The following is an excerpt from Digital Church in a Lonely World by Benjamin Windle, published by Barna.
Do you remember the first time you shook someone’s hand after covid restrictions were lifted? The moment for me was when I had someone visit my house, and even though restrictions had eased, we had this awkward social moment of not knowing if we should shake hands, or just say hello. It was kind of funny because we didn’t quite know what to do with our hands.
For the first time in my life, I went many months without the normal day-to-day interpersonal experiences of shaking hands, hugging, or even sitting in a chair next to someone. It presents us a fascinating learning moment.
For me, it felt like something was missing.
It made me realise how I had never even considered the importance of regular physical interaction with people. I now see it as part of the basic human experience.
Interestingly, a study out of Texas Medical Center found that people are experiencing what they termed “touch starvation.”
This phenomenon was caused by the removal of basic social interactions, such as shaking hands, high-fives, a pat on the back or a hug with a good friend. “Touch starvation increases stress, depression and anxiety, triggering a cascade of negative physiological effects.” As such, touch starvation stands in stark and dramatic contrast to the perception that social media and online platforms meet the need for community.
Even the basic human interaction of being together in a room with people was missed. Dr. Brian Wind says, “[Physical touch] signals safety, trust and a sense of belonging.” Human touch is a part of true community. In fact, the ministry of Jesus sets an example for the importance of physical touch. Jesus could have done all his teaching like the Sermon on the Mount—elevated, at a distance, delivering content. Yet, consider these verses:
MATTHEW 8:3 (NLT)
“Jesus reached out and touched him. ‘I am willing,’ he said. ‘Be healed!’ And instantly the leprosy disappeared.”
MATTHEW 9:29 (NLT)
”Then he touched their eyes and said, ‘Because of your faith, it will happen.’”
LUKE 4:40 (NLT)
”As the sun went down that evening, people throughout the village brought sick family members to Jesus. No matter what their diseases were, the touch of his hand healed everyone.”
Jesus ministry involved real, physical connection.
When you think of Thomas placing his hands in the holes in Jesus’s hands, Jesus cooking his disciples breakfast, the rugged cross—there is something important about the physicality of these moments. Are we valuing the physicality of our faith enough?
In addition, we see physical touch becoming a practice known as the laying on of hands with the early Church.
HEBREWS 6:2 (AV)
”Of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.”
According to the writer of Hebrews, laying on of hands is considered a doctrine, right alongside baptism. Take a look at another example of laying on hands in the New Testament:
1 TIMOTHY 4:14 (NLT)
”Do not neglect the spiritual gift you received through the prophecy spoken over you when the elders of the church laid their hands on you.”
The point of all of this for Pastors and churches is this: the more we have been in isolation and been online, the need for physical community has grown. Perhaps we need to be super intentional about embracing the uniqueness of what an in-person church experience provides. Shaking someone’s hand. Hugging an old friend. Even just sitting next to another person. These physical experiences actually do something in our soul at a very profound level.
How can our facilities better embrace physical community?
What simple changes could we make to our foyers and gathering areas to facilitate more meaningful physical interactions?
We know that simply attending a weekend church service is not a guarantee of community, but it does play an important role in bringing people together. Once we are together, we must still decide if we are going to an event or if we are a part of a mutually contributing community. In my own local church community, it feels like there is a constant need to educate people that church is not an event, it is a step toward real-life relationships.
In-person church attendance is not a magic bullet, but it provides important dimensions of human experience that enrich our humanity.
In a society that is experiencing touch starvation, bringing people together is meeting an essential but often forgotten core social need—the need to be together.
The felt need in our society to come out of isolation and connect in the real world offers us a pastoral opportunity. So, how can we lean into meeting the need for real community in a culture experiencing touch starvation?
Here are a few thoughts to get your imagination going:
- Rediscover the beauty in physical acts like communion and water baptism in church services.
- Be more intentional about the foyer experience. What if we saw the foyer time as equally important as the actual church service in terms of ministry?
- Encourage people who only engage online to go beyond and find regular physical touch points with the church.
- Make more time for personal prayer after the church services.
To go deeper, my new 69-page PDF “Digital Church in a Lonely World” which was published by Barna is now available.
I trace the related trends of the loneliness epidemic and the digital revolution and discuss solutions and cultural ideas for those in church ministry. Go to www.benjaminwindle.com and follow the links to download.