I remember being in 5th grade when the first iPhone came out, and how rare it was for my peers or the teenagers that I knew to have one of these. Now, just 13 years later, it’s almost a rarity to go to a suburban American school and meet a teenager who doesn’t have one of these (and maybe in some places, to meet a teen who isn’t constantly occupied with it).
I’ve often felt as if I’m isolating myself from life when I’m interacting with the digital world, and although for many reasons I’m deeply grateful to have been born in a highly technological world, more often than not I find myself feeling like a part of my soul is being squashed whenever I find myself in front of a screen.
Why? We know that the church and most reasonable people acknowledge that in a moral/ethical sense, technology is more or less neutral. It all depends on what we do with it. Of course, people use tech for all sorts of morally dubious or even criminal ways, but there’s also so much good that can derive from being able to communicate with people all over the world at the click of a button. My concern though, isn’t really a moral one. The larger concern that I have consists in my experience that technology so often dulls my sensibilities to the wonder of the strange, beautiful world that’s all around us. This is important, I think, when it comes to the virtual retreats that we have been partaking in. The question I find myself asking then is this: how can we authentically experience community and spirituality in an environment that is entirely digital; will some aspect necessarily suffer? I think we can find community in a “new” and interesting way in this way of ministry, but it seems to me like some things remain obscure.
As far as community goes, it seems like something is lost in the virtual realm. In a virtual retreat, the space seems more fragmented; we don’t have the intimacy of the share the same personal space – when we present ourselves, we are subject to the whims of the network that we are on (we can appear as laggy or delayed, or the microphone can turn off unexpectedly). But maybe in spite of some of these setbacks, I sense, and I hope that our participants are still able to sense that we are a part of something bigger than ourselves, even as we share our perspectives from our own homes.
As far as spirituality goes, I think this is still saved – just as in an in-person retreat, what we might “get out of it” is something that’s largely contingent upon “what we put into it.” Some participants even seem to flourish in having a private space to think and talk about some of the conversations that we partake in, as noted by a message that I received at the end of one of our first virtual retreats; a young man posted in our chat box:
“Hey, thank you for the retreat tonight. Can we stay in contact? This was the first time I felt like I was comfortable talking about some of the stuff that we talked about tonight, and I really appreciated it.”
The short point of these musings is that there is something that strikes me as slightly uncanny in this mode of doing retreats, but I’m thankful that God allows us to continue our ministry in this new way.