The Art of Friending: An Interview with Lynne Baab

Lynne Baab is a lecturer and writer on pastoral theology who lives in Dunedin, New Zealand. She is the author of eight books, including a book on how Christians can and should build online friendships called Friending. Mediation contributor Thomas Turner recently “sat down” with her over email for an online conversation.

Thomas: Lynne, it’s a pleasure to talk to you. I was first introduced to your work through your book on fasting. The trajectory of your work has moved from Sabbath keeping to fasting to prayer to social networking. Do you see social networking as requiring the same kind of discipline as the Sabbath, fasting or prayer?

Lynne: If we view “ discipline” as meaning “to be intentional,” then I think most aspects of life require intentionality: food, exercise, sleep, relationships, prayer, the way we communicate, etc. Social networking is part of how we communicate and engage in relationships, so yes, some degree of discipline or intentionality is required to do social networking well. Frankly, to do anything well requires intentionality or discipline.

Social networking plays a role in maintaining friendships – and sometimes in building friendships – so the same kind of discipline or intentionality we use with our friends is necessary. In a face-to-face conversation, I try to show support and care, and I work hard not to say the first thing that comes out of my mouth, particularly mean things! We need to consider the ways we can best show support and care when we use social networking.

Thomas: Many of the people who I call friends are people who I have corresponded with digitally. The friendship started innocently, like commenting on the person’s blog or responding to a tweet. Then all of the sudden, kind of organically, I find that we start sharing in each other’s lives. There are four or five people like this in my life whom I have never met in person, yet I tell them intimate details of my life and share my work with them. How as Christians should we be responding to this new type of friendship?

Lynne: The primary call for Christians is to show love, to grow into the love of Jesus Christ, to reflect his grace and truth into the world. I believe we show love in many, many ways, and some of them happen in online or digital environments. Since Friending has come out, so many people have commented to me that digital communication is always inferior to face-to-face communication, and I completely disagree. Boastful, self-aggrandizing, self-promoting communication is always inferior to loving communication, and either kind can occur in any setting. I wish as Christians we could talk more often and more deeply about what love looks like in various settings.

Thomas: Do you think social media can distort our current friendships?

Lynne: If “distort” means to change in a negative way, I haven’t experienced that. I do feel closer to some people after reading their Facebook posts for a couple of years, so those friendships have changed because of social media. But I wouldn’t call that distortion! When I did the interviews for Friending, I heard a lot about the challenges of managing time online, concerns about privacy, and the challenges of going slowly enough when engaging in social media so that friends don’t turn into commodities, but I didn’t hear anything about friendships being distorted. Maybe some people feel that way, I but I didn’t hear about it in dozens of interviews.

Thomas: Obviously, the Bible does not speak directly in terms of social media. Yet, I think that in a way the Bible is kind of a precursor to social media. Here are Christian leaders like Paul, Peter and John writing letters to Christians whom they will never meet, yet they are forming intimate bonds with these Christians. The simple letters end up being read aloud and passed from church to church. That’s basically what we call viral marketing now. How do you see the church using social networking in beneficial ways?

Lynne: I think the comparison to letters is definitely worth considering. People who are hostile to social media often say that face-to-face relationships should always take priority. Yet we have historical records of people who maintained long and deep friendship by letters, and sometimes those people never met each other. I rely on long emails to stay in touch with friends who live on the other side of the world, and I largely view email as one modern day parallel to letters.

I see the most effective use of social media by churches in the informal networks that develop online, such as on Facebook. My husband volunteers with a campus ministry to international students, and the students give and receive a tremendous amount of support on Facebook. And they also remind each other of upcoming events. Their Facebook network developed quite independently of the adult campus ministers who serve the group, and my husband is very grateful for the connections and support that happen on Facebook.

Thomas: On the other hand, I see the church taking some forms of social networking a bit too far. I hear about churches that encourage their congregations to tweet during the service and to interact heavily on Facebook or blogs. At what point should we be concerned that social media is going too far? How do we begin to draw a line in the sand?

Lynne: Both personal and communal limits need to be considered. As individuals we need to consider whether time online is getting in the way of relationships with family members and friends who live nearby. We need to consider whether we are spending so much time connecting online that we are violating values we hold dear, such as exercising, studying, doing a good job at work, or participating in hobbies. Increasingly, people are fasting from Facebook for a weekend, a week, a month. Others put daily time limits on it, or stay offline each day until other goals are met. I think individuals sometimes need to draw a line in the sand regarding time spent online.

