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“On that day you will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you.”

John 14:20

In the Holy Trinity, the central dogma of the Catholic faith, we find three persons in one God. This is because, due to their love, each person dwells entirely within the others. As the Christian faithful invited to share in that love, we are also assured by Christ that we are in Him. Despite the nobility of our universal call to holy love with the divine family, we all know that the peaceful unity of the earliest Church is no longer widely visible among us. So far have we fallen from that ideal that nearly every ministry we encounter in the Church seek to replicate it by some artificial — often cheesy — exercise in community. Ultimately, most fail.

If that’s not enough, the challenge of community building is exponentially greater online.

Why Do These Community-Building Efforts Fail?

They fail precisely because they’re about programs and not about persons.

Community building is not something that can be forced. We have thousands of years of broken laws to prove that. The deep divide between persons — between I and they — is an unbridgeable chasm under natural circumstances. Even among the well-intended faithful, we tend to experience one another as objects rather than subjects. We aim to serve “the poor,” by which we often mean that we want to give them something so that they will become one fewer desperate statistic. We aim to instruct “the ignorant,” by which we often mean that we teach a person so they pass a course and move on out of our programs. Even among married couples who are infused with the sacramental grace to be not I and you but we, it is all too common for a husband to aim to please his wife to keep her off his back rather than to serve her in true communion.

In a 2020 paper in Adult Education Quarterly, A Novel Viewpoint in Andragogy: Enabling Moments of Community (Note et al.), the authors described a social experiment that began well but failed to meet its grand promise when organizers, desiring to continue the sense of community, formalized the effort to the point of ruining the experience. Many community-building ministry efforts do just this; by over-reliance on human planning efforts, on rules and regulations and rigid social exercises, they undermine the work of the Holy Spirit who lives and moves dynamically in the hearts of the faithful.

The Holy Spirit wants to do amazing things, but — and I don’t mean to sound like the hip youth minister here — we keep trying to put God in a box and putting His people on a checklist.

So How Can We Build Community?

The authors suggest to social leaders an andragogical1 path forward that we Catholics can also learn from. This path consists of two tasks:

The First Task

“The first task to be completed would be to develop an ability, or rather, an alertness, to recognize moments of community” (2020). Translating for Catholic ministry, we can’t set up a rigid system of community-building that respects the place of the Holy Spirit to inspire unity in the moments of daily life. What we can do, however, is to develop a keen relationship with the Holy Spirit so that we as educators come to recognize those moments and help to facilitate them.

The Second Task

Second to developing an alertness to those moments of community is “understanding any processes that might possibly prevent such moments from happening” (2020). The devil is always on the prowl to snatch up the seeds thrown by the Sower, so we must be vigilant to fend him off, to facilitate these moments of community by preventative measures so that, as much as possible, the Holy Spirit is able to work in the hearts of our learners and bring them together.

In a follow-up article, I’ll discuss how we can incorporate these ideas into online learning.

References & Notes

Note, N., De Backer, F., & De Donder, L. (2020, May 29). A Novel Viewpoint on Andragogy: Enabling Moments of Community. Retrieved August 2, 2022, from https://journals-sagepub-com.lsus.idm.oclc.org/doi/10.1177/0741713620921361.

  1. Note: Andragogy — in the authors’ native Europe — is understood more as social leadership among adults than as an educational field. We can still learn and grow from it in that sense and apply it to our own educational practice.

Looking for more? Check out my Catholic Instructional Design articles.