Thursday, March 10, 2011
The Touch of a Hand: Life Together in Small Groups
By Robin G. Jordan
As I drew to the reader’s attention when I posted the article, “Why I Love Online Small Groups,” I have a number of misgivings and reservations about the cyber-gatherings described in the article. I use the term “cyber-gathering” because it more accurately describes a coming together of people on the Internet. A small-group as I understand it from my involvement in group counseling as well as small group ministry is a small group of people who actually meet with each other face to face, at least every two weeks but usually more often, for one or more specific purposes. A “cyber-gathering” is the group of people who meet on the Internet also for one or more specific purposes. These meetings, while they may resemble those of small groups do not evidence the same dynamics that are seen in small group meetings. They have dynamics of their own that are related to the medium—the Internet—and to its culture. While such gatherings may have similar purposes to small group meetings such as Bible study, they cannot be characterized as small group meetings for this reason.
A number of elements are missing from cyber-gatherings that are found in small group meetings. Human beings communicate with each other in more than words. They communicate with each other through the pitch and tone of their voice, the rate at which they speak, and the steadiness with which they speak, and other vocal cues. They also communicate with body language—through their posture, gestures, and other visual cues—proximity, and touch. A growing body of research suggests that we also communicate with each other through smell. In cyber-gatherings the means by which people communicate are seriously restricted. Even using skype we do not see the whole person—only part of the person.
A participant in a cyber-gathering cannot tell from the appearance of another participant—his tired look or her drooping shoulders--that he or she had a stressful day or may even be ill. The participant in a cyber-gathering cannot offer a reassuring smile. He or she, when the other participant bursts into tears while relating the events of her day, cannot put a comforting arm around her. The participants in a cyber-gathering, when they pray for someone cannot lay hands on him or her as a gesture of their goodwill and concern. The person for whom they pray will not experience the love that the touch of a hand can convey.
As a retired social worker I understand and appreciate the importance of these other dimensions of interpersonal communication. I have often had a client tell me one thing when his tone of voice, his body language, and other cues contradicted what he was saying. He might tell me in a resigned tone of voice that he is not planning to attempt suicide. However, his tone of voice and the look on his face convey to me a different message. He is not only planning to kill himself but he is making sure that he succeeds this time. A group of people meeting in a private chat room does not enjoy this kind of “broadband” communication. I describe it as broadband because it includes all the means by which people communicate with each other face-to-face.
One of the reasons that people participate in small groups is that they have a need for face-to-face contact with other human beings. We live in a culture that increasingly isolates human beings from each other. Cyber-gatherings further reinforce that isolation. Indeed the Internet and modern technology is a major contributor to the isolation. The age of the Internet has been described as the age of communication. In some ways this description is true. In other ways it is not.
The late twentieth century and the opening decade of the twenty-first century have seen an erosion of community in North America. This accounts in part for the popularity of small groups. It meets a very human need for community. While one of the attractions of social networking web sites is that they offer a semblance of community. In actuality they are a poor substitute for real community. They cannot meet all the needs that real community can. They may be contributing to the further erosion of real community in Canada and the United States.
The Internet has also contributed to depersonalization that characterizes our culture. When we are talking with another person over the Internet, on the phone, or by texting, it is easier to not see him fully as a human being, to deny his human worth and to make a thing of him. When we talk to another person face to face, it is more difficult to depersonalize and dehumanize that person.
High-speed electronic communication has produced many benefits. It has also created many problems. It is like every technological innovation that humankind has come up with. The bow and arrow revolutionized hunting for our early hunter-gatherer progenitors. The bow and arrow also enable them not only to bring down a deer at a greater distance but also to kill their fellow human beings at such a distance.
The article notes the high level of the honesty and rawness found in the cyber-gatherings that it champions. This does not suggest that the participants in the cyber-gathering have successfully negotiated the trusting-building stage in small group development but rather they are evidencing the impulsivity and insensitivity that often characterizes interactions in chat rooms and on discussion boards. The article’s author may be confusing these characteristics with authenticity.
