I‘ve been told several times that many of the tools of Christianity, including community, evangelism, and discipleship are not possible online. Some have slowly adopted the idea of a digital relationship by making first contacts online. Unfortunately, the setup followed the funnel of contact from social media, live streaming, and website forms with the goal ultimately to meet face-to-face.

Is this fair? Is it possible to have fully digital relationships?

The Biggest Challenge I See: Empathy

As a counselor, my understanding of empathy is a necessity of my job. It is the lifeblood of relationships and as a Christian who’s God who seeks relationship with us to the point of offering His own Son on the Cross to keep that relationship, even more so to understand it.

Without empathy, relationships simply cannot go deeper than general acquaintances.

Relationships are hard because empathy is hard. This goes against the nature of social media which is designed to market and connect with so many people that much easier.

Relationships are hard because empathy is hard. This goes against the nature of social media which is designed to market and connect with so many people that much easier. And for all of life, as Christians, pastors, and evangelizers as well as disciplers, we needed to show up to see the people and naturally empathy was developed. (We go deeper into this topic of digital discipleship on ChurchMag)

Are You Sharing Life Or Consuming It?

We can share life in person easily over coffee, pizza, video games, events, and serving. But social media is established as much more self-serving and therefore less empathic. Look at the list of people you follow, do you actually care about what is going through their lives or what it can do for you. For some platforms like Facebook and Google+, it’s easier to develop this empathy. Yet platforms like YouTube and Twitter, it is almost impossible.

Let me take it one step further. Look at the list of people that are following you, but you are not following. Do you know any of their stories? Even as I write this, I know that I have more than a couple of hundred people on social media that I do not know.

Is that their fault because they are not connecting with me and just consuming or my fault because I am not intentionally interacting with them?

To be clear, I state intentional interactions. Auto-DMs, boilerplate comments to others, and generalized “Connect with us” asks are not intentional.

I Contend Digital Empathy And Relationships Are Happening

These hopes for digital relationships that are authentic and empathic feel impossible, they are not. Let me share some ways I have seen this done.

  • Senior Staff Writers on ChurchMag. My wife and I were having a conversation about marriage and supports from others. Being a person who is introverted and working long, hard hours, I asked her how many friends she thinks I currently have. My thought was within our community outside of my family, I have none. But her answer caught me off guard. “You have all of those people on ChurchMag you work with.” She absolutely was right and funny enough, those relationships have never happened offline. But I claim them as true friends.
  • Prayer Within #chsocm Twitter Chat. If you do not know about the #chsocm chat, you need to go check out some of their archives. They dialogue on all things that Christians and church communicators are already talking about. (I’m traveling from home every week during the chat, so I’m a passive participant.) But the prayer that the organizer has for the community, the sharing of worries and concerns given, and the hope that comes from this is creating these empathic relationships we need digitally. (Note, this happens on the ChurchMag forums, but inspired by #chsocm.)
  • That Church Conference And Live Streaming. I use ThatCC for short, but the Christian conference which looks to meet in person has a general expectation for their conference, keep it small and personal. This means many people will want to come and can’t because it is limited, but others will not come because of a variety of other situations. Their solution is a live stream that picks up where their social media and blogging strategy leaves off and something I absolutely appreciate.

What If We Kept It Digital?

I believe this is the start of creating digital relationships that may stay digital permanently. I have many people I would say have moved beyond casual acquaintances online but that I never foresee meeting in person. And that’s okay.

I truly believe we are limiting ourselves when the goal with the marketing and outreach ministries has to be in person. Limiting with finances, reach, and I would even include gifts we are given by God.

What are your thoughts? Is it okay for a church to consider purely digital relationships with outreach and inreach ministries? Or are they simply secondary ideologies to meeting in person?

[Images via UnSplash]

Posted by Jeremy Smith

I am a blogger, clinical counselor, gamer, and someone who loves to pushback so you can create the very best thing possible. I blog exclusively about church technology as a senior staff writer at ChurchMag as well as about life in general on my personal site JeremyGrantSmith.com. You can also find my eBooks on ChurchMag Press.

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