According to Facebook Developers’ Social Design guidelines, there are two main ways to model a social product:
- Work from the inside out — ie. “allow people to create an identity, let them share it and build a community over time”. They claim this is how Facebook began (although as the story’s told in The Social Network, its origins owe more to the elitist in-group dynamics of Ivy League campus life).
- Work from the outside in — ie. “utilize the existing community users have built, define new conversations and let them continue to build their identities further”.
I want to suggest that it’s this second strategy that holds most promise for Christian mission and ministry.
On the face of it, this claim may seem odd. After all, isn’t Christianity fundamentally about being given a new identity? And doesn’t it all begin as we’re united with Christ by faith? Then doesn’t it go from there as we learn how to faithfully remember and consistently live this out?
But I find the outside in approach promising because it directs our attention to two closely related but often overlooked things about becoming Christian and living the Christian life.
On the one hand, it helpfully acknowledges the community and relational contexts we’re all always embedded in.
No-one ever simply ‘creates’ a new identity for themselves ex nihilo. This certainly holds for those with whom we would share the gospel. Jesus won’t so much obliterate their existing identities as straighten out whatever is bent and twisted about them.
His grace is an alien invader. But its arrival somehow makes profound sense, ‘decoding’ our diverse identities, journeys and senses of vocation as Andrew Cameron puts it (Joined-up Life, page 97).
It’s the same with those who’ve been united with Jesus. We continue to inhabit our existing networks of relationships — families, neighbourhoods, workplaces, communities, etc. We may disturb and even subvert established patterns within these networks because of our allegiance to Jesus. But I take it that being salt and light requires our ongoing presence within them rather disengaging to form a new separatist community or whatever.
On the other hand, the outside in approach helpfully points us to the fact that the new identity we’re given in Christ necessarily joins us together with others. The network of relationships called ‘church’ both arises from our new identity in Christ and leads us ever deeper into it — giving others a tantalising glimpse of what Jesus offers them.
That‘s why Christian mission and ministry should learn to work from the outside in.