As a follower of Christ, I feel God moving in both my virtual and my real lives. Knowing that these dual influences are neither mutually exclusive nor entirely compatible gives rise to a series of questions.
— from Digital Disciple by Adam Thomas (Kindle Edition)
C harlie sits near the back of the congregation with his head down, silently texting his friends during the entire sermon. The pastor knows without a doubt what is happening but preaches on, much the same as he would simply preach over the noise of a baby in her mother’s lap. Is the pastor wrong to ignore the obvious disrespect of the texting teen? Should cell phones be banned from the Sunday morning worship service to prevent this immature behavior?
That same afternoon an urgent email goes out to the members of the congregation. Charlie has had a serious motorcycle accident and is now in critical condition. Prayer begins within minutes of receiving the news. Offers of help pour in to keep Charlie’s younger brothers and sisters while his parents are summoned to Charlie’s side before emergency surgery.
The setting I have just described is fictional, but definitely feasible. It illustrates the dichotomy associated with electronic communications in the church. Generational differences often see high tech communications from opposite perspectives. Both have their reasons. Both are right in some ways. Both are wrong in some ways if they take a hard line of reasoning.
… we are connected, but more often than not we connect remotely. Yes, I may know your favorite bands and books, but I may never know the timbre of your voice or how heavy your footfalls are. Yes, community forms on the Internet, but how can you share a meal or look someone in the eye via an online forum? I make the observations found in this book from a vantage point overlooking a pair of intersections.
— again, from Digital Disciple by Adam Thomas (Kindle Edition)
I’ve been the man in the middle of these two points of view for over a decade at our home church which has an older congregation and is historically reluctant to adopt technology-based communications solutions. That reluctance has been voiced from a solid line of reasoning that there is no substitute for face-to-face fellowship, that electronic communications in the form of email, texting and the like is impersonal, and can never substitute for human contact. This line of reasoning is entirely correct. It can’t. But on the other side of this dichotomy, the reasoning is that there is nothing which can bring a congregation together more quickly in common purpose than hearing via email about a brother or sister in the congregation in crisis.
In today’s society, nothing can outperform the smartphone with its multiple personalities capable of voice conversations, text messages, email, tweeting, “liking,” and more. The possibilities in future technologies are unlimited.
So, we come back to the question — does electronic communication really isolate us? Yes! In the traditional sense of physical proximity. No! In the sense that we are often brought together in a common cause when we learn of a joyous event like the birth of twins to a congregation member, or we learn of a tragic event soon enough to connect emotionally for support, encouragement and possibly sharing a scripture or prayer over a great many miles through electronic connections of one sort or another.
One of the most poignant examples I can think of in this respect is the 40+ year relationship between a local pastor and his close Christian brother, a traveling evangelist. Their longstanding relationship is built on their relationship to Christ and their love for each other. More than once I have been in the Pastor’s office and witnessed a shared prayer or needed word of encouragement delivered via cell phone over hundreds or thousands of miles. Often they do not see each other for months, or even longer because of the proximity of their respective callings, one a local pastor, the other a traveling evangelist. But their relationship is never in doubt, and that relationship is enriched by the magic of today’s mobile cell phone technology, due partly to the fact that they knew and loved each other deeply as brothers in Christ long before the advent of the cell phone. They are reminded of the timbre of each of other’s voice over a cell phone connection because of technology every time they talk. And each can read the other’s state of emotion from a thousand miles away. And, I suspect that if either of them chose to use a more “techie” form of communication, like email, they’d be able to read the other’s spiritual mood.
After this decade of observation I’ve had in my congregation, my caution to those on both sides of the dichotomy of opinion on this issue is this: technology is not really the issue; the condition of the heart and the relationship between each other is the issue.
How we use the tools that God has given us to communicate depends on our relationship to others, both in our congregation and the world around us.
- Seek guidance in God’s word before we speak.
- Guard against the flippancy of thoughtless tweets and shallow text messages while ignoring our brothers.
- Answer with encouragement and hope to our brothers with whatever means God has provided — whether that is face-to-face or by a “tweet” which leads to Psalm 23 at exactly the right time, or a prayer with a brother across the country when tragedy strikes.
By whatever means practical or necessary at the time, guard the heart … encourage the brother … pray together.