Is Online Dating for Christians?
Jenell Williams Paris is a professor of anthropology at Messiah College and author of The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex Is Too Important to Define Who We Are (IVP).
Should Christians use online dating services? Yes, and with gusto! Online dating doesn't correct the well-documented imbalance of devout Christian women (abundant supply) to like-hearted men (a paucity), but it at least widens the net for Christians seeking partners.
It also reduces the need to choose between meaningful service in a region where pickings are slim, and work that may be further from one's calling in a more populated area.
Along with these benefits, online dating does raise new dangers: a creep—a violent one, even—may be lurking behind the next click; the process over-represents certain features of a person (facial appearance, for starters); and it requires an investment of funds that perhaps could be better spent elsewhere.
It would be foolish, however, to preserve the dating practices of an earlier era, even as an attempt to avoid these dangers. For instance, I'd never recommend that a modern woman do as I did. In the mid-1990s, when I was seeing the man who became my husband, we talked on landline phones late at night (when rates dropped from 25 cents per minute to 10 cents), sent just a handful of e-mails (seemed impersonal), and never texted (weren't pagers mostly just for drug dealers back then?). We wrote letters, too. By hand! And sent them via postal mail! These archaic behaviors suited the olden days, but some of them seemed novel even to the generation before mine. Like work, house construction, and child-rearing, dating is a cultural practice that humans reinvent and adapt to different circumstances. Refusing to adapt to massive cultural shifts such as technological innovation may work for a short time, or for separatist Christian communities, but for Christians living in mainstream society, discerning engagement is generally better than wholesale rejection.
Viewed with my anthropologist's eye, online dating and conventional dating look like near equivalents anyway; both are mate selection strategies favored by individualistic societies that believe marriage partners should know each other ahead of time and freely choose one another. They seem even more similar in contrast to societies that rely on arranged marriages, cousin marriages, or bride service, where the prospective groom works for future in-laws before marriage.
In another sense, however, online dating offers an improvement over conventional dating, which is rapidly devolving from courtship (increasing closeness over time with the eventual prospect of marriage) to hook-ups (sexual intimacy early, even before an exclusive relationship is formed). Online dating requires consideration of a prospective mate before physical contact occurs, and usually progresses from "just looking" to e-mail exchanges, texts, and cell phone calls, and then a face-to-face meeting. Electronic exchanges carry their own etiquette, so a person's character and charm (or lack thereof) are displayed early on. Christians can use online dating in ways that express discernment, modesty, and self-control, not only in sexual boundaries, but also in the very process of getting to know another person gradually.
Christians use the Internet for building all kinds of human relationships: evangelism, discipleship, friendship, family, and workplace. In today's society, the only thing odder than searching for a soul mate online may be not doing so.