Earlier this week, I heard from a missionary friend overseas who privately commented regarding my blogposts from Monday and Tuesday. With his permission, I will relate some of our conversation. He said that he has seen that particularly the generation of younger 20’s and early 30’s seem to be struggling with an inability to build true relationships with others. He and his team felt that young people are substituting social networking for real relationships and that because of this they lacked the real ability and skills to connect with each other on a personal basis. The effect of this substitution is that so many more young people are feeling lonely and isolated. He also said that the irony seems to be that this generation craves community but they turn to social media as their source of community which is no real community at all and they are left wanting.
This is not to completely debunk the social media phenomenon which has great potential to connect people in ways that we were never connected before. (i.e. – my friend reads my blog from a link on a social media website and sends me a message about it via the same social media.) But my friend and I agree that social media is not intended to replace normal relationship building and emotional bonding. It is not the primary way to connect us to others, it is only an add-on or a layer of connection.
I love technology and I love social media. They are not the problem. The problem is that our hearts turn these media into a counterfeit for koinonia so when we look to facebook to be our relationships, we miss the real thing. Could it be that once again our own hearts are our downfall and that we are naturally moving to lesser desires not greater ones? Could it be that we are becoming satisfied with the “relational connections” and “friendships” that social media provides and we are losing our appetites for the real thing? Likely this is one more example of what CS Lewis said in His Weight of Glory address,
It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
Today I am more connected than ever before. You can contact me via my three phone numbers, my four email addresses, instant messenger and my skype account. Did I mention that you can also facebook me, send me a tweet, or even comment on my blog? Oh, and I am also available for lunch today. But while there is this 360° communication field about me that is available 24 hours of every day and there is more information about me, the way I think and my preferences available for public consumption than ever before (just google john estorge or request me as a friend on facebook) I struggle more to be truly known and to truly know others than previous generations. Could it be that my virtual connectedness has become a substitute, even an unrecognizable counterfeit for true connectedness to others and to God?
As I talk and counsel with folks in their forties down to their teens, what lies behind all of their struggles is a lack of healthy inter-connectedness to God, self and others. What is missing is an experiential knowledge of God, self and others. A.W. Tozer comments, “We have substituted theological ideas for an arresting encounter; we are full of religious notions but our great weakness is that for our hearts there is no one there.” While I may know facts about God, do I really know Him? And when I need Him, which should be daily if I really knew myself, does my heart even know how to find Him? Once again in our relationship with God and others we have substituted the knowledge of ideas and facts for true experiential knowledge. Maybe I’m weaker than most, but my heart can’t survive in a world where ideas are substituted for experience. Johann Arndt adds, “There are many who suppose that Theology is merely a science, or an art of words, whereas it is a living experience and practical exercise. Every one now aims at acquiring eminence and distinction in the world; but no one is willing to learn how to be devout.”
My heart longs for a greater inter-connectedness and mutual experience of koinonia with God and others. I desire to participate with God and others in genuine, experiential ways. To have communion by intimate participation, to know and be known by God and others. This is what He desires for us. This is what is wrapped up in koinonia. And I’m afraid we’ve settled for less.
We translate the greek word, koinonia using words that have become almost meaningless to us today. We use words like “fellowship” “participation” or even “partaking.” Sometimes we will use an even more ambiguous word, “communion” These words don’t really do justice to the meaning. I have attempted in the past to draw attention to the word and even attempt to re-define it as “communion by intimate participation,” which might temporarily arrest us to look again but I admit that my definition has only minimal impact on how we could view our connection with God and each other.
But the Biblical writers intended a greater inter-connectedness and mutual experience for us in the use of this word. And to a world that experiences life, relationship, connection and even church from behind a firewall, grasping the intended experience of koinonia with God and each other is crucial lest we continue down a path to a surrogate society of isolation where we are only virtually connected to God, church and others. We are living in a reductionist society of ideas and virtual realities and while we can explain our realities better than we ever could we have a lesser experience of them.
Julie Canlis in her book Calvin’s Ladder cites Owen Barfield in saying,
“When a Greek person living in the classical world experienced the world around him, he did not do so via a system of ideas about his experience but instead felt an “extra-sensory link” between what he saw and his own self… The participation of the ordinary man was a livelier and more immediate experience… . This was due to the koinonia-consciousness of the classical world (which persisted in varying forms right up until the scientific revolution).”
To the Greek world of the first century, Koinonia was the way to experience the world now. Koinonia was originally understood in the context of a historical setting when individuality and the boundaries of self were not harshly drawn and we cared more about what we experienced than merely about the ideas that described our experience. George Hunsinger underscores the importance and elusiveness of koinonia for us today.
“Koinonia means that we are not related to God or to one another like ball bearings in a bucket, though a system of external relations. We are rather, something like relational fields that interpret, form, and participate in each other in countless real though often elusive ways. Koinonia both as a tern and as a reality, is remarkable for its range and flexibility and inexhaustible depth.”