Let’s do a little thought experiment. I want you to imagine that you are at the end of a long day of work. You come home and remember that you have dinner scheduled with some old friends you used to hang out with.
So you start getting ready to head back out and then you get a text.
“Hey guys, I’m really sorry but I’m not feeling great so we’ll have to cancel dinner.”
Now, what do you feel in that moment? You just got bailed on for dinner.
Raise your hands if you are hurt or offended that someone would cancel on you at the last minute.
Now raise your hand if you are feeling a sweet rush of joy and delight that you now have an evening to yourself?
Yeah. The truth is, for many of us these days, if we had a choice between being with people or being alone, we’d choose the latter.
I mean, in theory we know it’s important to be with other people, and sure, on paper it seems like a good idea to reconnect with friends.
But what do we really want? To be left alone.
Now, I know that some of you are extroverted people-people and you hate being by yourself, but when you look at nation-wide trends, it’s pretty clear what’s going on.
In 2021 the average American spent only 2 hours and 45 minutes per week with close friends. And that’s average.
If you look at this chart, it shows that Americans over 15 have been spending more and more time alone year over year for decades. Covid caused a big spike in this, but this trend really started back in the 2010’s: when social media and smartphones were becoming commonplace.
We are alone more than we’ve ever been. And our technology is a big reason why.
Welcome to the final week of our series, “Virtual Reality.” We’ve been exploring biblical principles that can help us as followers of Christ navigate the digital revolution that we’re all a part of.
The core principle which has guided the whole conversation is this:
Principle 1: You are on a mission.
As followers of Jesus we don’t have the option to just withdraw and disconnect from technology, because God has called us to move into the digital world as a source of healing and love. We’re on a mission.
But as we go into the world we have to be wise and set apart - different from everybody else. And that’s where the other four principles come in. Like,
Principle 2: Garbage in, garbage out.
We’ve got to think about the content we’re consuming.
Principle 3: Sabbath breaks chains.
With so much hyper-addictive technology these days, we have to learn how to regularly stop the grind so we can be free.
Principle 4: Likes do not define you.
Our digital world is full of tribalism and vanity. We have to root our identity not in online affirmation, but in who we are in Christ.
Today we are going to end the series by talking about this technological pull towards isolation and hyper-individualism and how one of the most important things we can do as a people on mission is to learn how to be together again.
Before we open our Bibles, I want to raise the stakes a little bit. Because, is it really such a big deal that we like to be alone? I mean, we spend time with other people… just not as much. Right? How bad could it be?
Well, the short answer is… pretty bad.
For one thing, I believe there is a direct connection between our isolation and the ideological and social fracturing our society.
Digital communication - for all of its wonder and magic and ease - is a terrible way to convey nuance.
Have you ever tried to have an argument via text?
How many rage-filled misunderstandings have come about because people are trying to have crucial conversations through Facebook comments?
I spoke about tribalism last week. Well, tribes form a whole lot more easily when people “on the other side” are not flesh and blood humans in front of us, but ridiculous caricatures on our phones.
Something breaks down when we’re trying to engage our world from behind a screen, which we’re doing more and more as we spend more and more time alone.
Bottom line, the collapse of healthy community is made worse by our habits of isolation.
And when community collapses, we isolate more. We depend more on our devices. It’s a deadly spiral.
And I do mean deadly. There are dozens and dozens of studies that have linked mental health with in-person, physical community.
Physical contact, like hugging or shaking hands, releases oxytocin in the brain. It’s a hormone that enhances our sense of trust and attachment. We are biologically wired to be social - to be in proximity and community with other human beings.
Do you know what happens when you don’t have oxytocin? You’re irritable, you have heightened anxiety and fears. You have trouble making connections with new people. You even have a bigger appetite for sugary foods.
In short, Your mental health is made worse by a lack of physical touch.
And where do we even begin with the impact all this isolation has on developing children?
Kids and young adults need a rich, diverse, multi-generational community around them to develop into whole, healthy adults. As it turns out, algorithms are not amazing mentors.
Back in 2010 I read a book called The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog. It’s not a comfortable read. But it tells some important stories of how children who grew up in isolation (for example in Soviet orphanages) had massive social and developmental deficiencies later in life.
