(by Guest Blogger Janet Gruchacz)

Is it just me? Or has anyone else noticed the lack of desire for fellowship among Christians these days? Low attendance at Bible studies, social events, service projects, even worship services seems to be the norm now. This puzzles me. Why does the God-given need for fellowship and interaction seem to be largely absent today in the world and even the church? Don’t people get lonely?

It has recently occurred to me that social media and technology may play a large role in the lack of face-to-face fellowship we see today. From the comfort of our homes (even our beds, or at the dinner table) we can log in and see what our friends have been up to; right down to what they had for dinner or what they’re wearing, what their opinions are (don’t click on that political post!), where they are, where they’ve been, where they are going. We know so much about each other (TMI!), but do we really know each other?

It has been estimated that 70-80% of communication is non-verbal – that is, body language, vocal intonation, facial expression, etc. Even if the actual number is lower, this should clue us in that Facebook, texting, email, etc., that we rely on so heavily, isn’t really helping us communicate. Maybe it hinders us more than we suspect. Could it be that this latest generation of adults aren’t comfortable in face-to-face conversation because they never learned how to comfortably interact with these non-verbal cues? I believe this is only part of the problem. Because it’s not just the younger people that have become tech and Facebook addicts (did you know that scrolling and surfing fire the same parts of the brain as cocaine use in drug addicts? [Ofir Turel of Cal State Fullerton]). I believe we are filling our need for human interaction with a substitute that brings us pleasure, but not fulfillment. Think of it as someone being famished and stuffing themselves on cake and cookies and soda. They aren’t hungry anymore, but they aren’t satisfied or nourished. In the same way we stuff ourselves with the substitute fellowship of social media, but we are lonely, discouraged, feeling disconnected, even depressed.

I read an article from the New York Times called, “How Not to Be Alone.” It was adapted from a commencement address by novelist Jonathan Safran Foer at the Middlebury College. In it he talks about the development of electronic communication from the telephone (for when we couldn’t see each other face-to-face) to the answering machine. Then came email, then texting, each facilitating faster and more portable messaging. He states, “These inventions were not created to be improvements upon face-to-face communication, but a declension of acceptable, if diminished, substitutes for it.” But then he points out the slippery-slide of our society preferring these substitutes because they required less of us; less energy, less entanglement, less emotion, frankly, just less work.

Because let’s face it, relationships are work and they make us vulnerable, and the modern world with all its enticing technologies and entertainment, gives us a way to hide and avoid such transparency by allowing us to build our own little virtual realities. We text and post our best selves and there’s no one to look in our eyes and see the struggles, the despair, the anger. And I guess that makes us feel safer. But has anyone noticed that we don’t really feel better? We receive messages and read into them what we want, for we can’t see or hear the sender. And if we don’t feel like responding to someone, we don’t. We can always say we were driving or the dog threw up. Image of best self intact – I am safe.

For the Christian, this virtual world we build is a huge trap, and a terrible hindrance to all that God wants to do in our lives. One cannot read Scripture without seeing the emphasis on the church as a group of interacting individuals. So much of the work God does to transform our hearts and minds he does through other believers. When we meet face-to-face we can’t avoid bumping into each other and chipping off the rough edges that keep us from looking like Jesus. When we are active in each others’ lives, those walls of safety we have in our virtual world don’t work as well; we start to see through them to the real people on the other side. And that’s when we must start living like we are commanded to – encouraging the weak, forbearing with and forgiving one another (because we are still sinners and we will offend each other), speaking the truth to each other, building each other up, and correcting those in error. It gets uncomfortable, but it’s real, and it’s redeeming. We get to see a beautiful picture of our Savior in the reflection of a brother or sister encouraging us, risking our wrath by confronting us, serving us, washing our feet. It can be humbling, which I guess is ultimately why we avoid it. But it is the life of God’s kingdom, and it takes us closer to the peace and joy we should know as members of God’s kingdom.

It’s scary, being transparent and being humble. But it is the path of redemption and joy we are called to as God’s children. So if you’re feeling disconnected don’t pick up your phone and scroll through your friends’ lives. Use it to set up a real connection- ask a friend to get together for coffee or prayer. Don’t allow yourself to get comfortable in a virtual world, make yourself go to that fellowship or Bible study. Because, ultimately, living in fellowship the way Christ calls us to is far more satisfying and fulfilling than any substitute the world offers us.