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Relationships are relationships, part 1: mind the gap

Photo (c) USCPSC from flickr, used under Creative Commons License (ANCS 2.0).

Earlier this week, a colleague posted a fascinating Facebook status message:

Me: please scan and email the required form. I’ll fill it out and send it back.
Bureaucrat: an email form is not acceptable but I can fax it to you and you can fax it back.
Me: Huh?

I smiled when I read it–not simply because of the absurdity of the situation, but because I’ve had the same conversation on a number of occasions. I’ve also had conversations with those who opted to chat on the telephone rather than to meet face-to-face via Skype, because they felt that the telephone was more personal.

To quote my friend, “Huh?”

We often use the words the digital divide to describe a generational or educational disconnect between those who are comfortable communicating online and those who are not. It’s a barrier that comes up often in this ministry. In recent weeks, I was asked to help members on the ‘analogue’ side of the divide grow more comfortable posting online: “We don’t know,” expressed one mature Anglican, “how to communicate online.” I tried to get to the root of the problem: “are you uncomfortable with the technology? With the software? Is the learning curve too steep?” “No,” came the answer, “we simply don’t know how to talk to each other online. We want to be involved, but we don’t know the language. How do we do it? Where do we start?”

The questions shouldn’t have surprised me. After all, for years, we’ve been talking about the Internet and electronic communication as something new. Something different. Something revolutionary. And in one sense, it is (or at least it was). But old ways of making connections have been pushed to one side, and new methods to the other. In doing so, we’ve developed something of a two-tier system, where emailing a form is not permissible, but faxing it is.

There are some good reasons for seeing online communication as being inherently different that offline communication. While many of us enjoy the convenience of online shopping or banking, we know that certain precautions must take place to ensure security. While we might welcome the ease of sharing personal matters with family and close friends, we understand that posting the same in a public forum is, well, public. While we might spend our evenings keeping up with those we love on Facebook, all the while we understand that what we see are only snapshots into these lives: comfortable presentations of self-perception that are sometimes off-base, and sometimes narcissistic. But is that really all that different the offline experience? We wouldn’t print our credit card information or PIN number on a billboard. We wouldn’t share family secrets on the 6 o’clock news. And as we flip through the scrapbooks or photo albums of our friends, we likely understand that we aren’t seeing the whole story.

The downside of this perceived divide, I think, is that we begin to assume that because we’re communicating through wires or over a screen, our relationships can or should be lived out according to different standards. We can find ourselves saying things to or about others that we would never say to their faces. And in our congregations, we find ourselves struggling to create new policies that speak to how we should live out the faith of our baptism differently in these online spaces. After all, these are online relationships, not offline ones. Right?

I want to call you back to an observation I made in an earlier post. Some time ago, in a Twitter chat regarding the church and social media in Canada (#chsocmca), one participant used these words: relationships are relationships. It’s a phrase that has been in the back of my mind since that day, and one I’m going to continue to explore with you here in The Community. If relationships are relationships, then all relationships are real. And if relationships are relationships, shouldn’t our faith pervade every conversation? Shouldn’t we hold ourselves to the same standards online as we do offline?

Some of you might want to push back against me here, suggesting that healthy relationships can only exist face to face, and that we have no hope of developing community or demonstrating Christian love online. And if that’s the case, I want to draw your attention to a letter I was was just reading:

In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. You have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel that has come to you. Just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God. This you learned from Epaphras, our beloved fellow-servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf, and he has made known to us your love in the Spirit. (Col 1:1-2 NRSV)

The greeting, of course, was written by the Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Colossians. Long distance relationships are not new to the church. Nor is letter writing. In fact, most of the record we have of Paul’s ministry exists in these Epistles. So why should it be any different on a screen than it is on paper? Did the early church see textual communication as being equal to face-to-face communication? Probably not. But they seemed to understand that letters were an important tool in living out their baptism and in maintaining their relationships. Because relationships are relationships.

Does that mean that we shouldn’t give our online selves and ministries special consideration? No. The way people communicate online is a little different, but that’s mostly due to the immediacy of the Internet. Perhaps it’s less like writing letters, and more like sending postcards. Most content in online communites, like this one, is informal. It’s conversational. And it calls for your participation. In the coming weeks and months, I’m going to continue exploring (with you) what it means to live out our faith and relationships in these online spaces. But for now, that’s a good place to start. What do you think? How can we go about our lives and ministries without segregating our relationships into “real” and “virtual”? How can we use these tools to strengthen the relationships we already have, and to create new ones?

About Jesse Dymond

I'm a priest from the Diocese of Huron, serving as Online Community Coordinator for the Anglican Church of Canada. I have a lifelong interest in computer technology, and continue to pursue interdisciplinary studies in science and theology. I love composing and performing music, cooking, photography, sailing, and riding vintage motorcycles.
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