My highest priority for social networking, as for all other relationships, is showing love. Many social networking connections between people in congregations involve wonderful support and care. I would like to see congregations talk about ways to show love in whatever form is appropriate, both online and in other ways. If we read online that a person who lives nearby has experienced a death in the family, showing love might involve a visit or a phone call rather than an online expression of support.

Regarding tweeting in church, I haven’t seen that yet. I’d actually love to see some of the creative ways tweets might enable congregation members to respond to a sermon. But there also need to be limits on technology in some parts of a worship service. I love silence in a worship service, and I seldom get enough of that.

[Ed.'s Note: Here's an article by TIME on Twitter use during church: http://ht.ly/9mPoF]

Thomas: Are there ways that you believe social media can benefit spiritual disciplines like fasting, Scripture reading or prayer?

Lynne: Congregations can use social media creatively to encourage people to engage in communal practices to help each other draw near to God. Dates and prayer requests for a small group or congregation-wide fast can be described, reminders can be sent, brief testimonies can be given afterwards. If a congregation wants to encourage everyone to read the Bible daily, or read a passage before a worship service, reminders can be posted or sent out. Prayer requests are often shared using social media. These all seem good and right to me. Engaging in spiritual practices is a challenge, and any kind of support we can give in congregations will be helpful.

Thomas: What do you see as the biggest drawback to social media? (For me, I think it most affects our practice of silence).

Lynne: I agree about silence, and I think the problem has become more intense with smart phones that enable people to access online material in all settings in life. For me, another big drawback of social media is speed. The little updates are so brief. The brevity encourages me to consume many of them in a short time, which limits the kind of listening and prayer that flow out of a loving concern for another person. People, made in the image of God and beloved by Jesus, are turned into commodities. The details of their lives become objects of consumption.

Another concern I have is multitasking. Flipping between Facebook and the assignment or report you’re writing. Looking at Facebook on a smart phone while waiting for an event to start or while using an exercise bicycle at the gym. Texting or IM-ing with friends while other friends are talking to you. I guess this relates to the concern about silence, because we won’t let ourselves be silent (or unoccupied) long enough to look for what God might be calling us to do in any given situation. I think multitasking like this short circuits our ability to be present to the people and situations around us, which limits our ability to love and also our ability to hear God’s voice to us.

Thomas: How do you see social media as the tail wagging the dog? How can schools and organizations use social media effectively without having it become consuming?

Lynne: Everyone seems to think that because a technology exists, they have to be using it. I don’t think every individual, community or institution has to embrace every technology. But there is definitely a lot of pressure to do so.

 Thomas: Should the Christian begin to use social networking in a missional way? Can social networking be used as a form of discipleship?

Lynne: Regarding discipleship, I watch my husband read the Facebook posts of the international students he mentors. He prays about them because of what he sees on Facebook. In conversations, he follows up on issues they’ve posted online. He asks them about events they have posted pictures from. He certainly uses Facebook as a tool in discipleship.

Regarding the missional use of social networking, Christians and Christian communities are definitely using social networking in a variety of ways connected to ministry and evangelism. I see people posting announcements about outreach events and events at church. I see people posting Bible verses and links to blog posts and articles that address the intersection of contemporary life and the Christian faith. This fits with the age-old Christian pattern – we always take new forms of communication media and use them for ministry and evangelism. Think about the printing press and Bibles and Christian pamphlets, then Christian magazines and books. Think about the JESUS film, which has been translated into an astonishing 1120 languages. Think about televangelists. When you think about these patterns (perhaps particularly the last example) you may have some doubts about whether Christians should use social media for evangelism. No one that I know has yet studied the effectiveness of doing that. But it’s clear to me that friends are using social media to support one another and show love, and that’s my highest priority, because I believe love manifests the Gospel of Christ the most.

To learn more about Lynne Baab’s writing and ministry go to www.lynnebaab.com.

  • brettpotter

    Very interesting – a good reminder that while social media can’t replace flesh-and-blood community, it can certainly help strengthen patterns of connectivity when used properly.

  • Nate Woodward

    I’d be curious how Lynne Babb would respond to Shane Hipps’ notion that Christianity is an embodied/incarnate gospel, and that virtual interaction–video preaching, for example–distorts because it is disembodied. Also, I don’t see very much nuance in this article about the way Social Media, in particular, flattens and homogenizes the kind of interactions we have with friends. We end up interacting with friends in blocks, rather than one-on-one. Some of the epistles are to large audiences, but others are personal exchanges. Just as we oughtn’t to react against electronic communication just because the early church didn’t use it, neither should we conjecture that the early church would have used it if they could have. Email may have parallels to letters, but it isn’t “just” the modern-day equivalent.