And I think, “Well, it’s a good thing our kids aren’t institutionalized like that.” But then I remember the stats: kids age 8-10 in America are spending 6 hours a day in front of screens. And that number only goes up as they get older.
There are undoubtedly great benefits that come with technology, and like I said we are on a mission to move into it, but those 6 hours a day on screens are 6 hours those kids are not having their biological and neurological needs met by in-person interactions.
The development of our kids is made worse by isolation.
I’ve spent a lot of time in my life traveling to other cultures, especially in the developing world. And I’ve seen, over and over again, just how normal it is for humans to live in rich, multigenerational community.
Where people spend long hours together every day - laughing, eating, singing.
Where elders take young people aside to teach and correct them. Where gangs of kids play and run around all day. Where nursing mothers and grandmothers come together to share the load of raising newborns.
Now, I’m not naive, and I know these cultures have their own problems to deal with. But this rich tapestry of community is how humanity has functioned for thousands and thousands of years.
As we entered the 21st century, Americans were already at the extreme, bleeding edge of isolation and individualism. And then we all got smartphones.
So what do we do?
If God is sending us - the Church - into this broken, digital world on a mission - if we are supposed to be a force of healing and change - then how do we start to live differently?
Well, as I’ve said many times in this series, Technology changes, but human nature doesn’t.
So one last time let’s seek the wisdom of our spiritual ancestors and listen for the call of God on us.
Please turn with me to Hebrews 10:23, Page _____
While you’re turning there, let me give you just a bit of background to this book of our Bibles.
Hebrews is unique because we don’t know who wrote it (Paul? Apollos? Priscilla?) - we also don’t know when they wrote it, or who it was written to.
What we do know is that it reads a lot like a sermon, so a lot of scholars just refer to the author as “the pastor.”
We can also tell by context that the pastor’s original audience was getting into a bad habit: they were not meeting together as often as they used to - for meals, for worship.
In other words, they were starting to isolate a little bit.
We don’t know why. Maybe they had experienced disapproval and rejection from an unbelieving society and they were discouraged.
Maybe it was outright persecution.
Or maybe they were just getting a little worn out by church. A bit tired of the broken world. A little sluggish in their spiritual walk. Maybe they just drifted apart.
Sounds a little familiar, doesn’t it? In this post-Covid world filled with church hurt and faith deconstruction. We’re drifting too.
Regardless of the reason back then, the pastor sees this isolation as a big problem and wants to correct it. Let’s take a look:
Let us hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep his promise. Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And 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.
So according to the pastor, Christians should hold tightly to the hope that “the day of Christ’s return” - or literally in the Greek, just “the Day” - is drawing near.
And “the Day” is just shorthand for the “Day of the Lord.” The time in which New Creation will be established once and for all. When God will finally make all things right.
And it’s a Day Jesus invites his followers to announce and help bring about.
Because we are a people on mission. Joining God in his healing work - people who live and love like Jesus and invite others to participate in this in-breaking of New Creation.
Which is why the pastor says in v.24 we should “think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works.” Because it’s what we’re here to do.
I love this, though. The word for “motivate” here in the Greek is actually much stronger. It’s the word “provoke,” which is usually a negative. Like “provoking” someone to anger.
But here, we are meant to “provoke” or prod one another to love and good deeds.
A bit later in Hebrews the pastor lists some examples of what this looks like:
Keep on loving each other as brothers and sisters. Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it! Remember those in prison, as if you were there yourself. Remember also those being mistreated, as if you felt their pain in your own bodies.
In other words, we are supposed to “provoke” or “prod” each other into compassionate, others-focused love: something you can only do when you are close enough to do the prodding.
Which is why the pastor says in verse 25 that it’s so important the Church continues to gather. “Don’t neglect” - or, literally abandon “meeting together.”
Because that’s where we encourage one another. That’s where we sharpen and challenge one another.
There’s a famous quote by the theologian John Wesley that captures this perfectly:
“The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.” - John Wesley
Christianity is a team sport. And if we’re a people on a mission, we have to pursue it together.
ENCOURAGE ONE ANOTHER
So, it’s a simple passage. There’s not a lot to unpack here. But I think the pastor’s call to the church in the ancient world holds some particularly strong relevance today.
