As a millennial, I was raised with the big promises of technology. The 1990s — remember that decade? fun times, terrible fashion — were a decade that swore that computer technology would usher in an infinitely better future: greater connection, a world of information instantly accessible, all done at rapid speeds.
As a parish priest, technology has been a great help in keeping people connected and engaged in worship during this coronavirus pandemic. We’re able to livestream our worship services and share lots of fun extras online in ways that would have been nearly impossible 20 years ago. Given how long this pandemic has lasted, we are grateful that we can use technology in this way.
But we’ve also realized the limits of technology. We’ve learned how important in-person interaction is. Being connected online satisfies some of those social needs, but it does not completely fulfill us. We need to be around other people, to take up physical space, shake hands, hug and be hugged.
From a Christian perspective, we’ve learned how critical the sacraments are, to share the sacredness of communion with one another. We are reminded anew that communion was not just the gifts of the altar but the gifts of one another. We’ve rediscovered the power of coffee hour after worship, too. A store-bought cookie and inexpensive coffee may not have seemed like much sometimes, but the conversations and community they built were powerful, transformative and lovely.
We see, too, that technology accelerated the spread of bad information, rumors and the deepening divides in America. In the ‘90s it was chain emails laden with rumors and hoaxes; now one only need press a share button to spread it. It’s easier to find an article that fits what we want to believe instead of changing our opinions based on facts and good reporting. In the ‘90s we could assume we were interacting with a person, another flesh-and-blood human being, and now we are left wondering whether it’s a bot or someone who just loves getting under our skin. How sad that people get so much satisfaction in being cruel online!
If we are to build a better future, then we can’t simply rely on technology to do all the work. We cannot sidestep the in-person work. We need to meet our neighbors and our neighborhoods, when it’s safe. We need to build local community with the people here. We need vibrant local institutions and groups.
And an important note for anyone in charge of institutions and groups: How are you going to include new people into your community? Idahoans, how are you going to include people from other states instead of resorting to the usual snarky and unhelpful comment that Idaho is full? How are old-timers going to include newcomers?
Technology can help you include people, but they better find a welcome when they show up at your door — virtually as well as in person.
Love the neighbor in your midst. There is no technology that can replicate the goodness of the human spirit.
The Rev. Joseph Farnes serves as rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Boise.
The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.