In his post “The Christian Leader in the Digital Age,” Albert Mohler raises a number of important issues for Christians (and Christian leaders) to consider in light of this generation’s technological advancements. Namely, is the digital world “real”? He writes,
Leaders who talk about the real world as opposed to the digital world are making a mistake, a category error. While we are right to prioritize real face-to-face conversations and to find comfort and grounding in stable authorities like the printed book, the digital world is itself a real world, just real in a different way.
There is still a stigma attached to digital media and online relationships. If a book isn’t available in a physical bookstore, we assume there’s something substandard about it. If you met your girlfriend online, you’ve probably felt just a wee bit sheepish about sharing that information with certain people. There may be good reasons for this. Regardless, an across-the-border categorization of online communication and digital media as somewhat sub-real is unfortunate and misguided. As Mohler notes,
Real communication is happening in the digital world, on the Web, and on the smart phone in your pocket. Real information is being shared and globally disseminated, faster than ever before. Real conversations are taking place, through voice, words and images, connecting people and conversations all over the world.
Dr. Mohler’s point is well taken. It’s time we recognize the “reality” of the digital world. But we should also engage it critically. Christians should not assume that all technological advances are beneficial; but neither should they assume that they are all detrimental. A shift to digital can have its benefits. It can also come at a cost.
Our online relationships are not on par with our face-to-face “analog” ones, perhaps most pointedly because we reveal selectively to our online communities. There is a peculiar historiographical aspect—an editorial influence—to our digital communications. Whether we recognize it or not, we’re often fashioning and promoting a personal brand. It’s certainly possible to attempt such a presentation in our “analog” relationships, but it’s much more difficult, especially as people get to see us in a broad range of settings. It’s simple enough to conform your tweets and Facebook posts to the type of image you’d like to convey, but it’s much more difficult to shape public perception when someone sees your road rage.
As Christians, we should seek to move deeper than the selectivity and superficiality characteristic of most digital relationships. It’s hard to think that a Philippians 1:3-8 or Ephesians 4:15-16 type relationship could be established strictly online. Humans are body-soul unities, and Christian fellowship must be concerned in large measure with physical presence (cf. Hebrews 10:24-25).
But such a desire should not lead us to eschew all forms of digital communication. They are “real” human interactions insofar as we are speaking to people. In fact, they provide value and opportunities to communicate with people we otherwise would not have. So many families have come to recognize this, being given the opportunity to stay in touch with people around the world through a host of rich media technologies unknown to previous generations.
Though digital media necessarily shapes our communications, we should not be so quick as to eschew it. Passages like Colossians 2:1-5 may speak to the usefulness of digital forms of communication in maintaining bonds we’ve established—or strengthened—by more traditional means. And so, to ask whether we should have an online “presence” may be the wrong question. Perhaps we should be more concerned with being truly “present” wherever we are.