Online friendships can be dangerous.
Our ability to instantly connect with people through the Web, regardless of their location, has been changing the way we view and conduct relationships. And due to a technological advancement known as social media, we now have countless ways to engage different people without ever leaving our home or inviting anyone over.
One popular medium for connecting intimately online with strangers is Facebook Groups. It can be a kind of secret underground world within the platform, and if you’re not a part of one, you may not know it exists. Many groups are pretty light, centered on hobbies and special interests. Others are created as support groups in which participants are free to share very intimate and private details with people they may have never met or probably never will meet. Even in one general special interest group, I witnessed a man pour his heart out to the group about how he considered them family because of how they supported him while his father was sick.
I’ll be the first to admit I’m a product of this new phenomenon of online friendships. I can’t tell you how many times in the past, when asked how I had met someone surprising, I would awkwardly answer, “We actually met on Twitter.” It can be a great gift when Christian brothers who met online eventually become dear friends after meeting in person.
So why would I think online friendships can be dangerous? Because they easily can feel like something they are not. While online friends are indeed real people for whom we may have genuine affection, it’s essentially impossible for them to actually know the real you. This doesn’t mean these friendships have to be ended, but they do need to be regulated.
Online friendships can be great blessings when placed in their proper perspectives, but perilous when they replace local community and the local church.
Real People, Incomplete Projections
You can learn a lot about a person by studying their online presence. No matter how much we try to hide our faults or project a more polished version of ourselves, sooner or later, we post enough on our page to reveal aspects of who we really are. On the other hand, even when we try to be authentic online, it’s difficult to portray a complete portrait of ourselves.
One reason why our self-made online portraits are so incomplete is because they are self-made. Everything we project about ourselves is tainted by self-perception. We are finite and fallen, and even the most self-knowledgeable among us only know ourselves in part. Alongside the mirror of Scripture, community is meant to expose and help remove the specks and logs we all have in our eyes.
Furthermore, the real you was designed for two-way relationships in real time. Not only were we made to know others, but we also were made to be known by others. The truth is you can’t truly know a person or be known through the unavoidable firewall of social media.
In order to truly be known, we need relationships in real time and real space. The only way we can pursue relationships that are truly authentic is by taking the risk of letting people see the unfiltered versions of who we really are. How? We welcome local believers into our real lives and let them see, expose, and challenge our more authentic, unfiltered, and messy lives. Local believers also restore us with love that manifests itself in tears, hugs, words of encouragement, and follow up.
If someone rebukes me online I can become passive aggressive, provide a polished response that doesn’t reveal my heart and protects my online image, or cut them off completely with little-to-no consequences. When the going gets tough with online friendships, it is very easy to simply walk with just a click.
Deep down we fear real-time relationships because they can get messy. But as my campus minister frequently reminded me, though they’re messy, they are so worth it. Once we recognize the worth of local relationships, we’re more ready to endure the pain, heartache, and the tears they bring. When we experience the joy of real-time, real-space friendships, online relationships settle comfortably into their secondary place.
Enduring the Messiness
The reason we’re tempted to replace real-life relationships with distant, online companions is because they can be messy and extremely taxing and even frightening. How can we endure the risk so that we can reap the benefits? We cast our social anxieties, fears, and heartaches on the one who is able to care for them all — Christ Jesus our Lord.
Walls serve two purposes — to protect and conceal. Which is exactly why our flesh can love the wall of social media. We protect ourselves from people and conceal our broken identities. But when we rest in the righteousness and power of Christ, he can break down the wall and free us to love others and think of ourselves less. We’re able to love sinners because we recognize we’re the worst sinner we know. We don’t shrink when our brokenness is exposed because our debt has been paid and our soul is being restored. Christians have no need for such walls because we’re covered and protected by the blood of Christ.
The local church, and the covenant fellowship we receive from her, is essential to our Christian health and growth. The church is so vital that it should guide the jobs we take and the places in which we choose to live. Sadly, many Christians who depend on online friendship for emotional and spiritual support do so because they’re isolated from a body of believers faithful to the gospel.
We should take careful note of anything or anyone that threatens the vitality of local-church relationships. By God’s good design, we’re not meant to grow and thrive apart from community. Prioritize the church, and consider anything that pulls away your heart, or tempts you to replace her, as a threat to the health of your soul.