One of the things I love most about blogging, is being part of an online community. It’s given me the chance to talk with an incredible group of people; to share life and develop my thinking in ways that I’d never have predicted. There have been many times when I’ve relied on the wisdom and prayers of people I’ve never met; and I thank God for you and your encouragement and support.
Plus, it’s not just me. For those who are sick or housebound, the internet can be a lifeline. Even if we’re not, it can offer a safe and anonymous haven to talk about scary issues. But – this is also what makes it problematic. Because sometimes, anonymity is not good. And safety isn’t always what God calls us to. Blogging is great. But blogs are not a substitute for church. And even the best online interaction is not the same as real-life connection.
Let’s say for example, you have some pastoral concerns. We can chat about these online, and that might be helpful. But at the end of the day, I’m relying on the information you give me about yourself: just as you are basing your email on someone you know through blogging. This is fine as long as everyone is aware of the limitations but sometimes help is asked for that just can’t be given.
Occasionally folks in a suicidal state have contacted me through the blog or Facebook page. For some reason these tend to come in clusters – sometimes 3 or 4 very distressed people may contact me out of the blue on the same day. I love hearing from people but in these situations I don’t know who they are or (and this is quite important), where they live. If we knew each other in another capacity or apart from this emergency there might be something I could do. If they were a member of my church, I’d be able to actually help. I could go to see them or call someone else who could. I could take them to A+E. I could ask other members of the church for help and prayer. We could work together to offer the person long-term support: and we’d hopefully have more of an understanding about their situation and other important factors, like medication. Neither that person, nor me, would be on their own.
These are extreme examples but they point to the constraints of online ministry. Yes, anonymity can inspire more people to share their struggles, but anonymity is not a great basis for pastoral care. We need to know and be known. No matter how lovely our online supporters are, there are times when we need an actual hug. And no matter how honest we try to be about our lives, what we say about them doesn’t always match what they are. I could for example, be writing about anorexia recovery and how well I’m doing – when in reality I’m a skeleton, isolated and in serious need of help. I could set myself up as a pillar of godliness, when my life contradicts this completely. Online I can pick and choose who I want to talk to. I can edit and rewrite. What’s more I can pick and choose the online community I want to listen and belong to. Whatever my niche outlook on life I can find sympathisers somewhere on the web. And whatever my problems are, there will exist, somewhere, proposed solutions that are as soothing or as terrifying as I want them to be.
At church, on the other hand, I meet folks I’d normally never encounter. I can’t pick and choose these brothers and sisters. We gather around the Lord’s table, we pray together, we read the Bible and we speak it – eyeball to eyeball – into each other’s lives. It’s not always comfortable, but it’s real life – and there’s no substitute. I thank God for those who read and who contact me: it’s a real privilege to hear from you – and I am greatly encouraged by every email – so thank you! But it’s vital we are open with friends, family and local church as well.
Blogging is brilliant for certain things. It keeps me sane. It’s introduced me to many beautiful people and helped me in many deep ways. But all of us exist outside of our screens – or if we don’t, we ought to! Our Saviour is incarnate and His body needs encountering in the flesh. There are times when we can’t make it to church: and in these situations the internet can be a great blessing. In the main however, blogging is not a replacement for church: it ought to be an arrow pointing us towards it.
“Though I have many things to write to you, I don’t want to do so with paper and ink. Instead, I hope to be with you and talk face to face so that our joy may be complete” (2 John 12).