Over the last quarter century, the internet and social media have transformed our understanding of community. At first, it seemed like a promising transformation. The geography-transcending ease of online connection made it possible to quickly find people with shared passions and interests. Communities started forming around every conceivable pop culture or sports fandom, political perspective, social justice cause, hobby, fetish, philosophy, or religious inclination.
Now, with the aid of tailored-to-you algorithms, search engines, and niche subreddits of every sort, it’s easier than ever to “find your people”—whatever you want “your people” to be.
The impulse isn’t bad. To be human is to long for connection with other humans. And yet as Jennie Allen’s recent book and Drew Holcomb’s recent song (both titled “Find Your People”) suggest, the longing is increasingly pronounced in a digital world more connected than ever but somehow simultaneously more isolating too.
Why is finding our people so hard today? Because we’re looking in the wrong place. You’ll find oodles of fans, “friends,” followers, subscribers, and avatar interlocutors online. But most likely, you won’t find “your people” there. At least not the ones who will transform your life in positive and long-lasting ways.
Internet Community Can Be Great
There are positives to the possibilities of online community. For people coping with rare or chronic illnesses, it’s never been easier to find communities of support and shared struggles where tips can be swapped and mutual encouragement offered. For trauma or abuse survivors, persecuted religious minorities, or other marginalized or vulnerable groups, finding community online can be a lifesaver.
Even something like The Gospel Coalition likely wouldn’t exist today were it not for the internet’s knack for fostering connections and forming tribes (in this case connecting broadly Reformed people who share a certain theological vision for ministry). TGC is one of the millions of examples of nuanced and specific corners of the internet that sprung up once people could experience that “you too?” discovery of like-minded solidarity on a previously impossible scale.
The internet has allowed me to make connections with kindred spirits who became trusted friends—people in other parts of the country or world whom I otherwise could never have known. Yet in each of these cases, what might have started online eventually led to an in-person, offline connection: meet-ups whenever possible, even if only once every couple of years when we’re in the same city or at the same conference. This layer of embodied reality has been indispensable to the relationship’s health long-term.
Physical Community Is Better
In spite of the benefits and affordances of online connection, I’ve become increasingly convinced that physical, proximate, in-the-flesh relationships are far, far better for us. Screen life isn’t real life, and virtual relationships—while beneficial in some ways—are no substitute for incarnate relationships.
Consider the rising rates of loneliness in what some have called a loneliness epidemic. In a world where it’s so easy to find whatever people you want to find (online) or join whatever hyperspecific niche community suits your interests, why are people lonelier than ever?
Perhaps it’s because the more human way to form a community isn’t around shared interests, in virtual reality, but around shared place, in physical reality. In relationships that help us grow, maybe proximity matters more than affinity.
In relationships that help us grow, maybe proximity matters more than affinity.
To be sure, proximate relationships are harder and more painful. It’s much easier to go online for on-demand doses of relational connection, on your terms, with a bunch of contacts who will affirm you and give you the intoxicating experience of feeling “seen.” But feeling seen is different than being seen. And being seen is, in the end, less vital than being known. My contention is that local, in-the-flesh relationships, while potentially more of a headache, are where we can actually be known: embraced, prayed for, cared for, cried with, seen in the eyes, challenged face-to-face, received in the fullness of our fleshly fragility.
In good times, it’s easy to feel like we don’t really need in-person relationships. But in times of crisis, it becomes obvious we do. In times of pain and suffering, we can’t feel the comforting embrace of a TikTok follower or pray on in the living room of a Facebook follower; our Instagram “connections” offer little consolation beyond a passive heart to “like” our carefully constructed expressions of emotion. As Chris Martin observes in his new book on social media, “A retweet by a person on Twitter shouldn’t be seen as the same as a shoulder to cry on. To see such things as equal is to have a fundamentally broken understanding of what it means to be friends with someone.”
While it’s relatively easy to gain a social media following and call that “community,” it’s also easy to be rapidly misunderstood, misrepresented, and ultimately discarded by those followers. Online social dynamics are fickle and fragile—and depending too much on them erodes our integrity. Better to surround yourself with trusted, committed friends offline than depend on the volatile mood of the digital masses.
