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THINKING IT THROUGH – Face to face in a faceless society

July 2019 | by Stephen Rees

I filled my car up with diesel this morning. I pulled up alongside the pump, climbed out of the car, pushed my credit card into a slot, pressed my pin number into the keypad, started fuelling, collected my receipt from another slot, drove away. Quick, convenient — and I was in and out of the filling station without talking to anyone. I must have saved at least five minutes by using the machine instead of paying the cashier.

I never have to queue when I go shopping at the local supermarket either. I can simply walk up to one of the auto-tills, place my basket on the bagging scale, scan each item in turn, pay with either cash or credit card, and walk away. No need to say good morning to a real life checkout assistant. I can get my shopping and be back at the car without talking to a single person.

In fact, if I were a bit better organised, I could spend my whole life without speaking to anyone. I don’t need to go into the bank: I can manage my account on-line and if I need cash, I can get it out of a cash machine. I don’t need to catch a train or a bus. I can drive anywhere I need to go. And if ever I do take public transport, I can buy my ticket either online or from a machine at the station.

Yes, once I’m on the train, there’s the risk that I may have to sit next to someone and they may want to start a conversation. But happily, I can avoid that by wearing a pair of headphones and spending the trip listening to music or watching a film on my phone. I don’t need to go to the park or the gym to get exercise. I can simply install a rowing machine or an exercise bike in my lounge and work out there for twenty minutes a day.

I’ve not worked out yet how to avoid meeting the postman if he brings post or parcels that require a signature. Maybe if I had all my post sent to a box number, that would get round it. But then, I might have to speak to someone at the Post Office when I go to empty my box. Any advice anyone?

Well I hope you realise that I’m being facetious. But I’m making a serious point. We’re living in a society where it’s becoming easier and easier to avoid face to face communication. I can remember going shopping with my mother in my childhood. You stepped into the grocer’s shop and joined the queue up to the counter. You might be standing in that queue for ten or fifteen minutes but it wasn’t thought of as wasted time because you spent it chatting with others in the queue.

You reached the counter with your shopping list and the shopkeeper found each item in turn and placed it in your shopping bag. Some items he would need to weigh out and wrap. A quarter of tea. Two pounds of sugar. Then he’d tot it up, you’d pay and be on your way to the butcher’s or the greengrocer’s. It was a morning’s work to do the shopping but in the course of the morning, you’d have interacted with dozens of folk.

Of course there were some things that you didn’t normally get from the shops. Newspapers were delivered to many homes, milk to every home. The milkman knew his customers. If yesterday’s milk hadn’t been taken in, or the empties hadn’t been put out for a couple of days, he knocked to make sure you were all right. And once a week he knocked anyway, and you chatted while you settled the bill.

That world has gone. It began to vanish with the rise of the sell-everything supermarket where you could buy not just groceries but fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, medicines, alcohol. Instead of visiting half a dozen shops you could do your weekly shop at one. And customers wandered round filling their own baskets or trolleys, and then were hurried through a checkout aisle. Step by step the supermarkets became bigger, sold a wider and wider range of goods and became more automated. Now, as I’ve said, you can walk in and out and do a week’s shopping without speaking to anyone.

In the old world, men went out to work. The man who worked from home was a rare specimen. And most manual jobs involved co-operation. You talked with the people you worked with. All that’s changed. Lots of people work from home now. And there are far fewer manual jobs. For lots of people, work means sitting at a computer terminal all day, or manning a phone but never interacting with their colleagues around them. If they really need to communicate with the person on the next desk, they can do it by email!

In the old world, men got together after work and at weekends. They met one another in social venues of many sorts — working men’s clubs, bookmakers’ shops, football grounds and, above all, pubs.

Those institutions still exist. But they play a far smaller part in society than they did back then. First television, and then the internet made the idea of going out less attractive. Why go out to find entertainment with other people when you can sprawl in front of the TV with a takeout pizza and a pint?

