Article Jul 8, 2016

Virtually connected, physically alone

It was eight years ago when an old college friend sent me an email that said, “You need to join Facebook.” Intrigued by the idea of connecting with people I hadn’t seen in years, I joined. Little did I know how much a website could form and shape my life. Since then, I’ve accumulated more friends than I’ll ever know in person. I learn about politics and international news from my constantly moving feed. I see pictures of my nieces and vacation photos of friends. I also read opinions on nearly everything, from the serious to the ridiculous.

A lot has happened in social media since I joined. There are more options to connect virtually with other people than ever before. Don’t want to read paragraph-long updates? Try Twitter. Prefer to just look at pictures? Try Instagram. Want to send messages that self-destruct? Try Snapchat.

Lonely among so many friends

You’d think that with all the options to connect with people 24/7, we would feel closer to our friends. You’d think we would feel more loved. You’d think we’d be less lonely. In fact, you’d think that if we were struggling in our life, because we have such a broad network of connections, we’d feel loved and supported by the multitudes.

But according to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, researchers at Oregon Health and Science University did a study with older adults to learn what kind of social contact or lack thereof might predict a person’s diagnosis of clinical depression in two years. With 16 million adults diagnosed with major depression, prevention is an important topic of research. What they found was that only face-to-face contact made any difference. Virtual connections made no impact.

So despite all the online friends we have and countless hours we spend exchanging messages and comments and likes, we are lonely. Though we might be able to stay on top of what people are doing in their daily lives and stay informed on the comings and goings of our friends, it’s not the same thing as being with them in person. As fun and entertaining as social media is, it’s no substitute for real, flesh and blood community.

Created for community

Friendship and community is not a human invention. God is a community in himself. Existing for all of eternity past, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit have enjoyed the love and fellowship of their perfect triune community. In creating mankind, God desired for us to participate in that community and know the perfect and joyous love the Godhead share.

But God didn't create man to be in community with him alone. After he created the world and Adam, God said, "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him" (Gen. 2:18). God created man and woman to be in community together, to create families and live together, bearing the image of and reflecting the three-in-one God.

Scripture is all about community. God chose the Israelites to be his people. "And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people" (Lev. 26:12). They lived and worshipped him together in community. Following the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ, God then instituted the church, the Body of Christ as a community of believers. "Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it." (1 Cor. 12:27).

We need community

There’s nothing wrong with making connections online and communicating with friends far and wide over the internet. The problem comes when we think that such connections are a valid substitute for the real thing. Online relationships are not the kind of community we need. That’s because a virtual friend cannot know the real us. A virtual friend cannot bring us a meal when we are sick. A virtual friend cannot hold our hand when we’ve lost all we hold dear. A virtual friend cannot stand by us when the storms of life crash over us.

The New Testament is filled with admonitions for how believers are to relate to one another in the local church. These admonitions are impossible to do from afar. They require face-to-face interaction. They require knowledge of each other’s lives. They require that we live life together. The writer to the Hebrews says, "And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near" (Heb. 10:24-25). James 5:16 says, "Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working." We are to carry each other's burdens (Gal. 6:2), care for each other's practical needs (Rom. 12:13, Heb. 13:16), warn each other of sin (1 Thess. 5:14) and rejoice and mourn with each other (Rom. 12:15). And as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 12, we simply can’t function without each other.

God created us to need community, to need connection. We can interact with our friends on Facebook or other realms of social media, but never let us think it is enough. We need real community, the community that our Savior died to create—his church, his Bride, his Body.