Bill Hybels once said that “the local church is the hope of the world.” Yet in our current culture, inundated as it is with social media, the notion of local has become a more malleable reality for many church-goers. Thanks to technology our local church can be in another city, another country, and even on another continent.
There are those who are especially optimistic about the possibilities of social media. Brandon Vogt, Catholic blogger and author of The Church and New Media: Blogging Converts, Online Activists, and Bishops Who Tweet is one. While acknowledging that social media can “inflate gossip, encourage narcissism, and reduce people to text,” Vogt goes on to say that “these dangers are avoidable. Once aware of them, we can prevent or overcome their damage.”
As Dr. Steve McMullin, lecturer in evangelism and mission at Acadia Divinity College notes: “The challenges of ‘thinking digitally’ are important for us to consider if we are going to break beyond our traditional Christian culture.” It’s not only an issue for those within the church but also for the church’s mission to those outside its walls.
Particularly when we think of those who are ‘digital natives,’ we consign ourselves to irrelevance if we fail to engage at all with online technology. Emerging adults are a very technologically assimilated generation. Those of us who recall life prior to the internet can hardly begin to overestimate how pervasive social media is for those raised on Google and instant messaging.
Simply talk to high school students and ask them what it would be like if they were to lose their cell phones, iPhones, or Blackberries. If anecdotal evidence is worth anything, we could expect them to experience sheer panic and disorientation. Losing their devices and toys would amount to being out of the loop. Being unable to text has huge social ramifications. Whether because of addiction to the devices themselves or social pressure, the impression is no longer that such devices are wonderful luxuries if you can afford them; rather, it is that they are necessities one cannot afford to do without.
So it is that our culture is permeated by social media offering instant connection unheard of in generations past. And, yes, such technology plays a role for many in the formation of community and relationships. Still, can we reduce the “dangers” of social media to things like gossip, as Vogt suggests, or is there more to the world of Twitter and Facebook that raises concern?
In her recent book Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, Sherry Turkle writes: “We are lonely but fearful of intimacy. Digital connections may offer the illusions of companionship without the demands of friendship. Our networked life allows us to hide from each other, even as we are tethered to each other. We’d rather text than talk.”
Thus, the ubiquitous quality of digital community aside, many remain lonely regardless—or perhaps because of—the many hours spent texting, posting status updates, and tweeting friends. Implied is that connectivity does not equal intimacy. Put another way, perhaps a platform like Facebook writes checks it cannot cash.
Matthew Lee Anderson, author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith, comments on social media’s impact on the church and its mission: “The more we wed ourselves to social networking . . . the more we risk forgetting that the problems in our communities result from our own reluctance to share space and meals together, and to enter into environments and social situations that require our embodied presence.”
Once the joke was that family members all escaped to their separate TVs while eating dinner, and now everyone in the family might well be at the same table but in completely separate digital environments, fork in one hand and smart-phone in the other. Parents and children might well be physically present to one another but emotionally and mentally elsewhere.
All of this makes begs the question: is Anderson right? Are there still “environments and social situations that require our embodied presence?” What about the Bible? Does it address this situation at all? Wisely, in 2 John 1:12 the apostle writes this: “I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.”
Similarly in Romans 1:11, Paul writes: “I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you—or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.”
Both John and Paul assume that in-person, embodied relationships carry an intrinsic value that other forms of communication and connection do not. They each demonstrate a profoundly incarnational understanding of relationship. With ink and parchment at their disposal they still wanted—and hoped and even longed—to meet face to face. That said, surely if these apostles were alive today they’d be make good use of our technology.
The president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Al Mohler, comments: “A digital preacher will not preach your funeral. The deep limitations of digital technologies become evident where the church is most needed. Don’t allow the Internet to become your congregation. YouTube is a horrible place to go to church.”
The conviction that spiritual life and community cannot take place fully without being physically present to one another gets to the heart of the way in which God himself has revealed himself to us: in the flesh. Central to biblical Christology is the reality that the second person of the Trinity entered creation and history as one of us. As we read in John’s prologue, “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” Or as Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” And in this case, neighbourhood has an irreducibly local meaning.
Rather than see social media as replacing more local, face to face expression of community, as some might be tempted to do, perhaps it could do what letter-writing did for the apostles; that is, it could instill in us a longing for a more personal encounter. Especially for the people who make significant use of social media but are still longing for (but perhaps avoiding) more intimate forms of community, the church ought to be one place where personal relationships are both a reminder and a declaration of the importance of embodied presence. It’s in being an embodied community that we also reveal what God was willing to do to enter relationship with us. As valuable as texting and tweeting might be, they are, to paraphrase Scripture, no substitute for becoming flesh and blood and moving into the neighbourhood.