"Real" and "Virtual" Relationships

As someone who teaches about social media, I have heard the common refrains of worry and caution about living life online. Especially among people in ministry, there is one concern that surfaces again and again.

"You can't establish real relationships online."

Or, people will ask me, "How many people do you really know, and how many do you just know online?"

There is an assumption that online relationships are qualitatively different than in-the-flesh relationship - that relationships that are developed online are in some way deficient. We (people in ministry) are in the community-building business, so this is an important concern. 

So let me be clear: Whether online or in the flesh, relationships are relationships. Period. End of sentence. 

In our lives - in the flesh - we have acquaintances. People with whom we have countless superficial interactions, and no meaningful interaction. All of us have these casual relationships.  We all also we walk past countless people every day without really seeing them. They are there, right in front of us, in the flesh, and we barely acknowledge there existence. Not every in the flesh relationship is automatically a profoundly deep and abiding relationship. 

But the relationships that we invest in, the relationships that we spend time on and that we care about can become deep and abiding. If we care. If we put the time and the work in. 

And what is true in the flesh is also true online. It's true: many online relationships are superficial and have little affect on our lives. The same sort of casual relationship that we have in the flesh. But if we invest time and effort and care, we can develop real and meaningful relationships that include online  interaction.

My good friend and frequent collaborator Meredith Gould (whom I have never met in person) often says that who we are in "real life" is who we are online. If we have superficial relationships in which we don't invest time and attention in the flesh, we will have superficial relationships online. If we care to invest in deep and lasting friendships and community, we will find them both in the flesh and online.

Last week, an adolescent in my community was severely injured. We offered prayers in our community, and ministry in our community. I also posted about it on Facebook, inviting prayers for her healing and recovery. Messages of prayer and support and love flooded in from all over the world. From Lutherans and Catholics and Baptists and Pagans and Agnostics. And they have continued.

And not just messages typed on keyboards. Phone calls. Text messages. Real prayers, offered up by real caring and loving people. A congregation in Florida (none of whom know me in "real life") who spent the entire Sunday School hour crafting handmade cards to let this young girl know that she is not alone and she is loved. All thanks to social media. 

This is community. Real community. 

Whether online or in the flesh, relationships are relationships. Period. End of sentence.

(PS - You should all go tell the intergenerational Sunday School of Trinity Lutheran Church, Pembroke Pines how awesome they are)


  1. Thank you for this, very helpful and thoughtful. How we think of others in the flesh is reflected in how we treat on-line friends. There are only real people to interact with, there are no "virtual" people...there is a human being behind that on-line post. +Peace and Blessings!

  2. RevGalBlogPals members see this all the time. If you're out of town at a hospital with your spouse or a church member's child has been flown to a big city for surgery, people pray and people show up. It's real relationship.

  3. Excellent points here, David! Thank you. I often tell the story of attending the ELCA Youth Ministry Extravaganza in New Orleans a couple of years ago. I was walking down the hall to set up my computer in the conference room where I would be speaking. Walking toward me was Clint Schnekloth @Schnekloth, who was doing the same thing. We smiled, greeted one another with a hug and...in that very moment....we both realized that we had never met before in person! But, through our various on-line connections with Twitter, Facebook, emails, etc. we had developed a friendship and mutual respect. Greeting with a hug was just the thing to do! But, it did make us both laugh!

  4. Good post, David. Love the story about the girl in your community. I blogged about it here:

  5. Good post, David! I especially like the story about the girl in your community. Blogged about it here:

  6. Don't want to denigrate online presence. There is scope for a very important minstry. I use facebook etc., but Jesus was incarnate. He was the Word made flesh, not the word made online. His invitation to Thomas was to touch. His invitation to us is to eat. God has made us physical beings physical is part of relationship that virtual can't provide