In the last ten years countless pubs have closed. I can think of half a dozen within a couple of miles of our church building. Should I be pleased? Maybe, if it meant that men were drinking less. But I don’t think it means that at all. It just means that people are filling up their trolley with cans at the supermarket and then soaking at home.

In the old world, youngsters gathered at youth clubs, scouts and guides groups, sports centres, coffee-bars, discos — or they simply hung around together. Twenty years ago, we started reaching out to teenagers hanging round in the evenings. Back then, you would expect to find groups of youngsters out and about summer or winter. There’d be a group sitting on a wall outside the recreation centre. There’d be another group hanging round the high street. There’d be a couple more at different locations in the park.

Now there are evenings when our outreach team meets nobody. Why not? Because the youngsters are at home in their bedrooms, playing computer games or occupied with social media. A youngster may have scores of ‘friends’ but never see any of them face to face. In fact he or she may never have met any of them or know their real names.

In the old world, neighbours knew one another and talked to one another. Even when I moved, thirty-odd years ago, to the estate where I live, it wasn’t unusual to see groups of neighbours standing around on the pavement, just chatting. If I see such a group now, it almost certainly means that there’s been some newsworthy incident — the police have raided a home, someone’s been taken away in an ambulance, there’s been a fire.

I hardly know some of my neighbours by sight. They leave the house, get into their cars, drive away, return nine hours later, vanish behind their front doors and aren’t seen again until the following morning. I don’t know what they do with their leisure hours, how they think, what they’re interested in because we never speak.

As long ago as 1909, the novelist E. M. Forster wrote a short story with the title, ‘The Machine Stops’. He pictured the world as it might be in the future — a world in which the vast majority of the human race has no contact with any other human being. Each one lives alone in an identical apartment, underground. They might leave the room a handful of times in a lifetime, but otherwise remain in total physical isolation. All their needs are supplied by a virtually all-powerful machine.

‘Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee. It is lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet it is filled with a soft radiance. There are no apertures for ventilation, yet the air is fresh. There are no musical instruments, and yet, at the moment that my meditation opens, this room is throbbing with melodious sounds. An armchair is in the centre, by its side a reading-desk — that is all the furniture. And in the armchair there sits a swaddled lump of flesh — a woman, about five feet high, with a face as white as a fungus. It is to her that the little room belongs’.

Each human being has access to a screen by which he or she can communicate instantly with others, sharing ideas and their thoughts about the world. They have only to press a button to watch a video lecture on art, philosophy or history — or to send their own lecture out to whoever wants to watch it. And it’s through this world-wide web of audio and video that they conduct their relationships:

‘…she touched the lighting apparatus, and the little room was plunged into darkness.

“Be quick!” she called, her irritation returning. “Be quick, Kuno; here I am in the dark wasting my time.”

But it was fully fifteen seconds before the round plate that she held in her hands began to glow. A faint blue light shot across it, darkening to purple, and presently she could see the image of her son, who lived on the other side of the earth, and he could see her.

“Kuno, how slow you are.”

He smiled gravely.

“I really believe you enjoy dawdling.”

“I have called you before, mother, but you were always busy or isolated. I have something particular to say.”

“What is it, dearest boy? Be quick. Why could you not send it by pneumatic post?”

“Because I prefer saying such a thing. I want —”


“I want you to come and see me.”

Vashti watched his face in the blue plate.

“But I can see you!” she exclaimed. “What more do you want?”’

Well, we’ve not yet reached the nightmare world that Forster imagined. But we are closer to it than anyone would have dreamed twenty years ago.

There are even ‘churches’ which gather only on the internet. Why bother to leave your own home to go to a church meeting? Why meet face to face with people you may not particularly like? Why go through the ritual of shaking hands? Why listen to a preacher that you can’t switch off if he becomes boring?

You can worship God in the comfort of your own home, via a live stream or a recording without having to interact with anyone. You can be part of a ‘church community’ without all the inconveniences that come once you’re in the same room as other people, having to consider their needs as much as your own. That’s the choice that many Christians have made in recent years.

Well, I could carry on giving examples of the way our society is evolving. But I don’t need to. You live in the same world that I do. The question is, does it matter? Yes, I think it does. Let me explain why. I’m going to give you three reasons.

