A World of Connected Isolation

I wonder how many people I’ve looked at and never seen.
-John Steinbeck

Social opportunities abound in our age. I can find people to connect to in just about every facet of my life: marriage, parenting, homeschooling, writing, even shared interest groups over coffee. It would seem we have everything we need to flourish socially, to feel connected and seen. And yet, if you take the time to talk to anyone at any depth, you will find most people have a profound sense of loneliness. Despite multiple networks touching on all our interests and life stages, people still feel alone. We are connected…and isolated.

Our penchant for networking allows us to look at people without really seeing them. It’s convenient, it requires nothing more from us than a singular interest, but as a result we’ve created a spiritual wasteland, wherein we can be surrounded by fifty friends, and feel completely unknown. Networks cause us to look at people one-dimensionally, and allow them to only see us in the same dimension, resulting in a fragmentation of ourselves that we don’t quite know how to piece back together at the end of the day.

As Christians we have allowed this fragmented networking to seep into our churches too. Often we approach Church as a network, not a community, and certainly not as a body. We let people see our filtered selves on Sunday, giving life updates here and there, but refusing to allow the closeness that might invite being truly known. It’s resulted in emaciated relationships, and many of our church bodies are anemic as a result.

Networks certainly do their job, they provide us with professional and common interest connections, but as John Gatto says, “they lack any ability to nourish their members emotionally.” My writers group will not come around me and console me when there is a death in my family; they may teach me how to turn grief into a solid writing piece, but they will not weep with me, nor provide gracious truth and hope in the face of tragedy. My Instagram followers will not teach me how to parent with Christ at the center, they are more or less my peers, they may give helpful advice here and there, but they do not provide the wisdom of women my senior, they cannot teach me the way a woman with grown children can. My homeschool co-op cannot help me kill the sin of pride that lurks in the corners of my heart, they help me choose curriculum and problem solve educational questions but I need those who are fully invested in my life, as brothers and sisters to help me slay sin. Only those who are committed to asking hard questions, digging deep enough to know how I’m really doing, and sincerely praying for me, can help me in the battles that rage deep within my soul.

A network is not a community.

A community is a place in which people face each other over time in all their human variety: good parts, bad parts, and all the rest. Such places promote the highest quality of life possible–lives of engagement and participation.
John Gatto

Despite their failure to feed us emotionally and spiritually we like networks precisely because they ask nothing from us than what we’re already willing to give. Networks exist for our own gratification, and as soon as they don’t fulfill us we can move on to one that does. Networks allow us to maintain distance, only allowing pieces here and there of ourselves without the whole, and we can maintain whatever facade we’d like. Networks allow us to choose monocultures, surrounding ourselves with people who think just like we do–and are blind to the same sins we are. The Church is no network, to function as it ought it requires much more from us than mere membership. Yet we continually resist the kind of commitment required, and in so doing we inflict ourselves with a severe loneliness that allows us to be eaten alive by our own pet sins in the solitude of our own making.

We are all at war with sin, with despair, with the temptation to live cozy, self-sufficient and self-centered lives, and that’s a war we will always lose when we go at it alone.

Sin demands isolation. While community does not inoculate us against sin, godly community is a sweet balm of safety.
-Rosaria Butterfield

We gravitate toward the one dimensional nature of networking because it allows us to keep our sin hidden, our faces shining with success, our worldview unchallenged, and our lives looking ordered. The community that the Church ought to be brings sin to the surface, requires that we admit our failures and needs, and that we strip away the facade of having things all together. Community cannot exist if we expect to live independent lives, wherein we reach out for others at our convenience, and only allow people in as far as is comfortable. If we want the body of Christ to flourish, we must treat it as a unified body. This requires vulnerability–not in the popular sense of the word, where we pick and choose what sins we’re willing to share, or name only that which we’ve overcome, but truly vulnerable–where we admit our struggles, asking for help in the battle to slay the sins in our lives, and open ourselves up to rebuke as well as encouragement. This isn’t easy. In fact, it is impossible by human efforts. That kind of unity doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. Thankfully,

In Christ life finds unity again.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Beneath the cross the Church stands against a world of individualism veiled in networking, we stand against self-assurance and self-promotion. We let each other see who we really are, and when we look at people we try to really see them. In fact, if we are in Christ, we cannot do any less.

God created man and woman directed to one another. God does not desire a history of individual human beings, but the history of human community.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Networking cannot provide real community because it connects people by superficial means, for community to exist we must be united by something more. As Christians we are united by nothing less than the blood of Christ, the most unifying substance in reality. We are brothers and sisters, we have a commonality unlike any other, and it supersedes age, race, socioeconomic status, occupation, marital status, and interest. It unites us at the soul level, wherein we care for each other not because we are outwardly the same, in fact many of us are as different as is possible, but because we are all blood-bought saints. And as such we owe it to one another to know and be known on a level that breaks into the uncomfortable. This kind of closeness breeds weeping, and rawness, it leaves us exposed and humble, and it is the only way in which we can honestly stand together worshiping our great God. We are his body, we should act like it.

We can operate in our networks, letting them do their jobs of connecting us on the surface level they’re designed to work at, but we must never let Church become a network, or it is no church at all.

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