Electronic media tend to dis-incarnate and distance people from their embodied lives. While excellent at disseminating information, electronic media tend to isolate us from face-to-face interaction. Social media, in particular, cannot replace, and often even undermine, the fabric of personal relationships which strengthen fellowship with God and each other.
Church officers need to encourage church members to ask themselves how their use of media fosters healthy relationships with God, his church, my family, my friends, my world.
Many secular researchers are sounding an alarm in this area. Professor Sherry Turkle, who was once very positive about the effects of technology on human beings and their relationships, has recently written Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. She is the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, the founder and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, and a licensed clinic psychologist. She reports a change in her early assessments.
I reported on this work [focus groups on boundaries between real and virtual worlds] in my 1995 Life on the Screen, which offered, on balance, a positive view of new opportunities for exploring identity online. But by then, my optimism of 1984 [The Second Self] had been challenged. I was meeting people, many people, who found online life more satisfying than what some derisively called “RL,” that is, real life.
Church leaders and parents are becoming aware of some of the dangers associated with online life. Mediated relationships open people up to deception about who they really are. This is a special temptation for teenagers, who are forming their identities and learning habits of human interaction. Things are expressed online that would never be expressed, or at least in the same manner, in face-to-face situations. In some cases, social skills are so stunted that young people actually fear face-to-face interaction. The church has a definite advantage in this area, because we believe in the vital importance of meeting together for worship, learning and fellowship.
But as I have written elsewhere, the Internet has a tendency to rearrange and undermine authority structures. The Presbyterian church is not exempt. Members and officers make theological and personal decisions, sometimes gossiping and even slandering others, outside, or beneath the radar of legitimate church authority. In some cases, people even leave the church or never connect with the church, mistakenly believing that social media are sufficient.
Hence disembodied life online can promote the tendency to avoid the messy business of life in a fallen world—of sinners, saved by grace, but with many remaining imperfections, learning to live together in truth, forgiveness and love.
The tendency towards centralized power is a clear and present danger to the church. One of the great liabilities of mediated life is its tendency to erode the local life of face-to-face relationships.
A brief survey of the importance of personal presence in the Bible
“Face” is used 382 times in the English Standard Version. In the Bible, the face is most often referred to as a synecdoche representing the most intimate level of personal presence. The face is a revelation of the person, a window to the human soul. “Who is like the wise? And who knows the interpretation of a thing? A man’s wisdom makes his face shine, and the hardness of his face is changed” (Eccl. 8:1).
1. Sin causes God’s face to turn away and our faces to hide from him in shame. Sin alienates. Electronic media may exacerbate this tendency. We may become electronic fugitives.
2. Serious confrontation in the Bible is done face to face.
3. Face-to-face communication avoids the limits of mediated communication.
4. The absence of face-to-face presence may cause grief similar to death. This is evident in the departure of Paul from the Ephesian elders: “being sorrowful most of all because of the word he had spoken, that they would not see his face again. And they accompanied him to the ship” (Acts 20:38).
5. Jesus is present with his people through the means of grace and the officers of his church. The living and true God has orchestrated the ultimate in personal presence with the incarnation of his Son. The Word took on a complete and perfect human nature in order to create a new humanity. Church officers represent his presence as his under-shepherds until he returns (1 Pet. 5:1–5). The personal presence of God’s people in worship, focusing as it does on Word and sacrament is essential to the meaning of our redeemed creaturehood.
Throughout the history of redemption, God has favoured his people by his grace. Now he smiles upon us through Christ. This was prefigured in the ministry of Moses and Aaron as mediators of the old covenant and consummated in the ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The good shepherd feeds his sheep on his Word through his chosen undershepherds. As the great and good shepherd of Scripture he is always present with his sheep. This was prophesied by Isaiah, “He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young” (Isa. 40:11). “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). His words are the words of the entire Scripture (1 Pet. 1:10–11). Thus, the whole counsel of God is the necessary food of God’s people.
The one who has visited his people in history continues to visit them through his Word and Spirit in the person of the preacher. Nothing can replace that personal presence and that living voice. Pastor, elders, and deacons are called to follow Paul’s apostolic example, “I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house” (Acts 20:20). Officers must know the sheep personally by name, even as their shepherd knows them (John 10:3).
Face-to-face encounter is central to the incarnation. The face reveals the person. so the best means of communication for John was to see his spiritual children “face to face” (2 John 12; 3 John 14). This reminds us that the word “communicate” comes from the Latin communicare, to commune, or to live in intimate fellowship with others. For John, pen and ink could only supplement personal presence.
Paul also recognized that distance can only be overcome by personal presence, “Without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you. For I long to see you” (Rom. 1:9–10). He knew his ministry to the church was incomplete without such presence, “For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face” (Col. 2:1).
6. Public worship is all about faces: God’s face and his people’s faces. We see this in the old covenant, “Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him …” (Gen. 17:3). “David sought the face of the LORD” (2 Sam. 21:1). It has always been the desire of his people to have the closest personal contact with the Lord, “There are many who say, ‘Who will show us some good? Lift up the light of your face upon us, O LORD!’ ” (Ps. 4:6). “You have said, ‘Seek my face.’ My heart says to you, ‘Your face, LORD, do I seek’ ” (Ps. 27:8).
While the location of worship is now no longer limited to a geographical location (John 4), this does not mean that location is unimportant. In the new covenant, the temple is the church, wherever it meets. “What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, ‘I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people’ ” (2 Cor. 6:16). The writer of Hebrews sounds like the wise real estate agent, location, location, location, when he exhorts, “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. 10:25). The location of worship matters, because the personal presence of God’s people matters.
While the modern world has never been better “connected” electronically, it seems to be starving nearly to death for lack of personal and local connectedness. Local church provides this reality in a way that no other institution can. At the centre of this communal reality is God’s speech in the preaching and presence of his appointed vicars (the English word for substitute or representative, as in vicarious). “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4:5). Few could afford personal Bibles in the first-century church. But even our private reading of Scripture is always also a communal reading, because Scripture is the covenant document uniting God’s people in all ages. Preaching accents and cultivates this communion. The worst tendencies of mass culture are overcome by the promotion of live pastoral preaching as the centre of the church’s life.
7. The goal of redemptive history involves Christ’s and our personal presence. The consummate reality for the Christian will be seeing the face of Jesus Christ in resurrection glory. The transfiguration foreshadowed the coming glory reflected in the face of Jesus.
There is no better antidote to the electronic dispersion of our day than the counter-environment of the church created by the Word of the good and great shepherd.