When my husband and I decided to move out to our “camp” (summer house) year-round, after our younger child graduated from high school, we began to think of all of the adjustments we would need to make—a longer commute to work (including an even longer commute when the road gets icy in winter), a much more remote living situation, and some of the other taken-for-granted aspects of living in a more suburban environment, like the proximity of a grocery store. And a place to exercise.
Exercise, especially through Maine’s hunting season and then very cold winter months, is not an especially easy prospect when outside activities are the only decent alternative to a 25-minute drive to the gym. So, in order to make a reasonable attempt at continued physical activity, we purchased one of those stationary bikes that offers online streaming (it has a large tablet on the front of the bike). We can “spin” with a live class that’s taking place in New York (or London) or choose from a veritable treasure trove of various taped classes.
For the most part, I love my new exercise routine. While I miss the social aspect of the gym, I love that variety that the online world allows. I can take a quick 20-minute class, when I don’t have much time, or a class that’s an hour or more. Plus, there’s stretching and strengthening classes as well.
This whole new adventure also comes with the promise of “community.” I can follow other people, and they can follow me. During classes, we can offer electronic “high fives” to each other. And, then there are the instructors, who by varying degrees, preach the gospel of community. Let’s do this together! Together we are stronger! Don’t give up! I’m here for you; we are here for each other! Etc, etc.
The other day, one of the instructors ended class by declaring, “This is my church!” And, then went on to say that on the bike, in class, is where he experiences healing—while a cover version of the Grateful Dead’s Friend of the Devil was playing in the background.
It’s in instances such as these that I begin to feel a little unsettled. While I’ll admit that I like the attempt to create a sort of community—it certainly helps to motivate me to get on the bike on those days when I would prefer not to—I’m uncomfortable with the notion that a virtual community can somehow be a seamless substitution for real, in-person communities, like church.
This new way of building community is all over the place, and has been for a while. And, many churches themselves are active in creating virtual places for connection. People don’t need to congregate physically to meet others and to form bonds of friendship. All one needs is WIFI.
Still, I can’t help but wonder about what sorts of communities will come from this new world that is unfolding—and what sorts of important things will be left behind. What happens when certain words and concepts—like “church”— are carried over so casually into this new, virtual existence? Is it possible for something like a virtual cycling class to offer care not only for the body, but also for the soul and the spirit as well?
I have serious doubts. While there are benefits to virtual worlds, as I am experiencing myself, they have their limits. Virtual high fives and empowerment slogans are fun, but they do not sustain deep and meaningful connection and relationship. The value of physical presence cannot be denied.
A great deal of care ought to be employed in recognizing the distinctions between virtual community and in-person community. It’s a good thing that we have a variety of ways of gathering together. But, it also seems clear that we must appreciate the necessity of that variety, that the virtual cannot replace the real.