Real Relationships in a Digital Age


N CASE YOU haven’t noticed, the world has changed. As I write this article, I’m sitting in a coffee shop sipping on a $6 skinny vanilla latte, extra hot, because that’s what the cool hip pastors do these days. I’m not really cool or hip, but if someone sees me here, maybe they will at least think that I am a cool hip pastor! At my age, I’ll take what I can get.

The coffee is a lot better these days. I’ll never forget my first coffee experience. My mom served me a cup of instant Sanka, and it was black. Honestly, it was terrible! I’m pretty sure if I was running low on fuel in my 1980 Toyota Corolla, I could have used that coffee and driven about 100 miles per gallon! And coffee shops? Did those even exist like 10 years ago? But here I sit in a room filled with people drinking their mocha latte Frappuccinos.

The crazy thing is, most everyone is hiding behind the screen of their laptops or smartphones, typing or swiping as if their lives depended on it. I’m sure the guy sitting beside me has a cool job, great family, and adventurous stories that would captivate my imagination. He may even have knowledge to share or wisdom to impart, but I will never know. After all, I’m busy writing this article and he’s scrolling through his Facebook feed. Why would I say hello to a stranger when there’s so many goat yoga videos (yes, that’s a thing), vacation photos, and political opinions to catch up on in my news feed?

Are we losing our ability to connect with real people? Are we losing our ability to make a new friend by striking up a meaningful verbal conversation?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that I want all of this to go away. I love Instagram, YouTube, and Pinterest as much as the next guy. (For the record, Pinterest has a lot of macho research categories for guys; not just interior-design ideas and the latest fashion trends.) We just can’t ignore the fact that our digital way of interaction has a direct impact on our ability to build authentic relationships. We need to get our head out of the “cloud(s)” every now and then. (Even that term has a very different meaning than it once did.)

This may shock you, but Facebook friends and Instagram followers are not authentic relationships. They can help build those relationships and even serve as a wonderful tool for keeping up with the people we love and care about. However, outside of those things, social-media networks often serve as a cheap substitute to authentic relationships.

I recently ran into an old friend I had not seen in years. He said, “I’ve been keeping up with you on Facebook.”

Really? Why didn’t you call me?

I didn’t say that because I do the same thing to people all the time.

Do you find it strange that we will read things other people post, look at their pictures, yet never really engage with them on a meaningful level? Does that sound a bit creepy to you? I think we call those people “stalkers,” and the very reason for the creation of restraining orders!

I’m convinced that the people in your community are looking for something authentic. We have the chance to create a realness in our churches that people will not have the chance to experience in most other places.

Hebrews 10:25 reminds us, “Let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near” (NLT).

People aren’t going to show up to your church just because your pastor delivers an inspiring message and your praise team is singing the latest Hillsong hits. They can stay home and watch a great worship service online or download a podcast. However, people will show up to experience the undeniable presence of God and have someone put a hand on a shoulder to remind them that they matter to God and us! That’s the “encourage one another” part.

Look at Acts 2:42-47 to see the picture of the Church painted there. This intentional group of people met together for fellowship, prayed together, and shared everything they had with others. The word in this passage that sticks out to me is together. That is what Jesus intended. Togetherness is powerful and life-changing. These people weren’t just showing up to get their card punched. They were experiencing life together. As a result, the New Testament church exploded!

In 2012, my family was rocked by the news that my sweet wife, Mary Ann, was diagnosed with breast cancer. I stood still while everything around me was spinning. I tried to act positive and be strong for my family, but it was nothing more than a huge act. I was shaking in my boots!

Then, one night while I was sitting on our sofa in my pajamas with my wife, I heard a knock at the door. When I opened it, there were two men standing on my porch. They were not strangers; in fact, I saw very familiar faces. These were my brothers. Not biological brothers, but spiritual brothers. I’ll never forget the words they spoke: “Pastor, you’ve taken care of our families for years; it’s time for us to take care of yours.”

That’s exactly what they did. They loved us, brought meals, took care of our kids, prayed for us, and walked the journey with us every step of the way. They were the Church—the body of Christ—in every possible way. We will be forever grateful.

I think this is what Jesus had in mind when He said we were to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:31). That commandment was to go hand in hand with the first and greatest commandment, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (v. 30 NIV). In fact, He said people wouldn’t identify us as genuine followers of Jesus by what we say (or post) that we believe. They would identify us by the love that we spill into someone’s life (see John 13:35).

That may sound strange, but you are full of something. Whatever you are full of is spilling into every person you encounter. If you are filled with criticism, a negative attitude, or you are just a jerk, you are spilling that on everyone you come in contact with. However, if you are filled with love, joy, peace, and mercy, you spill that as well. It’s easier to be the light in a world filled with darkness when we love like Jesus loved. That kind of love changes the world.

So, as long as we love the sweet people in our church, we are good, right? That’s way too easy. If we pay attention to the example of Jesus, He spent much of His time with people whom others didn’t even deem worthy of time or love.

Bob Goff put it best in his book Everybody Always: “Jesus spent His entire life engaging the people that most of us have spent our whole life trying to avoid.”

What would it look like to create a culture in your church where no one is perfect, everyone is accepted, and anyone can be changed by the power of God? It would probably look a lot like that intentional community in Acts 2:42-47.

OK, I’ve kept you in suspense long enough. My dear wife is doing amazing. In fact, she’s cancer-free! When I announced that Mary Ann had been healed and that cancer was no longer in her body, our church family cheered as if it were their healing. Honestly, it was. They loved their neighbor as themselves, just like Jesus taught them.

So, post your pictures, tag your friends, and livestream your precious moments. Take advantage of the dynamic communication tool that digital platforms can provide. Just remember, nothing takes the place of a knock at the door and the singular act of love you demonstrate by just showing up!

Anthony Braswell is lead pastor of Northpark Church—a congregation God has used him to plant in Raleigh, North Carolina. He has a passion for communicating with creativity and relevance while empowering others to be more effective in their callings. [email protected] @anthonybraswell