The Last Bastion of Fellowship

Image credit: hpcmadison.com

by Drew Dyck

The Victorians had tea parties. The Pioneers had barn raisings. Beatniks had poetry readings. Hippies had love-ins. We have e-mail.

Every generation produces different modes of communication and community. However, when contrasted with the crowded dinner tables, country potlucks, coffee shops and flower gardens of the past, what is becoming the postmodern picture of communication is startling in its silence: a person alone in front of a glowing screen.

Yet an image of isolation was never intended. Technology was supposed to make the world smaller and bring people together. The Internet was hailed as the great unifier of humankind, covering the globe like a warm blanket and connecting us all.

Over two decades have passed since the Internet made its move from education systems to mainstream usage. Looking back, we can see that its impact has certainly been transformational. It has fused the personal computer with the human psyche, ushering in an unprecedented intimacy with technology. It has changed our imagination, stretched our vision and shrunk our world. But what has it done to our relationships? What impact has it had on our sense of community? Have the predictions of the techno-prophets come to pass? Are we really any warmer under the Internet cover?

The fragmentation of our society would seem to answer with a resounding "No." The divorce rate in America is still rising. Once tightly knit communities are now disintegrating. Loneliness is on the rise. Of course it would be unfair to blame all societal ills on the advent of the Internet; certainly other factors have played a role. And after all, the Internet is a valuable tool, connecting distant friends, enabling people to communicate easily across boarders. The problem is that it is creating a society increasingly connected by fiber optics alone.

A recent two-year, $1.5 million dollar study done by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University concluded, "Internet use appears to cause a decline in psychological well-being." The director of the study qualified the findings. "We're not talking here about the extremes. These were normal adults and their families, and on average, for those who used the Internet most, things got worse." Paradoxically, subjects who spent the most time connected to the Internet were found to be the loneliest.

Another study conducted by the Stanford Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society looked at the Internet usage in 2,689 households. Their finds were similar. Norman Nie, Director of SIQSS and principle investigator of the study, concluded, "the more hours people use the Internet, the less time they spend in contact with real human beings." The results of the study also challenged the notion that the Internet enables people to cut down on time at work by working from home and spending more time with their families. Sixteen percent of the employed regular Internet users in the study reported that they were working more at home since gaining Internet access, but they were not cutting back on hours at the office. Nine percent actually reported increases in time spent working both at home and at work. Based on the findings of the study Nie states, "The Internet could be the ultimate isolating technology that further reduces our participation in communities even more than did automobiles and television before it."

Of course these studies only confirm what common sense should tell us. We are not computers. We need personal connections. We draw life from the sight of a smile, the touch of a loved one, being embraced, feeling someone's hand on ours. These bolster our psychological and physiological health. But such experiences cannot be programmed, downloaded or e-mailed. I am not against the Internet. My contention is that we have misappropriated a great tool. We have taken artificial communication too far. In our excitement to connect to the world, we have disconnected from each other.

What possible reprieve can our society have from such pervasive technology? Hoping for the Internet to disappear is like betting that the 8-Track will make a comeback. Suppressing technology is futile. What we need is a community strong enough to resist it and once again become its master.

The only hope I see for our shrinking world and growing loneliness is an ancient establishment, one instituted by a homeless Jew and carried to the world by sandaled feet. By fulfilling its mandate the church can counter the trend towards isolation and loneliness. It can stand against the tide of hyper technology to provide shelter from the storm of estrangement.

Amid growing social isolation the church is faced with both a challenge and an opportunity. The Internet's takeover strikes at the root of what Christianity represents. Whatever the West has turned it into, Christianity is not a religion for the individual alone. Nowhere in the Bible will you find our oft-used description of Jesus as a "Personal Savior." These individualistic notions have crept in from the ideal of Rugged Individualism and the promulgation of the American Dream. In such a context it's easy to forget that Christianity was originally a communal faith, birthed, nurtured and spread in community.

Regarding the nature of the church Paul was unequivocal: "We are all members of one body" (Eph 4:25). In this era of disconnectedness we find Paul's analogy becomes useful in new ways. Paul explained his comparison, highlighting the importance of different roles among believers. But the comparison also reifies the concept of community within the church, implying that to work effectively, Christians, like parts of a body, must be connected.

Of course Jesus had expressed this sentiment previously. His heart-rending cry to the Father was "that all of them may be one" (John 17:21). The nascent church portrayed in Acts epitomized this unity. Luke reports that "all the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Everyday they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts" (Acts 2:44-46). What a picture of community! The word "together" appears three times in this passage, emphasizing the closeness of the believers and the vitality of their community.

Unfortunately such strong ties are rare among Christians today. The church has not been immune to the influences that drive people apart. Yet in the church's case, acquiescence is not an option. The cohesion of the body is paramount. Speaking of church, T.S. Eliot writes, "What life have you if you have not life together? / There is no life that is not in community."

Indeed the model presented in the New Testament upholds the fellowship of the saints as the catalyst of Christ's work on earth. It is through this body that love, compassion and redemption flow to a thirsty humanity. Compromising the relationships between believers impedes that life-giving  current. Furthermore the fellowship of the church provides a haven for the increasing number of lonely people in our technology-crazed world. We have a responsibility to show them the love and closeness that can exist among the children of God.

In these times the church has a unique opportunity. Loneliness is a crucial precondition to seeking; it drives spiritual journeys. With loneliness in abundance we must rise to the challenge to show true seekers "the way, the truth and the life." We must strive to reflect the love of God in our relationships. It is our biblical mandate to do so. Jesus told his disciples, "All men will know that you are my disciples if you love one another" (John 13:35). In a restless and fragmented age dominated by the ubiquitous presence of impersonal technology, we are called to be the proprietors of human warmth and divine rest. We can show the world that there truly is a last bastion of fellowship, a place where people still find God's love in each other's lives.

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