We were designed to have real relationships with real people.

God is not an isolated individual. Within his own being, he is three persons. The three persons are distinct from one another and yet totally united in their thoughts, intentions, plans, reactions, choices. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit communicate with one another. They plan together and they carry out their plans together. Well, the human race was made in his image. God said ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’. Man — humanity — is supposed to be a single united entity, though made up of many persons. We’re supposed to be linked up with one another, communicating, learning to think and work together.

Where should our unity become visible? In two contexts above all. At a natural level, in the nuclear family. It’s there that our closest natural relationships are found — between husband, wife and children. And then, at a spiritual level in the local church. It’s there that our closest spiritual relationships are found.

But then beyond those two groups, our aim should be to build relationships with all our fellow human beings to the extent to which it’s possible to do so. Not just our immediate family but the wider circle of relatives. Not just my fellow members in the local church but all my fellow believers worldwide.

And it mustn’t stop there. I should be aiming to have relationships of mutual support with the people who live closest to me — my neighbours. I must be prepared to say about them, ‘We belong together — because we’re human’. I should be saying the same about the people who use the same shops, or trains or cafés. I should be aiming to build friendly relationships with them. I should be trying to understand their feelings and to work for the good of all the citizens of the country in which I live. I should be caring about the people of all nations.

Of course, I’m limited. So I cannot experience the same closeness with every human being, and I’m not supposed to. But I must remember that close or not, we are one. If I try to live in isolation from my fellow human beings, I’m denying and damaging God’s image in myself. To build a Godlike character, I have to link myself in with them. To live a Godlike life, I have to build relationships with them.

And I must aim to make my relationships with them as real as I possibly can. Let me explain what I mean. If I exchange letters with someone, or correspond with them via social media, we have a relationship of a sort. But it’s only at the level of our minds. If I speak with them on the telephone, our relationship is stepped up a level. Now, it’s not just our minds that are involved; we can hear one another’s voices. But that’s still a long way from being together face to face, shaking one another’s hands, eating a meal together, going for a walk together. It’s only when we meet up with one another that our relationship can involve all our senses.

Angels are spirits, without, as far as we know, physical bodies. They cannot relate to one another in any physical way. But God didn’t intend human beings to be like angels. He wanted us to share physical space, to see and hear and hug one another, to help one another up hills, to feel the same wind in our faces or the same rain on our heads, to share the same meals, to laugh at the same funny sights.

So as human beings we need human contact just because we are human. But those of us who are believers have a further reason to seek contact with our fellow human beings. Here’s my second reason:

We are commanded to share the gospel with them.

Jesus said, ‘Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them and teaching them to observe whatever I have commanded you’. We call this evangelism — the task of taking the evangel, the gospel, to the people around us. And the most natural way of doing it is to talk to the people we have contact with from day to day.

Yes, we can find ways of making the gospel known without first establishing any relationship with the person we’re speaking to. We can push evangelistic leaflets through letter boxes. We can organise meetings and advertise them in the local press. We can stand in the street with a megaphone and preach to passers-by. We can post videos on youtube. All these are good and legitimate things to do.

But they’re impersonal. And it wasn’t in ways like this that Jesus chiefly shared the gospel. He talked with people personally. He accepted invitations to meals in people’s homes and told them stories with pointed applications. He rested at a well and struck up conversation with a lady who was there to draw water. He strolled along the lakeside and spoke with the fishermen who were working there. He went to a taxcollector’s office (to pay his taxes?) and summoned the official to follow him.

In the world in which I grew up, every Christian could expect to be meeting with lots of different people every day, and could pray that those meetings would turn into opportunities to share the gospel. You chatted with the milkman and you never knew where the conversation might lead. He might mention that his daughter was getting christened. You asked where — and you were into a conversation about baptism and faith and salvation and Christ. But now I’ve no milkman to chat to.