During the early stages of a small group people do wear their personas, their social selves, the masks that we all wear to hide our inner selves. It takes time for group members to trust each other and to lower the masks. Some groups may never reach this stage.
While it is desirable that participants are open and transparent with each other, this openness and transparency take time to develop. It should not be forced. Some people are more guarded than others. They will take a longer time to trust the other participants in the group.
In the early stages of a small group the primary task is to build a climate of trust, to create an environment in which the participants feel safe to disclose their inner selves. Some people find self-disclosure much more threatening than do others. They must wrestle with the very real fear that if the other participants really knew them, they would reject them.
The group itself may not be prepared to handle certain self-disclosures and may indeed reject the participant making them. This will depended upon the maturity of the group. Pressuring a participant to make a self-disclosure in a group that is not ready to deal with such a disclosure will not only affect that participant’s relationship with the group but also color his attitude toward small groups and small group ministry.
In a small group meeting the participants learn to listen to each other, not only with their ears but also with their eyes, during the trust building stage. They learn to be more sensitive to each other’s feelings as well as not jump on another participant because they disagree with what he or she is saying. They learn skills in the small group meeting that they can use in their interactions with other people outside of the small group and in the service of the gospel.
In chat rooms and on discussion boards the tendency is to drop one’s persona and interact with other people “in the raw.” This may include a complete disregard for how other people may react to what one says. Alternately a person may drop his usual social self and don an Internet persona. Anonymity works against genuine authenticity.
Chat room and discussion board monitors cannot deal with negative interactions between participants in the same way as small group leaders can deal with such interactions. They are limited to warning and banning those who are creating problems. Small group leaders can deal with such individuals in a manner that helps such individuals and the other participants learn from the experience. He or she can model appropriate ways of handling problems in the small group meeting for the other participants.
Cyber-gatherings may bring people together who live hundreds of miles apart. Small groups bring together people who live within driving distance and even walking distance of each other. Small group participants may often see each other outside the small group meeting at church or in the community. They may visit each other’s homes, babysit each other’s kids, and engage in recreational and social activities together. When a member of their small group is sick, they may fix a meal for him or her. When a small group member’s car breaks down, they may loan a car to that member. They may drive a small group member to a doctor’s appointment. They may undertake community service and evangelism projects together. They may put together food packages that can be slipped in the backpacks of the poorer school children on Fridays for the weekends when they will not be receiving breakfast and lunch at school. They can hold a barbecue and invite their unchurched friends, neighbors, relatives, and colleagues and their kids. Cyber-gatherings in which the participants are hundreds of miles apart can do none of these things.
Cyber-gatherings are useful as an adjunct to small groups but not as a substitute for them. Chronically ill, disabled, and elderly people who are homebound can participate in the life of a local church community through such gatherings. They also provide a means by which Christians who live in isolated rural areas that do not have a church can be a part of a church community. They also offer a way Anglicans and Episcopalians who have no Anglican or Episcopal church in their community or who for reasons of conscience can no longer attend the Anglican or Episcopal church in their community can have fellowship with other Anglicans or Episcopalians.
Video and audio links are highly desirable especially in the case of the chronically ill, the disabled, and the elderly. They make the participants in cyber-gatherings more human and real to each other, and they reduce the more harmful chat room and discussion board dynamics. They broaden the means by which cyber-gathering participants communicate with each other, and they also to some degree enable the participants to monitor each other’s health and mental status without relying exclusively on self-reporting. They also allow church volunteers to monitor the participants’ health and mental status.
At the same time such a monitoring system is no substitute for regular home visits by church volunteers. The homebound generally look forward to such visits and the face-to-face contact with another human being that they provide. Church volunteers can also do things for the homebound that they cannot do for themselves—change a light bulb, mow the lawn, hang a new set of curtains, and so on. The Internet, while it is a highly useful means of communication, cannot replace human contact. Spending an hour or more of our time with an older person, listening to her, and acknowledging her existence with our presence and our attention will mean a great deal more to that person than chatting to her over the Internet. We should not let modern technology so bedazzle us that we loose our humanness.
Posted by Robin G. Jordan at 7:32 AM