We’ve already covered how damaging and dangerous it is for us to be isolated and alone. It’s not good for our society, it’s not good for our mental health, and it’s not good for our children.
Our friends and neighbors and classmates are being chewed up by the loneliness of our *ironically* always connected world. And if we’re honest, so are we.
But that is not an option. Because we are on a mission. We are the ones God is sending to heal the brokenness of isolation.
We must re-learn how to have true, in-person community so that we can show our hurting world that there is another way to live.
So here is the big principle for today. Yes, our technological age is filled with wonders, but:
Principle 5: We heal face to face.
For example, if you’re concerned about the tribalism of our day, it isn’t getting better if you’re just lobbing grenades from behind the barricade.
Tribalism heals when two Christ-followers who don’t think the same way look each other in the eye, humble themselves, and commit to learn from the Spirit together.
“Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works…”
If your mental health is a disaster right now, it won’t improve by watching motivational TikToks alone.
Minds heal in community, when you’re close enough to touch someone. Literally. When you’re close enough to be seen and loved. When you can see with your eyes that you’re not walking through the healing journey alone.
“Encourage one another…” the pastor says. How can someone encourage you if you’re nowhere to be found?
If it breaks your heart that children are being raised isolated and alone, it isn’t getting better by pointing the finger at parents or blaming Cocomelon.
Our children and young adults heal when the Church steps up and gets into the game and pours into their lives. In person. Multiple generations. Every child with many adults investing in them.
Principle 5: We heal face to face.
“Let us not neglect our meeting together”
We started this series with the recognition that we are on a mission of healing in this digital world. We’re ending the series with the recognition that true healing happens in community.
As followers of Jesus we’re not abandoning technology. We’re moving into it. I hope we’re innovating with it. But we must never abandon the very thing that makes us the Church: the body of Christ gathered.
Gathered to learn, gathered to grow, and gathered to encounter our God. Remember what Jesus told his disciples:
Where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them.
Our gatherings are not about checking off some spiritual to-do. They’re not about getting “God points.” We gather to meet with Christ and let his Spirit transform us as a community on mission.
So here’s the deal. I know there are a lot of reasons we’ve drifted towards isolation from our church family. I know that Covid did a number on church attendance.
When you’re wrestling with faith deconstruction, it can be hard to worship, because you don’t even know what you believe and maybe it all feels fake. I get it.
Our drift towards isolation is legitimate and I don’t blame a single one of us, but we heal face to face.
So with the call of Hebrews 10 in mind, here’s my invitation to you:
Come back to your spiritual community, whatever that looks like for you.
For some who live in this area, this literally means coming back to church on Sunday mornings. Every week. Not just online, here.
Now, the fact that we can stream our services is an incredible tool. And I love that you can use it when you’re sick or traveling. It’s great that you can learn from the sermon and hear the music at a distance.
But it’s only when you’re here that you’re face to face with your brothers and sisters, worshipping God with voices raised, together.
It’s only here that you have those chance encounters and conversations, and handshakes and hugs that your body needs. We have free coffee and free oxytocin.
It’s only here that you can see with your own eyes and feel in your spirit the body of Christ in all its diversity, living and loving together.
For those of you who are already here, who already make it a priority to attend every week, I’m going to encourage you to take the next step. Come back to more meaningful investment in this community.
We have two services on Sunday morning. Why don’t you serve at one and attend the other?
If your heart breaks for the plight of kids and students in this digital world, you can literally do something about it every week in Grace Kids, in our student ministries, in our disability ministry. You can speak life into the next generation.
If you care about healing tribalism, you can actually do that by setting the tone for the kind of gracious, loving community we want to be in this world. Join our hospitality team. You could be an usher.
If you need community to heal your mind throughout the week, join a small group – find people to do life with. Go to men’s life or women’s life or mom’s life or young adults. If you’re grieving, go to grief share.
My point is, come back. Your faith was never designed to be done in isolation.
And look, I know how hard it is to reengage with people after we have gotten very used to being alone. Our social stamina is a bit low.
But we are on a mission, Grace Church. It’s our job to bring the healing love of Jesus into our digital world. If we don’t do it, no-one will.
Let’s start by healing this community and showing our friends and neighbors that there is, indeed, another way to live.