By Ryan Wampler
Is church as we know it becoming an online-only experience? In a time when we’ve had to isolate ourselves physically from others, churches have had to pivot. We’ve learned to use Zoom, Facetime, texting, and more as we’ve never used them before.
As a pastor, I’m so grateful that The Crossing already had some of these digital tools in place. These allowed us to connect virtually as soon as the pandemic started. Online services and classes, podcasts, and blog posts nourished many of us with much-needed spiritual truths as we hunkered down in our own homes.
Churches haven’t been alone in learning to use digital technology better. Schools, businesses, and many other parts of society have either ridden the digital revolution wave. Or they’ve been crushed by it. The reality is, there’s no going back fully to the way it was before.
If you switched to online grocery shopping, do you want to go back? How many graduate schools will have a much more robust online component going forward? As a church, we have to ask how the digital revolution will change what we do moving forward.
This isn’t a new challenge. The church has always had to learn how to adapt and respond to cultural developments. These new developments often open up exciting opportunities for churches to reach more people or make a more significant impact.
Paul and the New Technology
In our modern world, it’s hard for us to remember that letter writing was actually a technological development. Thousands of years ago, tablets of stone, leather, and clay were tedious to manufacture, use, and transport. The invention of papyrus (an ancient paper made of reeds) and the ability to connect them into scrolls allowed more people to write and record communication.
This new technology gave the apostle Paul the ability to write letters to churches when his travels took him far away. This enabled Paul to stay connected to and spiritually encourage people through letter-writing, even when he was physically absent. Not only should we be grateful that Paul was able to do so for the sake of these young churches, but without his letters, we wouldn’t have our New Testament!
Something Better than Letters
However, despite the benefits of new letter-writing technology, Paul didn’t seem content to only write letters. He expressed a desire to be physically present with other people.
In his letter to the church in Thessalonica, Paul said:
“But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face” (1 Thessalonians 2:17).
Paul expresses this same strong desire to be physically present with people in other letters (Romans 15:23, 1 Corinthians 16:7, 2 Corinthians 1:15-16, 1 Thessalonians 3:10, 2 Timothy 4:9, Titus 3:12, Philemon 22).
We also see that when Paul couldn’t physically be present as he wanted to be, his second-best option was to send a friend to visit in person. Then, these trusted co-workers traveled to report back to Paul with updates (Philippians 2:19, Colossians 4:7-9, 1 Thessalonians 3:1-2).
Why did Paul think being in person was better than merely staying connected through letter writing? We don’t know for sure, but he does say that his in-person visitors gave him comfort and refreshment (2 Corinthians 7:6, 2 Timothy 1:16).
Digital Still Can’t Replace Physical
Our technology enables us to connect in more physical ways than letter writing. We can see faces, hear voices, and see homes. We don’t have to wait weeks or months to receive a response as we talk in real-time. Yet, even with improved technology, it’s still not as good as being in person. This explains our loneliness and Zoom-fatigue despite all the opportunities for online connections. Every small group leader I’ve talked to about this has told me that meeting in person is just plain better than Zoom.
Does this dissatisfaction come from the fact that our technology still has its glitches? Or does it come from knowing deep down the in-person connection offers something that technology can’t replicate? Like the power of the touch of a handshake, a pat on the shoulder, or a hug. Or the added information we take in when we’re with someone that doesn’t translate through a screen.
God designed us to connect with other people in a way that technology can’t. Our physical bodies are more involved in how we communicate and connect with others than we realize.
For years, sociologists have been studying the effects of digital communication on our emotional and relational well-being. One of the most interesting studies focuses on teenage girls who rely on social media to connect with their friends. These girls show an increase in anxiety and decreased emotional and relational intelligence.
Amazingly, what reversed the emotional and relational deficits was increasing face-to-face conversations. Sociological suggests that better and healthier connections with others require being in person. (For more on this, check out Reclaiming Conversation by Sherry Turkle and American Girls by Nancy Jo Sales.)
Finding Ways to Be In Person
We live in an irrevocably digital world. But this isn’t all bad. We should celebrate the countless lives that have been reached with the truths of Christianity. And we should look to good digital content as a valuable tool for spiritual growth.
However, we miss something if our connections with other Christians are exclusively virtual. The Bible points to the mysterious benefit of being in person– especially with other Christians.
Being in person may not be possible for some during this pandemic. Even that is something to mourn the loss of. Others are more comfortable thinking things over about Christianity in the digital space. That’s fine too.
But if you are ready, maybe a good first step is attending church in-person or talking over a walk or over coffee with another Christian. Or perhaps the best next step is to attend an in-person class, a women’s study, a men’s study, or a small group. Who knows? Maybe I’ll be there too and be able to shake your hand.
Are you looking for a way to connect face-to-face at The Crossing this spring? Check out our Events page for ways to get involved this fall.