You walked with your children to the school and waited with other parents at the school gate to collect them. So you compared notes about what you’d done at the weekend: ‘actually I spent Sunday with my friends at church…’ And very often you finished up explaining why it was important for you to be there and what you got out of it. But now, most parents drop off their children by car and talk to no one.

You saw the same people on the bus each morning. You talked over the garden gate with your neighbour. You walked to church on Sundays and greeted people who were doing their gardening. And yes, some of you still do those things. But many of us don’t. It is possible for a Christian to go for days on end without having a conversation with anyone beyond our own families. And even within the family, there may be very little communication if each member hides away in his or her own space with the laptop or TV set.

So, if we are to maintain natural human contacts some of us may have to choose to turn back the clock. Yes, we’ve got used to driving everywhere. It’s so convenient. But perhaps it’s time we chose to take the bus — just so that we’re actually meeting people again.

We’re used to ordering everything over the internet; we can get things cheaper than on the high street. But maybe we should start going out to the shops again because that’s where the people are. And when we get to the shops, do we have to use the automatic tills? Why not choose to have dealings with a real live human being, to smile at them and to ask how they’re doing?

We do our banking, pay our road tax, book our holidays online: it saves so much time. But we may decide that time ‘wasted’ in the bank, the post office or the travel agent, is actually time well spent if it means that we’re face to face with people again. Saving time and money is all very well. But if it means that we lose the opportunity to have natural contact with people, some of us may judge the price too high.

Some members of the church I pastor have taken the need to meet people very seriously. One mum debated whether to wheel her baby in an old-fashioned high pram, or to switch to a modern folding buggy. The pram was inconvenient in many ways. It would have been much easier to stow a folding buggy into the car. But she had discovered that wheeling a pram can trigger lots of conversations. Complete strangers would stop her, engage her in conversation, beg to be allowed to look under the hood and see the baby. So she knew which it had to be.

Another mum with a young family would stick Bible verses on the cupboard which housed the gas and electricity meters in her home. She could rarely get out of the house during the day time. So she was determined not to miss the opportunity given by the gasman’s quarterly visit. If he read the Bible verse, he might always comment and it could be the beginning of a conversation. (One more reason to turn down the offer of a smart meter that never needs to be read!)

Some of our members have chosen to work as volunteers in charity shops. Others have made a point of visiting the same coffee shop regularly and getting to know the other regulars. Some visit the local library regularly. They don’t really need to — they have access to lots of books — but it’s access to people they’re looking for.

Members of this church have joined all sorts of local groups — reading groups, sports clubs, choirs, even a kick-boxing club. Yes, they could have spent the time delivering tracts to the homes of people they’ve never met. Or arguing over the internet with atheists. But they judged the time was better spent just getting to know people face to face, listening, talking, trying to mirror Christ’s character — and taking the opportunities, when they come, to talk about him.

Believers are told to meet together.

Forget about internet churches. They’re not churches. The New Testament word for ‘church’ is ecclesia. And do you know what it means? It means an assembly. A church that doesn’t assemble isn’t a church! Jesus promised that where two or three gather in his name, he’d be there among them (Matthew 18:20). The writer to the Hebrews urged his readers not to neglect meeting together – ‘as the custom of some is!’ (Hebrews 10:25).

Jesus told his disciples to baptise people who came to faith — to dip them into a pool of water. He told them to break bread together, to share a single loaf, to drink from a single cup. He wanted our worship to be more than just hearing or seeing. He wanted it to involve touching, smelling, tasting, getting wet! You can’t baptise someone, or share a loaf of bread with them over the internet!

Let’s be thankful that we can assemble, gather, meet in local churches. Let’s give thanks to God that we can look into one another’s faces, shake one another’s hands (or exchange a holy kiss!), sing together, share the bread and wine together, bow our heads together, chat together over a cup of tea.

In a world where so many people know little of face to face relationships, let’s treasure the up-close relationship we have with one another. Jesus, God’s Son came into this physical, material world so that he could be Immanuel, God with us. And now he brings us together so that we can be with one another face to face. It’s one of his greatest gifts to us.

Stephen Rees is pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport This article first appeared in the monthly magazine and on the website of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport.

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