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My wife and I have been married for 10 years, and we dated for another six before that. But the first two times I asked Jenny out, I was soundly rejected. The third time was the charm, but the actual date was anything but charming. I was a nervous wreck. The conversation was choppy and uneven. I was trying too hard. Our time together at a quaint little coffee shop ended abruptly when, mid–awkward silence, Jenny stood up and said, as nicely as she could muster, “I’ve gotta go.”

It’s a miracle things worked out. 

Recently I came across a mobile app that would’ve made Jenny’s exit all those years ago far more covert and less tense. Created by comedian Chelsea Handler, the Gotta Go app is described as “your free excuse-to-leave generator.” The app works in a simple three-step process:

  1. Create an excuse. These excuses are real calls or text messages sent directly to your phone.
  2. Activate and wait. The excuses are scheduled for specific times, so you can strategically receive an excuse-to-leave at predetermined times.
  3. Make your escape. When the excuse is sent to your phone, you have a built-in excuse to leave whatever date, hang-out, or event you’re eager to escape.

Clever, right? 

When Convenience Subverts Connection

As convenient as apps like Gotta Go may seem on the surface, they reveal an alarming trend. Our digital technologies are increasingly subverting our understanding and experience of community, even as they disguise themselves as catalysts for connection. 

The interconnectedness that technology promises comes with a caveat. If we really want true community, we have to be willing to endure necessarily difficult and uncomfortable situations. True connection is never as clean as a swipe or click would have us believe. 

True connection is never as clean as a swipe or click would have us believe.

In his book Uncomfortable, Brett McCracken says that “commitment matters more than compatibility.” But in the digital age, we’ve reversed the order. We’re looking for compatibility first, believing if we can simply find the exact right person or people, who fit our every quirk and nuance, we’ll naturally and easily arrive at mutual commitment. But this isn’t how actual community works. The deepest, most meaningful relationships we experience are forged not in simplicity but complexity—journeying together through the dark valleys and furious fires of life; staying when it’d be easier to leave; settling in when it’d be easier to scatter out.

Community Is Inefficient

In her book Reclaiming Conversation, Sherry Turkle cites research that suggests it takes, on average, about seven minutes for a conversation to reach any sort of depth. The first few minutes are often shallow, disjointed, even boring. In order to create a sense of true community and connection, Turkle writes, we must be willing to accept messy inefficiency: “It is often in the moments when we stumble and hesitate and fall silent that we reveal ourselves to each other.” 

In a world of digital optimization—where everything is about convenience and cropping out eyesores—we’re failing miserably at this. We don’t allow each other (or ourselves) to stumble, hesitate, and fall from time to time. Our capacity for grace and patience is limited. Instead, when things get uncomfortable or when we grow impatient, we say, “Gotta go.” In the digital age, there’s always somewhere else to go, someone else to see, something else to do. Constant stimulation has made us fear boredom. But it’s also damaged our ability to relationally connect.

Constant stimulation has made us fear boredom. But it’s also damaged our ability to relationally connect.

The biblical vision of community is different. From Christ’s disciples to the multi-everything early church, the community of God’s people has been, from its inception, a “fellowship of differents.” The unlikely collection we call Christian community is commanded, throughout the New Testament, to do all sorts of uncomfortable and, yes, inefficient things: 

  • Serve one another (Gal 5:13b).
  • Bear with one another in love (Eph. 4:2).
  • Speak and sing the words of God together (Eph. 5:19).
  • Teach and challenge one another (Col. 3:16).
  • Do not give up meeting together (Heb. 10:24–25).
  • Be hospitable to one another (1 Pet. 4:9).
  • Confess to one another (James 5:16).
  • Eat and drink together (Acts 2:42).

This is just the tip of the iceberg. God calls us into a new community, a new family, but he never promises it will be easy. On the contrary, it can be frustrating and dysfunctional. Still, God calls us to a long-haul, incarnational commitment to this strange new family.

Challenge Is Worth It

Here are three steps we can take to lean into the challenge of meaningful community rather than giving into the ease of “Gotta Go” comfort.

1. Instead of “creating an excuse,” create a reason.

Whomever you’re with in the various spheres of your life—church, family, friends, school, work—create reasons to go deeper with them. Discover the unseen stories and histories surrounding you. Be more curious. Ask more questions. Listen more intently.

2. Instead of “activating and waiting,” de-activate and be present.

When you’re with others, shut off your phone or leave it in your pocket. Give people the gift of your undivided attention. It will feel strange at first, but this is an integral step in the process of fostering genuine community.

3. Instead of “making your escape,” make a commitment.

Maybe your church doesn’t look, sound, or feel exactly like your “dream church.” Regardless, make a commitment. In fact, make several commitments—to stay, to serve, to rejoice when others are rejoicing, to mourn when they’re mourning, to come alongside, to love in a way that costs you.

Truth is, it’s easier to go than to stay, to detach than to engage, to isolate than to immerse yourself in the complexity of genuine community. But in God’s grand plan for us, the difficult journey to meaningful connection is more than worth the effort.