When social media began to be a part of many people’s lives, the debates about whether or not people we knew exclusively on social media were indeed people with whom we were in relationships soon followed.
Before that, we often defined relationships as between people who encountered each other face to face, who were in each other’s physical presence (or had been at some point). Relationships meant our connections with co-workers, family, friends, and neighbors – people we knew in person.
Then came social media, and suddenly many of us were having interactions with people we’d never met face to face and maybe never would. We discussed the latest episode of the current hit television show, live-tweeted the Olympic opening ceremonies, and celebrated our sports teams’ wins and lamented their losses. We found support from those who shared their stories of grief, and recognized that connections – valid, deep, and meaningful connections – could and were made without ever spending time in each other’s physical presence.
Then came Covid, and suddenly many of our faith communities found themselves worshipping exclusively online for a while. Many of us have continued offering online worship in conjunction with our in-person worship.
Which has again asked the question, what constitutes a real relationship. Are we in relationships with these exclusively online members?
I wonder if the better question is how do we understand relationship. Because if we’re honest, the Church has often narrowly defined relationship in its eons of existence.
And Jesus was always expanding the definition.
The word relationship means the quality of a connection – no physical presence is presumed. So broadly, anyone with whom we are connected, however we are connected, is someone with whom we are in relationship. The digital world has reminded us that we humans have found ways to be in relationship with each other in so many ways because we humans need to be in relationship. Digital relationships provide connections with people who may not be able to go out and about easily (often because churches are not accessible to them, but that’s another post), with people who live in remote areas, and with people who have been harmed by the church and don’t feel safe gathering in-person.
Instead of debating whether or not people who are joining us online are in real relationships with us, perhaps we could remember that Jesus always expanded the ways we could love each other, pushing limits further and further outward until everyone would be included. Perhaps we could spend our energy dreaming of ways to involve those who join us online, just as we spend energy thinking of ways to involve those who join us in person. Perhaps instead of finding ways to exclude or limit people who yearn to be connected in new ways, we could bravely explore the many ways Jesus invites us to be connected with all humans and value this connection.
The world of digital ministry, of online worship, and of the connections we make that are exclusively on social media are simply more ways we are in relationship with each other. They have challenges, limitations, and even risks. But so do those relationships we have face to face. Love means we don’t look for limitations, but we follow Jesus into the expansiveness and opportunities to love more.
Learning Forte’s Digital Ministry Initiative, in partnership with LEAD, with funding provided in part by a leadership grant from Trinity Church Wall Street.
The Ven. Laurie Brock serves as rector of St. Michael the Archangel Episcopal Church in Lexington, Kentucky. They are currently offering in-person and online worship. Laurie is active on social media and loves the many people she’s met through various mediums. She’s an avid equestrian as well as a published writer. Her latest book, God, Grace, and Horses (Paraclete Press) will be available mid-February from your favorite book store.