“[The use of technology] is especially important when it comes to the ultimate meaning of communion. Technology has created what we call virtual reality. It can give you a sense of intimacy. But whether it is real intimacy or not is quite another matter. I think this is where the Christian understanding of community enables us to look beyond what modern technology can offer, because the Christian understanding of real communion is embodied communion. Communion means bodily presence. That's at the heart of our incarnational theology, God coming to us in person; it's the meaning of the resurrection of the body. So no matter what virtual reality technology can create, it will never be an adequate substitute for communion.” Simon Chan, Christianity Today Magazine
For a long time I have been bothered by the ever-expanding growth of online communities. My concern has run even more deeply regarding online Christian communities, and I have wrestled for a long time with as to why. I think that I have begun to grasp something of the beginning of an answer to this problem. First, a little history. I have been a participant in a wide variety of online communities since Al Gore first invented the internet. While in school at the University of Alaska, my roommate introduced me to something called Multi-User Dimensions, or MUDs for short. Back then, the internet was primarily text-based, and these MUDs could be considered the text-based precursors to EverQuest, Sims Online and Second Life. My roommate and I would enter these MUDs and create characters of varying levels of integrity and quality, depending on the mood we were in, and then interact with other people doing much the same thing. In a strange way, it felt like we were really building relationships with these people and getting to know them “for real.”
But a few of things began to enter my thought process. First, we were spending an absolutely unreal amount of time online, and not even realizing it. We would enter the computer lab or log on from our room around 10 PM and not log off until 6 AM sometimes. But it didn’t feel like 8 hours had passed; it felt more like two or three hours had passed. Because of the inherently slow nature of typed communication, our sense of time was thrown off. Secondly, I began to realize the irony of forming “real” relationships with other people online, when the way I was presenting myself was usually a lie. Why did I assume the other person was really telling the truth about him or herself when I knew I wasn’t?
The third realization came through noticing someone else’s experience. A guy and a girl I knew on campus began dating, and I saw them one day enter the computer lab together. They sat on opposite sides of the lab, facing away from each other, and then proceeded to chat back and forth. I realized that I rarely actually saw them talking to each other in person.
The only way they were able to communicate with each other was through a computer screen when they couldn’t see each other.
Now, my wife will be quick to point out that I still spend far too much time online. And as much as I hate to admit it, I know she’s right. I do spend too much time online, and most of it is completely wasted. I pretend it is learning about new ways to do ministry, challenging myself in my spiritual walk, supporting and encouraging brothers and sisters in Christ from around the world. But I know that isn’t true. The truth is that, much like the couple from college, I often prefer virtual relationships to real relationships because, frankly, they’re easier.
In the virtual world, I am less concerned about someone else’s reaction to my words because I cannot see their reaction. They can express their hurt or upset, but because I cannot see their hurt and upset, it doesn’t bother me in the same way. I can move in and out of virtual relationships with ease, because they are almost completely under my control (or so I like to think). I believe that I am meeting my relational needs because these relationships seem like real relationships.
But they aren’t.
As the Simon Chan quote that opened this article states, in order for us to have true communion with one another, it must involve bodily presence. Scripture paints a very clear picture that we were created to be in relationship with other humans, particularly other believers. And the nature of those relationships can only occur if we are physically present with one another. Take, for example, these passages:
They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. Acts 2:42-47
If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Philippians 2:1-4
Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another– and all the more as you see the Day approaching. Hebrews 10:25
The only way this sort of connection can occur is through face-to-face relationships with other believers.
We may be able to find aspects of these relationships in virtual communities, but we will never be able to reap, nor return back, all that God intended for us through them.
Of course, this is where the difficulty comes in – bodily present relationships are so darned hard. So much time is spent in the Bible telling us how we are to interact with each other. Jesus spent most of his time with the disciples that last, fateful evening, telling them how to relate to each other and to the world around them. We are told how to hold one another accountable, how to encourage and support each other, how to develop meaningful relationships with each other. All because God created us for relationships – real, physical, bodily relationships. The greatest example of this, of course, is Jesus Christ. The fact He had to come to earth in bodily form to repair the fractured relationship between God and man should tell us something of the importance and significance of real relationships.
It is my sincere hope and prayer that we all will take stock of the time we spend in virtual communities, building virtual relationships. If we are spending more time in virtual communities instead of in real communities, then we are missing out on the fullness of what God intended us to have in relationships. Take an honest look at your life and your time, and don’t fear reality. It’s okay. God has far more control over reality than we think we have over virtual reality. He wants you out there, for your sake. Don’t miss out just because it might be hard.