"I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from My Father I have made known to you." --John 15:15
I have been in ministry for a very long time--so long, in fact, that I can't really remember when it all started. I got what the United Methodist Church called a "license to preach" while I was still in high school. In college, I was a part of a very large chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at the College of William and Mary. The adult staff worker of that ministry, a guy named Larry Adams, believed strongly that students should lead campus ministries, so, as a leader, I was pretty engaged in ministering to fellow students even then. Larry's example, by the way, influenced my philosophy as a campus pastor from 1997-2020 and is one of the reasons we put so much responsibility in the hands of our student leaders on our campuses during those years.
In all of my years of ministry since these early days (I was in college in the late 1970's), many things have changed. But I think the most startling change has to be the way people, especially the students I teach on my university campus, interact with one another--and the impact that change has produced in their lives and their relationships. What I am talking about is the incredible triumph of social media in the past fifteen to twenty years—from MySpace to Facebook, from Twitter to Tik Tok. Quality friendships have always been rare and worth their weight in gold. Now they are even scarcer--and have been victimized, to a degree, by social media. And this reality means that building a sense of authentic, interactive and face-to-face biblical community is a crucial goal for people of faith, whether on campus or in a local church. The decline in mental health, especially among young people, is, in part, the fruit of virtual relationships and the competitive nature of "brand building" and putting the best (often inauthentic) face forward on social media platforms. I have watched it happen first hand.
The late Chuck Colson, the founder of Prison Fellowship International, addressed this subject in one of his Breakpoint radio messages some time ago. In that message, Colson quoted an essay from the Chronicle of Higher Education called "Faux Friends" by William Deresiewicz. Deresiewicz wrote in this piece that "We live at a time when friendship has become both all and nothing at all." It may appear that all of our friends are gathered in one place on Facebook--but, of course, they are not. Instead, my "friends" are actually "little dehydrated packets of images and information, no more my friends than a set of baseball cards is the New York Mets." Colson added, "On-line you can be whatever you want to be, carefully crafting your image. Or, even worse, you can indiscriminately broadcast all your inmost thoughts and feelings, things that are better kept for private conversations with ... well, with your real friends."
Deresiewicz correctly identified the idea implicit in social networking, "that identity is reducible to information," specifically our "consumer preferences." And social networking is, for the most part, nothing more than sharing information. But data tells us little or nothing about another person's character, the most important quality of a good friend. We only learn about that as we patiently share and hear one another's stories. Communities of faith ought to provide the social context for the exchange of these stories face-to-face, in a leisurely, relaxed fashion where people feel safe to be who they are, warts and all, and know they are loved in spite of the emotional bumps and bruises that may have injured their souls during the first years of their lives. The Lord makes it clear that we are more than just a battery of facts-- our major, our home address, our relationship status, our hobbies, our ethnicity or gender and so forth. And who we really are, the content of our character as Martin Luther King, Jr. called it, is the target of the Holy Spirit's shaping activity in our lives. We want to partner with the Lord in becoming mature men and women who can relate in a healthy way with each other.
"Posting information," Deresiewicz wrote, "is like pornography, a slick, impersonal exhibition." Exchanging stories, he said, is mutual and intimate. It involves "probing, questioning . . . It takes patience, devotion, sensitivity, subtlety, skill," all of which sharing stories teaches. While social-networking sites do have their place, Christian friendships, inspired and empowered by God's love, have to go much deeper than digital chumminess. Indeed, we need to demonstrate the kind of relationship Jesus has with us when he calls each of us "friend." Jesus told us that friends are willing to lay down their lives for each other. It is hard to find this kind of sacrifice among "friends" who relate only virtually through the flickering lights of computer monitors or smart phones. We need the intimacy with our friends that David shared with Jonathan in the Old Testament and that the Apostle Paul knew in his relationship with his young protege, Timothy. Please pray for these kind of friendships in your own life and in your faith communities.
Heavenly Father, thank You for the gift of friendship. Thank You that You call us Your friends. Thank You that the reason You created us is to share an intimacy and love with us that is often beyond our capacity to grasp. Please give us good friends who will love us, encourage us, challenge us and pray for us in an authentic and real manner. Give us the courage to reach out to others and entrust them with who we really are so that You can use them to help us grow and become who You intend us to be. In Jesus' Name, Amen.