Maybe the most prominent and seductive modern-day myth is the assumption that we have an unlimited amount of attention. Technology affords us the opportunity to become involved in multiple communities—based on hobbies, personal struggles, political views, social cause, or stage of life. Twitter hashtags, shareable content, and Facebook groups with a feeling of exclusivity create an illusion of infinite belonging and opportunity for cooperation.
These communities are self-selected, usually based on clearly spelled-out shared values or affinities, and they make it easy for one to opt-in and opt-out at any point.
The results can be powerful. It is no small thing to experience connection with mothers who have the same struggles, or with those who share a passion for the same oft-disregarded hobby or unusual social cause. Those wounded by the church often live in mental isolation until they discover someone who has also been wounded. These groups reflect a powerful truth in a world that often is shaped by a lack of understanding: You are not alone.
In fact, our sense of loneliness, especially in the presence of others, is often due to ignorance. We struggle to invest in the kind of face-to-face conversations that can help us truly know each other. Such conversations require time and psychological effort, and entail not a little discomfort. Our technology appears to solve these “problems.” In her book Reclaiming Conversation, Sherry Turkle refers to the “seven-minute rule,” one teenager’s approach to conversation. After seven minutes, if the conversation isn’t engaging, the teenager will abandon the interaction and migrate to her phone to find something more interesting—even if what she finds on her phone is also not that interesting. “We use our phones to take what we can get,” Turkle writes. “And often, we make what we can get good enough.” Why? Because that is less threatening and demanding than face-to-face conversation.
As one friend, a member of a Facebook group made up of like-minded people interested in popular culture, told me, “It’s easier for me to bear with smart, quirky, thoughtful people than your standard Midwestern Southern Baptist.” He readily admits he does this “because I’m sinful,” adding that these online conversations give him “unrealistic expectations for thoughtfulness, dialogue, and grace in the church,” discouraging his own investment in those in his congregation.
In short, online communities present us with a noble temptation that stems from our inherent desire to actively love and share our lives with our neighbors. But our local congregations, however faulty and underwhelming they may be, remain the primary community that God calls us to invest ourselves in. This is the community where Christ in fullness dwells (Eph. 1:22–23), where we “become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13), so that “the whole body . . . grows and builds itself up in love” (Eph. 4:16). The New Testament speaks of the church as a gathering of believers who pray together, who eat meals together, who submit themselves to one another, who often find themselves in uncomfortable situations. The epistles speak of face-to-face interaction as normative, refusing to rely solely on the social media of the day (letters) to talk about crucial issues. “I have much to write you,” writes John in his third epistle (3 John 1:13), “but I do not want to do so with pen and ink.”
Even efforts in the New Testament that could be described as “parachurch” ministry are rooted in the cooperation of local church bodies. When Paul sought to provide an offering to the church of Jerusalem, he wrote to the church body in Corinth and spoke of congregations elsewhere. When individuals were healed or fed, they were funneled into local congregations.
These efforts rely on a key resource: active and invested church members, energized by the Holy Spirit. The gospel of Jesus Christ serves to unite us but also enables us for the challenging task of living in flesh-and-blood community. The grace of God is the very thing that enables us to push past the surface-level awkwardness of the in-person conversation, ignore the buzzing phone, and come to terms with the neighbors we’ve been given.
We are not called to engage the local church with blind trust in the pastor or members. We can be realistic and admit that the local church only realizes the biblical model in fits and starts. But it remains the most beautiful hope we can imagine. We give ourselves to it because it is the community through which God will ultimately solve the problem of human loneliness and isolation, “to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth” (Eph. 1:10).
Richard Clark is online managing editor of Christianity Today. You can follow him on Twitter.