourners magazine in Washington, D.C.

The New Media Project at Union Theological Seminary is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact

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