A friend once told me, “Paul, you were our Facebook before there was a Facebook!” He meant that I like to keep in touch with people. I seek ways to keep friendships preserved and to stay in touch. I don’t keep up with people as much as I’d like, but in comparison to my friend’s other acquaintances, apparently I do. Writing letters used to be a joy, but today email and Facebook are the primary ways I check on friends.
I never had a MySpace page, and I’m not on Linkedin, but I love the way Facebook brings people together. I reconnected with a high school friend, whom I hadn’t talked to for over thirty years. Shorty afterward his mother died, and so his other far-flung acquaintances and I gave him prayers and consolation. Without the power of contemporary social media, it’s hard to see how we could’ve supported him better. Participants in other online communities, like the Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir, testify to the caring they receive from people (whom they never meet) around the country and the world!
If you think about it, the majority of the New Testament literature is social networking! Verity Jones, writing in the Yale Divinity School alumni journal Reflections (Fall-Winter 2011), notes that Paul made connections among friends, disciples, and congregations around the Empire. Early Christian congregations had not only face-to-face communication but also “links” around the empire in a “web” of support, teaching, requests for help, and so on.
Today, the Internet creates community and provides for the fast spread of information. Email is an effective tool for churches’ prayer chains, perhaps more so than the telephone. I remember discussions in my parishes about the cost of Yellow Page ads and what we could afford, so that visitors would find us readily. Today, many churches have their own websites, providing schedules of events, information, sermons, and newsletters.
Effective as social media is, we would be lonely if our only religious activity was online. The fellowship of Sunday school classes and Vacation Bible Schools would likely be lost if these programs were conducted like online courses. Sites such as The Virtual Abbey, which conduct worship services on Twitter, offer interaction and fellowship, but of course, important activities and rites like the sacraments must happen with other people in the same physical room.
The benefit of online community is real-time support among people who are geographically scattered. For instance, if you share your troubles on Facebook, people who might otherwise never know your problem can express their concern when you need it most. Those of us who’ve received outpourings of friendship appreciate the power of instant, online communication.
Paul E. Stroble is an elder in The United Methodist Church, has served as parish pastor and college instructor, and currently teaches at Webster University in St. Louis. He is the author of 11 books, including You Gave Me a Wide Place: Holy Places of Our Lives (published by Upper Room Books).