The zipper pulls seen here were designed by students at Crissey Elementary School in Holland, Ohio. Their project was developed through the services of RandomKid, a non-profit that helps kids change the world. (Note: I am the board chair of RandomKid.) The zipper pulls were created by children to help children undergoing chemotherapy as a part of their cancer treatment. From the RandomKid store description:
Each collectible zipper pull, made of acrylic, represents one of six character traits: Respect, Responsibility, Caring, Fairness, Citizenship and Trustworthiness. The zipper pull to pay particular attention to is the Zebra with spots instead of stripes, reminding us of the respect each of us need no matter how different we may look because of the medical issues we face. Proceeds from this project will go to fund ICEE machines-- carbonated, flavored slushy machines for pediatric cancer wards. The ICEE's soothe the tummy when experiencing nausea, and cool the mouth from the harsh effects of chemotherapy. $30 (for a set of 6) will fund ICEE's for 60 children. If ordering singles, specify Zebra, Elephant, Monkey, Lion, Giraffe or Tiger.
These zipper pulls are a social object for these kids at Crissy Elementary.
Stowe Boyd calls himself a Web anthropologist, clairvoyant, and futurist. Not sure what the clairvoyant part means, but the rest is pretty accurate. The other day Stowe made this comment on a post about Google+, the Facebook like social network.
I have long argued that social communities pivot on creation and sharing of social objects: the medium is the message, again. ... one measure of the depth of connection to a social network by members — and the strength of the connection between members — is the fit between the network’s social objects and the members’ goals.
I think it is appropriate to think of a local congregation as a social network, not unlike Google+, Facebook or any number of their wanna-be online kin.
A social object is something tangible that takes on the symbolic and functional meaning of the community.
In sports, the social object can be the game. Pick up basketball is a social object that brings kids together to play. Also a university sports team unites fans and players in allegience and commitment to winning a championship. When the team wins, we win.
In literature and the movies, the best stories are are built around a social object that provides a reason for the connection between the characters. In the Lord of the Rings, the destruction of the "One Ring" is the meaning that gives the Fellowship their purpose. The ring serves as a social object.
In technology, Steve Jobs turned his Apple products into social objects that created a community of people who see themselves as a special and unique community.
Social Objects in the Church
When I served as the interim pastor of the Newland Presbyterian Church, we created this rock cairn as a social object to serve as a focal point of their pastoral transition. Here's the story.
A social object is something tangible. In this case, rocks that were given a specific meaning. My first Sunday with the congregation, following Abraham's example in Genesis 12:7-8, we began to create a rock cairn that served as a focal point of confidence for the future.
For something to work as a social object, it requires investment by people in the idea. The Monday morning after I suggested that we create a rock cairn symbolizing the church's confidence that God will be with them in the future, rocks began to show up in the church yard. Several months later, the Confidence Cairn was constructed, a day of dedication celebrated, and the church discovered a deeper life as a community of faith
Social objects create engagement, participation and contribution. They are more than ideas. They are the bond that gives people a sense of connection and meaning to their relationships.
The Sacraments as Social Objects
It is pretty clear to me that the sacraments are our social objects in the church.
Baptism and the Eucharist are signs of God's engagement with us as his creation. We celebrate them and they point beyond their activity to a deeper reality of grace that as Christians we share.
There is an experiential aspect to the sacraments as social objects. When we celebrate them, we experience ourselves as the church in a manner that is different than when we are simply in worship.
Baptism as Social Object
In Baptism, we become the divine incarnate family to the child. The bond is the Spirit of God expressed through the church to be faithful in the care and nurture of the child baptized. We see and experience ourselves as a family in that moment. The social object of baptism transforms our sense of who we are, deeping the social context of our relationship as members, to being sisters and brothers responsible for their new sibling.
Earlier this year, the board of the North Carolina Presbyterian Higher Education Ministries initiated an awareness campaign to raise funds for the support of Presbyterian campus ministries and chaplaincies. One of their reasons was to fulfill our baptismal vows to the young people in our churches.
The sacrament of baptism functioning as a social object provides meaning to our mission, and guides us to see the continuum that exists in the church's relationship to young people from infancy, to childhood, adolescence, on to college, and later as young adults. Our understanding of baptism as a sign and seal of God's grace provides a basis for not only the church's ministry along the youth continuum, but also as a way to link the generation's together in a meaningful way. In this respect, every generation has responsibility for the care and nurture of those younger than them.
The Lord's Supper as Social Object
As a child, my home church celebrated Communion once a quarter. Some churches celebrate every week. Today, our family's church celebrates on the first Sunday of each month. In the past, the lack of frequency was thought to elevate the importance of the sacrament, assuming that if you celebrated too often, the sacrament would just become a meaningless ritual.
The real issue here isn't the frequency of celebration, but the purpose of it.
When we understand The Lord's Supper as a social object, we experience a fresh realization of the Father's love and forgiveness through the sacrifice of his Son for us. We see all of us partaking in the meaning, being one in our reception into the community of Christ's church.
The meaning isn't just about my being spiritually fed. It is about us being fed together. This just isn't a sign of God's love for me. It is a sign of God's love for all, and as a social object, becomes a sign of God's inclusion.
Our family usually sits in one of the first half dozen rows in our church. As a result, we are one of the first to receive communion. After sitting down when we are served by intinction, I have begun to pray for each person who receives the bread and wine. My simple prayer is, "May they know God's love."
The Eucharist has become, for me, more than a part of our church's ritual observance of Christian tradition. It is a moment of real communion as a community. Even when I do not know the person receiving the elements of the meal, I am bound to them by the grace that we have each received through Christ.
The church is changing in dramatic ways. How people connect to the church is one of the most distinct ones. Here's a simple way of understand this.
From Member to Personal Call
From Institution to Community
From Spectators to Participants.
From Consumers to Contributors
In each of these shifts, the sacraments of the church, Baptism and The Lord's Supper, are providing a social context for these changes. This is why I consider them social objects that serve to unite us together as followers of Jesus Christ.
I hope you can also see that other aspects of the church, which may appear to be the dominant forces within a congregation, are not the social objects which provide a social context for uniting the congregation as a community of faith. The are expressions of our purpose derived from the experience we have together.
As a result, if you want your church to grow, then treat the sacraments as social objects for meaning and connection as the people of God. Build community through the practice of celebration, and the congregation will find new strength in its life together.