For the last three months we have been told by our government officials, some elected and some not, to stay away from each other. Whether it’s called ‘Stay At Home”, “Safer At Home”, or simply “Social Distancing” we have been told to 1) create distance between you and others and 2) if we are out in public wear a mask. Dictionary.com defines the word distance to mean to “make (someone or something) far off or remote in position or nature.”
Until recently distance between people was generally not thought of as a good thing, at least not in western culture. However, being caring, compliant people, for the most part, we have acquiesced. Here in Virginia and most of the northeast and west coast, unless you are protesting, people are wearing masks and not gathering. Fear has trumped our need and desire for connection in the name of “safety” that has manifested itself in isolation, loneliness, and depression for at least hundreds of thousands and maybe even millions. Around the world, drug and alcohol abuse has dramatically increased (remember liquor stores were deemed essential from the start), as have suicides.
In an attempt to combat this self-inflicted isolation, as with so many things in our lives, we have figured out ways to leverage technology to create “the illusion of connection.” If you are like me, your business environment has moved to Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or something similar for meetings and discussions. Your church is probably leveraging Zoom, YouTube, Facebook, etc. for services, small groups and other meetings. And, because we can hear each other and, to some extent, see each other we assume we are able to maintain community. Unfortunately we are and we aren't. The reality is, like so many other instances in life, we are actually shielding ourselves from others and crafting their perceptions of us, whether intentionally or subconsciously, “behind the screens”; creating a false sense community.
In 1971 Albert Mehrabian published a book based on his research entitled Silent Messages. His research indicated that communication consists of 7% audible content, 38% vocal intonation, and 55% nonverbal cues. Since then, there have been those who have questioned the numbers; however, it really doesn’t matter if the number is 55% or 30%, the point is that a significant amount of communication and thus connection is done nonverbally.
This is why email and texting can actually be a threat to relationship. Let’s say you and a friend are bantering back and forth, mildly disagreeing on an issue, and you respond “Of course, you fool, everyone knows that!” With the wink of an eye, a smile on your face, and a playful intonation in your voice, they immediately know that you are jesting with them. However, those straight words, delivered by email or text, don’t convey the same meaning and will most likely taken to be hurtful and may even seriously damage the relationship. To some degree, that is why emojis were invented as an attempt to nonverbally communication emotion and intent.
We have a similar problem with some of the stories of Jesus we find in the Bible; e.g. Matthew 15:22-28 or Luke 24:13-19. What are we to make of these stories from the text? They actually seem a bit bizarre; unless to consider the personality of Jesus. For a deeper dive into the personality of Jesus see Beautiful Outlaw by John Eldredge.
Suffice it to say that while text only communication is helpful in conveying information, it is significantly lacking in the communication of emotion and intent even with the help of emojis.
As the church has pushed into the use of technology, out of necessity and the conflicting desires to be compassionate and maintain connection (“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” – Hebrews 10:24-25), we must remember that technology is not community.
Authentic Christian Community, as my pastor likes to call it, is what happens when the Holy Spirit moves in and between two or more individuals who are in close proximity to each other. Community is the boldness of a hug, the simple wink of an eye or touch of a hand, or the subtle leaning toward someone as they share their pain or going with a "gut feeling". Jesus’ community was and is face-to-face. From touching a leper, to the command given to the dead Lazarus to “COME OUT!” Our Lord’s engagement and embracing of community was not filtered, screened, or sanitized. Jesus’ love was unbridled by fear and communicated personally, up close and personal. That is the model; with the most prominent modern example being Mother Teressa of Calcutta. Yes, that is the call.
Gabriel Gonsalves, in a 2017 blog post entitled The Wires That Connect Us said ‘But the truth is, my heart seeks a deeper level of connection, the same one Brené Brown refers to in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, where she defines connection as “the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”
The type of connection she describes includes and transcends the level of our minds, to include the physical, emotional and spiritual aspects of our being. This, I believe is the only place where true, powerful, and meaningful heart to heart connections can be made, and where they can grow and eventually thrive.’
Physical presence is the only place where lives are changed, wounded hearts are healed, brokenness mended, and life is renewed. This is the place where Authentic Christian Community manifests itself. This is the community we were created for; first with God – Father, Jesus, Holy Spirit, and then with each other (John 17:20-23). A true, lasting, healing, restorative community requires the Real.
Technology, while helpful to some degree, is only a false imitation of life and community. True life; the life Jesus promised in John 10:10 … the life that results in Authentic Christian Community only occurs when we are physically present with and to each other. Now, do not get me wrong, technology can be used to stir, inform, and encourage. However, the place where we can truly care for each other is where we are physically present. The only place that healing, restoration and renewal can take place.
As Christians, we must not let our fear, fueled by the work of the Evil One through anxiety, hatred and malice, along with man's desire to coerce and control, keep us from truly fulfilling the writer’s admonition in Hebrews 10. We must not let anyone – not our political leaders, not the “expert” or the “wise”, and especially not our church leaders, prevent us from being the church as the Lord Jesus Christ demonstrated and God intended. Technology can never replace a hug. Zoom is not a kiss. Teams is not compassion. Even if it leads to our "death" (Philippians 1:20-21), our call is to be one-on-one and face-to-face. It is the only path that leads to community and "life to the full."