More than one million young, college-educated Americans move across state lines each year, according to new research reported in The New York Times. I belong to this mobile generation, with each move forcing me to say goodbye to pals from childhood, college, graduate school, and beyond.
I am grateful to have several friends whom I consider kindred spirits—who I can call up at any time and talk to about anything, who listen closely, care deeply, and pray unceasingly for me.
Every single one of these friends lives out of state.
Because of cell phones and constant Internet access, that distance doesn’t matter as much as it once might have. Friends message urgent prayer requests and updates. Through social media, we can keep up with some of the more mundane aspects of each other’s daily lives.
When psychologists and anthropologists investigate how modern technology affects our relationships, they often note the sheer number of “friends”—the average person on Facebook has 338. And they look at ways social media help to create an ever-widening network of shallow virtual connections and acquaintances.
Yet for people like me, social media let us keep certain people as part of our inner circle despite the distance, thus diverting our energy away from newer, in-person acquaintances. In a paradox of the times, technology has helped this generation maintain emotionally close, long-distance friends while staying emotionally distant from local friends. We can keep the friends we found in college and graduate school as we move to different locations seeking jobs. Though we may make new friends locally, technology enables us to fall back on old friends far away when crises hit. Quick texts or status updates often stand in for embodied, face-to-face interactions.
Increased mobility also makes many in my cohort hesitant to prioritize friendships with our neighbors and local peers. Who knows when we might move again? It’s easier just to keep up with the people who go way back with us, carrying them with us wherever we go.
Technology presents a Faustian bargain, though. While we gain the ability to keep long-distance friends close through emailing, texting, and social media—a more immediate, constant form of connection than the letters and phone calls earlier generations relied on—we can easily miss out on other forms of community.
In its best moments, the local church is the community where we can be fully known yet fully loved. But if young believers are already receiving our emotional and spiritual support from long-distance friends, we may look less to our local sisters and brothers in Christ. Some of us opt to be just “somewhat known,” a familiar face at worship and small group. We may not make ourselves available when fellow church members need us.
The call to local community isn’t only for the good of our neighbors, but for our own good too—particularly in the digital age. We enjoy a unique closeness and accountability from the people who see us in person on a regular basis. In these relationships, I’ve discovered an even more authentic bond: I cannot choose to withdraw by refusing to return a call or text. I have to face my flaws, exposed before another, and in this setting, I’ve experienced true grace as well.
I know God calls me to commit to the place where he has planted me now—so he can use friends both far and near to reveal my heart and show his grace to me. God told the Israelite exiles in Babylon to build houses, plant gardens, marry and have children, and seek the welfare of the city where he had sent them (Jer. 29).
These activities provide for the flourishing of our communities as well as forcing us to make connections with the people who live around us. God uses such relationships to foster spiritual growth, even in places where we feel like exiles.
Sadly, the busy schedules of many young Christians don’t often lend themselves to rhythms of shared daily life where open-hearted fellowship can emerge. Which is why, in some ways, technology is a blessing, allowing us to maintain enduring friendships across the miles. But as we do so, let’s not miss out on what God has for us here and now. If we make an effort to reach out and be present locally, we may be surprised to find kindred spirits right next door.
Liuan Chen Huska is a freelance writer fascinated by social and cultural change. She lives in the Chicago area.
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