I really don’t think people change their minds with online debate. I have yet to hear a testimony from anyone like that. First, people pick their teams before listening to the argument – and online debate only hardens these loyalties. Secondly, it’s missing some important ingredients. Like eye contact. Like voice inflection. Like actual concern for the person on the other end of this debate. The motives, though, are at times honorable – someone needs to say something – this is false and harmful. I agree. Face to face.
Oh, but the power of a conversation! The power of a conversation in the midst of an actual relationship – or better yet, friendship. This is where real relationships are nurtured. It’s where debate can actually unfold with respect as well as challenge. It’s where laughter and tears can be experienced together. This is also where courage emerges – to sit across the table and talk about tough things. If you want to know where a person stands, don’t troll their posts or their likes – sit across the table from them and see if they look you in the eye and give it to you straight. That’s how trust and respect are built. No one has the right to draw conclusions about anyone without doing this.
Most importantly, conversation is where conversion to Christ happens! In a brilliant article entitled: “The Power of a Conversation: A Lesson from C. S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein”, authors Brett and Kate McKay describe the conversion of Lewis through the conversations he had with his Christian friend Tolkein. At the end of the article, they provide some wonderful conclusions:
In her book, Reclaiming Conversation, MIT professor Sherry Turkle documents the woeful evidence that we moderns are increasingly fleeing from “conversation that is open-ended and spontaneous, conversation in which we play with ideas.” We hide behind screens, and communicate as much as possible through email and text. We justify these moves on the basis of efficiency, and the fact that in having the ability to edit our messages, we can be more “ourselves” and make sure we say things “just right.”
But much is lost in this retreat from in-the-flesh interaction. Tech-mediated communication may make conversation more efficient, but it also makes it more superficial. It shrivels our empathy and feeling of true connection — states that are predicated on our being able to hear each other’s voices, read each other’s body language, and see each other’s facial expressions. We not only lose out on insights into the lives of others, but into our own as well. Good conversation is a precious gift we should not relinquish to our devices.
I think this is sage advice, and the helpful tips they offer after this section are invaluable. I believe the internet is good for information and yet largely bad for relationships, and even worse for debate. And therefore it requires that we be aware of its benefits as well as its limitations.
Please know that I’m testing certain decisions for myself, and I don’t expect people to follow suit in the same ways. I recognize the changes in me and the potential for serious distraction as it relates to how I’m wired and am therefore implementing certain boundaries. These concerns extend to the maturing and education of our children as well – and we’re thinking hard about these things. For many of you, you will make different choices – but please know that the reason I am thinking so hard about these things right now is I hope that I can be a better pastor, husband, father and friend. I think the article has it right: “Good conversation is a precious gift we should not relinquish to our devices.” Though, I would add, in place of “good conversation” the words “relationships are a precious gift” as well.
Furthermore, I hope that our church can continue to grow through interpersonal conversations – welcoming people personally to our church to hear about Christ, inviting our neighbors to ALPHA to learn more about Christ, getting to know the names and the stories of the children in our midst so they will know Christ, encouraging each other to listen to and be obedient to Scripture together so we can follow Christ (because we all get it wrong at times). It is the way of Jesus, the one ridiculed for being “the friend of sinners” (Luke 7:34). He did this interpersonally – and changed individual lives and the world.
Next time: postscript on the benefits of digital resources