I finally forced myself to learn how to use a computer because I needed to learn to use e-mail. I kept going to conferences where people exchanged e-mail addresses and all I had to offer was my fax number. Embarrassment can be a powerful motivator.
Now I do not know how I can live without e-mail. With e-mail I keep in touch with friends all round the world. With email I communicate with folks I am collaborating on in various projects. ( I just e-mailed the soft copy of my DMin final project to my editor in Pasadena.)
Then there is the blog phenomena. I keep track of how mangy off my friends are doing by visiting their blogs. Indeed some of the blogs contain some of the most exciting and important theological discussions going on today.
Still, e-mails and blogs communicate primarily through words. And there is just so much that words alone can convey. (Like this ecommentary you are reading. You have no idea that I am typing this in my shorts without a shirt on. Please girls, no excited screaming.) E-mails are not F2F (face to face) communication which means we need to be aware of the limits of what it can do.
A recent article, ‘Lost in translation’ (Inc. magazine September 2005) quotes UCLA psychology professor Albert Mehrabian as stating that 55% of meaning in an interaction comes from facial and body language, 38% from vocal inflection and only 7% from the words themselves.
So Alison Stein Wellner, the writer of the article, concludes that: “overreliance on e-mail can degrade an organisation’s interpersonal communications. If it is not used properly, instead of making your company quicker and more efficient, too much text-based communicating can actually make it stupider.”
As always the world rediscovers what should be obvious to those that take the Scriptures seriously. God made us with bodies. God made us with faces that are capable of conveying the most nuanced expressions of meaning. Communication that seeks to by pass face to face communication will be at best sub-human.
I can understand why those of us who live in urban centres are increasingly dependent on e-mail. Traffic jams are a fact of our daily lives. After fighting the urban traffic crawl to work and back we have little energy and inclination to go out again to meet with people. Unlike village life, we live and work in different parts of the city, and our friends and families live and work in different places. Few of us have the luxury of having friends or family who live next door.
We will need to be creative. I recently met a pastor from Hong Kong who said that it was virtually impossible for her church to have cell groups on Friday nights. Commute was a killer and many of her members also worked on Saturdays. So she schedules her cell groups for right after their worship service on Sundays. Still, I suspect the bane of urban commute is part of the cross we have to carry if we are committed to more F2F time in the cities.
Unfortunately the pressure of modern life means we are all looking for efficient ways of doing things. I see the growing popularity of on-line theological education for example. I understand how this makes it possible for many to acquire a theological education. Still I wonder if something is not quite right with this picture.
At most on-line theological education can disseminate some theological content. But a faith that celebrates a Saviour who made a personal appearance in history and who spent most of His time discipling a group of twelve, does not lend itself to be reduced to facts transmitted by words. Even the world of business recognises that e-mail can be “the kiss of death when it’s used to communicate anything sensitive, important, or complicated…”(Ron McMillan).
I think e-mail is great if it is used to supplement F2F communication. Most of my mentoring work is based on F2F meetings supplemented by e-mail discussions between the F2F meetings. But I can’t imagine building a mentoring ministry through e-mail alone.
If F2F is really so critical maybe we ought to do a F2F audit of the communities we belong to. How much F2F takes place in our churches? Our companies? Our families? (I know of some companies which have adopted “No E-Mail Fridays” to force their people to meet up F2F or at least through phone calls.)
Living in a time when public transportation was much more inefficient than today did not stop Paul from putting a high premium on F2F communication.
“But since we were torn away from you brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavoured the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face… [1 Thessalonians 2:17 ESV]
Christians, of all people, should be at the forefront of any movement towards more F2F communication in our churches and in the marketplace. It’s part of the quest to remain human.
Long live the F2F revolution!!
Your brother, Soo-Inn Tan