IRL versus URL

Give me IRL every time over URL. IRL is an acronym for ‘In Real Life’ where URL represents the Internet where addresses are called URLs (Uniform Resource Locators – which I had to look up for this blog).

When a pandemic suspends face to face engagements, an abundance of on-line interactions and connections backfill the void. That is a good thing with transactional experiences such as online shopping, Zoom conferences, and online banking. We are now attempting to replace transformative experiences digitally, experiences that cause our lives to be different or better in a significant manner. Visiting the Sistine Chapel, attending a family member’s wedding, or rafting the Colorado River should not be digital experiences.

Attending college was always a real-life transformative experience, today it can be an online transactional one. The 4 years of living in a college community provide the most concentrated area for a young adult’s development. Regardless of what courses are studied, a transformational experience involving growth, new insight, and perspective, creates a new person more experienced in life. Attending college through an online experience, focuses on the skill or book knowledge. At the end of the course, the student is the same person, or nearly the same, just with a new skill set or accreditation.

In business, transactional experiences and conversations yield customers while transformational experiences and conversations yield clients. It is difficult to be strategic through digital interactions. In 1990, United Airlines had an iconic black and white commercial, “Our Customer Fired Us.” The spot has Ben, a boss, sharing with his team the fact that a twenty-year customer and old friend “fired us” which came as a complete surprise. His message is blunt and compelling, the company is losing touch with its clients. It must reinvigorate its lifeblood of relationships by seeing them in person. That was 1990 with the lamenting of faxes and phone calls, in today’s e-everything age, it is even more widespread. I know when I use Zoom, I struggle to read the room or see my audience’s body language.

Humans need humans to feel human. We can’t lose touch with people. We thrive in community with others. Digital communities are curated and based on preferences; real life communities are based on presence. Human connection is an energy exchange between people who are paying attention to one another. It is how we understand and support each other and be understood and supported ourselves. Throughout our day, there are many moments that call for transformative actions that are both outwardly and inwardly valuable. For example, being an active listener at work or home will allow the other to be heard and cultivating our virtues of patience and humility; cheerfully greeting a stranger brightens their day and keep us from being self-absorbed.

Our culture is supplanting community with connectedness, and they are not the same. We want to believe that connecting with someone virtually is just as powerful as connecting with someone in person, but it is not true. A study at Duke found that Americans had one-third fewer friends and confidants than they had two decades ago. University of Michigan researchers found that today’s college students are less empathetic than those of past generations. Online connections do not nurture a relationship. A Twitter feed can’t visit us in a hospital, nor can a cell phone hug us when we grieve. Real-life can be messy. Real-life has no pause, rewind, or reset buttons.

“I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard and valued; when they can give and receive without judgement; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” – Brene Brown, American professor, lecturer, author

Facebook changed its company name to Meta, a focus on building their “metaverse.” Metaverse is a term coined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel Snow Crash, where it referred to a 3D world inhabited by avatars of real people. A virtual world connecting practically anything—work, play, concerts, trips, or just hanging out with friends or family. This is apparently the next step after streaming “watch” and “listen” parties and online gaming communities. However, life is not a pattern to be engineered or an algorithm to be extrapolated, it is a reality to be experienced.

Living in a URL driven world is not Christ-centric. When we allow ourselves to be caught up in superficial information and virtual reality, it can consume the precious time we have available to do God’s work. We can become indifferent to the human suffering of our brothers and sisters. The first time God ever said something was “not good,” he made this declaration: “It is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). Jesus stated, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). Gathering was Jesus’ idea, not ours. The church that Jesus initiated and ordained, the early church, survived by gathering in person.

The digital space enables more opportunities for spiritual encounters, such as chat groups with pastors, online sermons, and religious content on social media. These transactional occasions are complementary and make the experience of those already involved in a community richer. The digital movement cannot replace the physical experience of the church. Going to church is transformational, it moves us from being a consumer to being a contributor. We go to serve, not be served.

Consider Matthew the tax collector and Simon the zealot. In a digital world they would have blocked or unfriend/unfollowed each other. However, being a disciple of Jesus, they were called together into community. Only when we are truly together, in flesh and blood, are we able to really carry out the dozens of “one another” listed in the New Testament- Bear one another’s burdens, Encourage one another, Welcome one another, Forgive one another, Serve one another, Pray for another and yes, Love one another.

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