Always On: The Good, Bad, and Ugly of the Virtual Space

            As I read the book Always On by Angela Gorrell I found myself intrigued, shaking my head in agreement, becoming disheartened, and even on the verge of alarm by the journey she takes us on. Gorrell takes the idea of what she calls, “the new media”, and walks through the good, the bad, and the ugly of how Christians can and should respond online. Gorrell’s main theme can be summed up in this, “This is conversation that is interested in what God is up to in this new media landscape and interested in reasons why new media has glorious possibilities and profound brokenness.[1]” More often, as pastors and church leaders, we will need to understand how to navigate the world of social media and the virtual space.

The Good

            The good side of the virtual space and this new media is in connection. Gorrell points out that young people are not as interested in the gadgets as much as they are interested in being connected through the gadgets. The gadgets tend to be the conduit for connection. We are all created for connection. In this idea we have this need to be connected with others. The virtual space allows for us to be connected on a broader level. We can also use the social space to connect more frequently and timelier. If a friend has a need, we no longer have to wait until we run into that friend face to face, we can see it in real time and respond.

            We have an opportunity to be a spiritual advisor and shepherd in the virtual space. The fact that people are looking for connection even in the virtual space gives us an opportunity to be that to many more people than the few that attend our churches on Sunday morning. We can be a pastor, theologian, and guide for those who are looking to connect. We can connect them to something higher. Gorrell writes, “One can imagine that in our new media milieu, Jesus’s attention would continue to be focused on participating in God’s unconditional love.[2]” We have the opportunity to connect a lot more people to that unconditional love through the virtual space.

           The issue we will need to learn as pastors and church leaders (really every Christ follower) is to listen to the Holy Spirit in the moment. Gorrell writes, “The Holy Spirit can be our companion in online spaces, as in all other aspects of life—teaching us; reminding us; empowering us; encouraging us; revealing truth to us; bringing us grace, joy, hope, and peace; praying on our behalf.”[3] When we are aware that God is everywhere, wants to connect with people even in the virtual space, and the Holy Spirit is our companion, even in the virtual space, we can learn to listen for the Holy Spirit promptings before responding.

The Bad

            One of the unintended consequences of the new media is that we can get into a space where we miss dialogue. The Social Media spectrum is not set up for dialogue but sound bites. Yes, there is a comment box where people can comment back, but it can be hours, days, even months before someone responds. People can also turn off comments, ignore people, and respond with memes belittling the conversation. There isn’t a clear forum for dialogue.

            One aspect of healthy dialogue that we miss in the virtual space are non-verbal cues. When we dialogue with people, we can see their face, their body language, we can see when we are hurting someone with our language, and we can respond in kind. This is not something that is possible in the virtual space.

            As a pastor or church leader we can respond to this “bad” by making sure we take time to see people. Even in the virtual space, where we don’t actually “see” people we need to keep the idea of seeing people the way God sees people at the forefront of our interactions. Gorrell writes, “Jesus seemed to see in people what others failed to see, and he helped people to see themselves as God does.[4]” If Jesus were alive today and using the virtual space, I can see him making it a point to “see people” as God sees them, even though they were not standing face to face with each other.

The Ugly

            The ugliest part, in my opinion, of the virtual space is that we tend to see people as commodities. I wrote a spoken word about this very thing called Social Experiment (https://open.spotify.com/track/7pvucdosRQlvgdDYGO1evk?si=YHIdPS0DQUaXeOK5_rcHbw). When we have the opportunity to swipe left or right on people, see everyone as a brand, see that we can make money “livin’ our best lives”, and can add, remove, like, or dislike people with the click of a button, we cease to see the humanity of people any longer. The virtual space at its worse makes us see people as commodity. Gorrell writes, “users begin to think of relating in terms of what it can do for them and how it can serve their desires.[5]” We begin to see people as what they can do for me instead of seeing them as God sees them, loved!

            This type of issue with seeing people as commodity creates a lack of empathy, it causes people to have mental health issues, it creates a perfect world that cannot exist, and it causes people to doubt their own worth.

            As a pastor or church leader we can combat this by understanding what people are created for, relationship. We need to make sure we take time off of the virtual space and encourage our people to do the same. We need to take virtual space sabbaticals where we leave this space and spend time in the real world. When we begin to see real issues of real people it recenters our empathy. We need to make sure we are using the virtual space for building people up and teaching healthy practices. We should talk frequently about how to use the virtual space as a tool and not be manipulated and controlled by the virtual world.

Conclusion

            One thing I have done for myself and my leadership team is to come up with social media guidelines. We came up with our own personal guidelines for engaging online. We also put in place virtual space sabbaticals where we unplug for a time. My prayer is that I can both practice discernment and teach others how to be discerning when it comes to our engagement in the virtual space. I also hope that I have an accountability level in my life where others can speak truth into my life when they see me stray from my own social media practice guidelines. Gorrell remind us, “Practicing discernment helps with detecting to what degree and in what ways people’s use of new media.[6]” I pray that I always listen to the Holy Spirit, see people the way God sees them, and practice discernment in the virtual and physical spaces.

[1] Angela Williams Gorrell. Always On: Theology for the Life of the World. (Baker Publishing Group; Grand Rapids, MI, 2019). 5.

[2] Gorrell, 89.

[3] Gorrell, 12.

[4] Gorrell, 93.

[5] Gorrell, 110.

[6] Gorrell, 121.

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