"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)