The more I work and live in a mostly online world, the more certain I am that my life’s most important relationships are those grounded in physical proximity: People I can grab coffee with without getting on a plane. People I pray with in a living room or church sanctuary on a weekly basis. People who know me not just as a purveyor of “content” but chiefly as a person: red-headed husband; father; church elder; frequenter of Brot and Hidden House coffee shops; lover of hiking, gardening, good food, and going to the movies.
5 Offline Places to Find Your People
In a manner similar to what the philosophy of subsidiarity would suggest, relational bonds tend to be thickest and most life-giving when they’re most local and proximate. So look for “your people” closer to home. Here are some places to start your search.
Perhaps it’s obvious, but your immediate family (or extended family who live nearby) represents the greatest potential for relational intimacy and longevity. The givenness of family frees us from the burden of choice: our parents or siblings or cousins might not be the people we’d choose to do life with, but they’re the people we’ve been given. And for better or worse, they tend to know us better than anyone else. They often feel most comfortable speaking hard truths to us and pulling us off the ledges of self-deception and unwise living. This makes family relationships painful at times but also invaluable.
2. Local Church
The people the Holy Spirit gathers together in the ecclesia are often a hodgepodge assortment of ages, ethnicities, classes, and cultures. This is why it’s such a rich place to forge family-like bonds. Similar to the unchosen givenness of blood family, a healthy church is an unchosen gift of unlikely brethren. Church relationships are powerful precisely because they’re relationships we wouldn’t choose with the algorithmic help of Google. Sometimes the people we most need in our life are the ones we don’t know we need. But God knows. And by his grace, he places us in just the right church family—one that will shape us profoundly if we’re willing to set our consumer preferences aside and give our full selves to it.
3. School or Work
The venues of school and work provide natural opportunities for developing meaningful relationships. These are people you see on a daily or weekly basis, with the potential of relationships spanning many years. The proximity of classmates or coworkers also means you can do human things together like engage in impromptu hallway or water cooler conversations (without having to schedule a phone call or Zoom chat), celebrate birthdays and other milestones, or converse over a lunch break. The stranger you sit by on the first day of class and the coworker whose cubicle happens to be next to yours aren’t people you choose based on personality compatibility inventories. But we do have the choice to get to know these strangers, not because they’re like us but because they’re next to us.
It used to go without saying, but the people who happen to live in your cul-de-sac or apartment complex can be an important part of your relationship circle. You don’t choose them, but you’ll need them. Whether it’s the occasional egg you need while baking, a person to water your flowers when you’re out of town, or (in my family’s case) neighbors who can come over to babysit our kids on short notice, neighborhood relationships carry huge practical value. Beyond the practical, these are people who often minister to you relationally through front-yard or over-the-fence conversations, neighborhood social events, or small group studies. They’re next door or down the street when you need them, and that matters.
5. Third Spaces
I spend a lot of time in coffee shops. As a remote worker with no home office, the third spaces of local cafes are my daily sanctuary. I haven’t met best friends in these places, but I’ve had memorable human interactions with people sitting across the table from me, and the baristas know me by name and ask about my family and work. If it’s not a coffee shop for you, maybe it’s a Cheers-like neighborhood bar, a gym, a civic organization (e.g., Kiwanis Club or Rotary Club), or a members-only club. The people you rub shoulders with in these places sometimes align with you in interests or background, but often they’re very different—the sort of unexpected friendships we’d never script for ourselves.
Supplement, Not Replacement
Am I saying online relationships are always bad? No. Am I negating the experiences of people whose lives have been enhanced by totally virtual relationships? No. My life has been enriched by virtual relationships!
They’re next door or down the street when you need them, and that matters.
I’m just suggesting that as people made by an intentional Creator to have bodies and to live in physical places, it’s likely our most meaningful and reliable relationships will be embodied and proximate.
Insofar as social media or digital technology helps supplement these embodied connections, facilitate offline connection (e.g., using social media to arrange meet-ups or advertise in-person events), or maintain relationships in seasons of physical distance (e.g., Skype or FaceTime), we can embrace their relational potential. But virtual connection should never replace embodied community. Our lonely cravings to “find our people” will not be satisfied through screens.
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