I have a confession to make: I’m a Facebook ignoramus. I’ve been on the social networking site for a year or two and I’ve collected a number of friends but the medium still baffles me. The same holds true with LinkedIn. If I want to speak to someone or show them my pictures, I like to keep it personal, as in between you and me. So I just send a personal e-mail with an attachment. I rarely post anything for my whole network to see at one time, and I don’t check my friends’ postings that often. My son Tom called me a Facebook wallflower. I’ve come to the dance but I just sit in the corner – I don’t say too much myself and nobody much speaks to me.
Truth be told, I am usually on the laggard’s end of the so-called diffusion of innovation curve. That curve says that new technology catches on with the population in a kind of bell-curve with 20 percent of the population at the receptive front end, most folks who “go with the flow” in the middle 60 percent, and the laggards in the final 20 percent. Luddites belong on the final 3 percent and never do get with the program – they may be better off for their choices, I’m not to say.
It works something like this: The first time I got an answering machine when making a phone call (remember when that was an innovation?) I thought, “I’m not going to talk to a machine and I’ll certainly never get one of these depersonalizing monstrosities myself. I mean, it’s like talking to HAL in the movie 2001.” Now, nearly a lifetime later, when I get no answer and no answering machine, I wonder, “What’s wrong with these folks, are they so anti-social that they don’t want to know who’s calling or why?” But that’s only after being in the last 10 percent in the buy-in on the original invention. The first time I read an e-mail, maybe in 1993, I thought “This is never going to catch on.” My guess is I’ll finally get Facebook figured out, once everybody else on the planet has.
I think the Apostle Paul was just the opposite. He was on the front end of innovations. I was really intrigued to find his Facebook page. Actually, he has several of them, but Romans Chapter 16 is one of the most interesting. I count thirty “friends,” ranging from Phoebe of Cenchreae to Philologus, Julia, Nereus, Nereus’s sister and Olympas. He posts things on their wall – sometimes just a greeting, sometimes a commendation (Beloved Persis has worked hard in the Lord), and sometimes an instruction (Welcome Phoebe and help her in whatever she may need from you). Several of his friends are on group sites (Greet the church in Prisca and Aquila’s house). Near the close of the chapter he also sends messages on behalf of eight co-workers (Timothy, Lucius, Jason, Sosipater, Tertius, Gaius, Erastus, and Quartus) – he lets them use his page to do so – “I Tertius, who wrote this letter, greet you in the Lord.”
These are people with whom he traveled, lived, toiled, suffered, and worshiped. These relationships were the result of hands-on, out of the comfort-zone ministry. That puts real life behind the friend postings. “Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; also his mother, who has been a mother to me as well.”
In addition to posting encouraging, instructive, or just chit-chatty notes on the walls of his friends he is also an early advocate of de-friending. “(W)atch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them.” We see this kind of personal yet public communication in many of Paul’s letters — the first-century version of the Facebook page. What do we learn from it? Several things, I think.
1. The apostle Paul really was an innovator
And not just in the area of communication. His vision for bi-cultural churches made up of Jews and Gentiles was never really understood by many of his contemporaries and was a source of much of the persecution he faced. Yet, this did not hinder him from spreading this God-inspired vision of spiritual innovation, rooted in a Gospel meant for all ethnic groups, despite criticism, obstacles, and obstructionism. This is the price of innovation. He consistently taught his entire network, But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ . . . For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God (Eph. 2:13).
2. Paul’s innovative vision helped him to build bridges to others
He understood that without a conscious, pro-active effort to cross social, ethnic, political, and spiritual barriers the Gospel gets locked up in certain ethnic groups. He was very serious about fighting against this all-too-human tendency to keep the good news to ourselves and those like us. This can only be done through relational bridge-building.
3. Paul was a man of contemplation and prayer
At the same time he was intensely social. I admit I find this trait difficult to imitate — most of us tend in one direction or the other, a typical Myers-Briggs I(ntrovert) or E(xtrovert), but rarely both. He built relationships and teams of people to perform the ministry of planting churches and preaching the word in environs where Christ was not known. He was always surrounded with real-life friends, not just virtual friends, who traveled and toiled with him in ministry. He also found time to pray consistently and spend serious time in the desert of Arabia hearing from God.
4. Paul worked at communication
He wrote letters (including his Facebook-like greetings pages), sent co-workers as delegates to the churches, spoke with God constantly about the churches he cared for, and made frequent personal visits when possible, despite arduous journeys. He also accepted his limitations (such as a jail cell) and made the best of his circumstances without losing track either of his vision or his social network. I’m sure he would have been a creative and avid user of Facebook for purposes of the Gospel.
This is not an appeal to become Facebook or Twitter fans (or whatever innovation is next), but to understand the power and value of relational bridge-building in living a joyful and effective Christian life. It’s never too late to begin building a social network of real friends.