The meaning of "community" changes daily.
Thanks to excellent tools for staying in touch with people on line, even people one has never met face-to-face, we can feel connected to a far larger body than those we see at home, at work and at church.
As we learn how to use tools like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and blogs, we become better able to share meaning and experiences. What might once have seemed a sprinkling of jokes and trivialities has become, for many people, lively exchanges of information, yearning, life-stories and interests.
"Virtual community" isn't as easy as sending an e-mail. The tools are easy to use, but knowing what to share, how to filter out abusive readers and how to nurture meaningful interactions without face-to-face takes some work.
Many are doing that work and finding it highly beneficial. One colleague wrote recently about engaging two agnostics in Facebook and gently sharing her faith with them, not in the usual pugnacious "I'm right," but in shared stories.
The Multichannel Church helps its leaders and members learn how to use these tools. Leaders spend at least some time every day interacting "in the cloud." Over time, they will become as adept at it as they are at making house calls.
Face-to-face still matters. It's probably what we yearn for more than anything. But virtual community is an important ministry in its own right. It breaks through the anonymity and loneliness of modern life, it affirms our efforts to form relationships, and it underscores the utmost value of seeking God in human community.