The Lost Art of Physical Presence

Overall, I am pro-technology.  I’m a millennial, after all, and I grew up alongside the technological rise that has changed the world in a seemingly endless amount of ways.  I’m on social media, I love reading off a kindle, and I would admittedly struggle to spend a full day without access to my phone.  With that said, there is zero debate that the new world dominated by technology has also had its fair share of negative side effects.

Here’s one important example: people were overly optimistic at the outset of this new era that technology would free us up to spend more quality time with family and friends.  What those people didn’t foresee, however, is how it’s led to nearly the direct opposite, in that nothing has done more to take people’s time away from their friends and family than the obsessive and addictive use of technology.  And as a result, our culture has slowly but surely lost the art of physical presence.  Conversation has been replaced by digital comments.  Face to face replaced by emails.  Phone dialogue replaced by texts.  Eye contact replaced with screen contact.

This “side effect” has effectively seeped its way into nearly every area of society and it’s literally changing the way entire industries and practices are run.  In the book, A Secular Age, Dr. Bob Cutillo wrote an essay called “The Healing Power of Bodily Presence”, and he speaks of the subtle but impactful shift of the doctor/patient relationship due to technology:

Taking someone’s pulse seems a simple gesture.  But when I placed my fingers on Mrs. Smith’s wrist to feel the rhythm and regularity of her heartbeat, I had no idea her husband would be so impressed.  “See, Charlotte, how different this doctor is?  He still checks your pulse himself, just like they did in the old days.”

Today, a machine-generated pulse rate is in the chart before I ever see the patient, so there is no need to feel for it.  Or is there?  Quite apart from obtaining another piece of data, this family’s reaction to my hand on her wrist writes in bold letters across the next chapter in medicine that to lose embodied connections is to endanger the soul of this caring profession.

So why was Charlotte’s husband so surprised when I felt her pulse?  Living in an increasingly pulseless and fleshless society, he’d learned that the hands-on approach of an earlier “bedside manner” had quietly ceded to a focus on screens and a reliance on numbers.

 

This passage from A Secular Age struck a nerve with me on several levels.  As I look at both my own life and the life of the church, it’s easy to see how often we forgo physical presence and face to face encounters in favor of digital presence and messages in the name of efficiency and comfort.  The sad irony is that these digital “connections” keep us from actual, in-person physical connections that we were created to have. 

Let’s just think about how technology can actually negatively impact the communal aspects of the Christian life.  Here’s a few ways:

  • Instead being part of a church where we worship in the physical presence of the body of Christ and are known by pastors and elders, we instead rely on podcasted sermons from top-flight preachers and compile youtube playlists of the latest and hottest praise songs.
  • Instead of being part of a small group where we do life on life discipleship with others, we join social media “groups” that take up a fraction of the time and makes it easier to hide behind a screen (both literally and figuratively).
  • “Praying for you” becomes a message in a comment section as opposed to a face to face, in-person prayer where we lay hands on the person as we bring them before the throne of grace.
  • The separation of the physical and the emotional leads to us knowing about more people, but at the same time leads to being known by less people, and the result leads to a sense of loneliness that cannot be made up with more Facebook friends or Instagram followers.
  • Instead of going to the least of these and helping to address physical felt need in person with our own hands and feet, we would prefer to donate to an online campaign that sends others to do that in our place.

So, that’s where we are and it’s just scratching the surface.  Perhaps it is what it is with this world of technology, and we just need to take the good with the bad, right?  Maybe, but maybe not.  The Christian and church ought to have the most powerful motivation and the most effective means of pushing back against this troubling trend in our day.  The answer is simpler than you think, and it’s more needed than ever.  Look to Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith (Heb 12:1-3).

Jesus embodied the importance of physically present, incarnational ministry.  God became flesh and dwelt among mankind (John 1:14); He spent three years discipling eleven men whom He would entrust to spark a movement in the church that turned the world upside down (Matthew 28:18-20).  Jesus was the physical image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15), because God knows how vital the art of “being there” really is.

When his friend Lazarus died, Jesus ran to the place where he was laid and grieved with those who were there, despite the fact that he knew He was about to raise him from the dead.  “He wept” (John 11:35).  Further, when Jesus healed people throughout his ministry, he often touched them, not out of necessity, but because he chose to (Mark 1:41). Jesus understood the value and power of in-person, life on life, incarnational ministry.  The plan of the Father to send His Son into the world as a physical, embodied man in order to restore and redeem a fallen creation was determined before the foundation of the world was set (Eph 1:4).

The implications of this truth are endless, but in line with the heart of this blog, it means that the church should be the last ones to lose the art of physical presence in our day, and the first ones to push back against the cultural shift.  God created us with mind, soul, and body, and if we routinely neglect the person-to-person contact, it will inevitably affect the mind and soul as well.

You know why I’m writing about this?  Because it’s especially convicting for me.  I have grown increasingly comfortable with replacing incarnational, bodily presence with digital communication and connection.  This isn’t primarily for everyone else, this is for me too.  I’m not saying we all need to toss out our devices and go unplugged if we want to faithful to God’s call on our lives, because again, I’m pro-technology.  But church, we do need to be careful.

We need to remember how vital it is to be physically present in the lives of others, and how vital it is for them to be physically present with us.  We need to value “being there”.  This is most likely not one big change in our lives, but the culmination of dozens and dozens of small decisions each week to be mindful of where and how we can prioritize flesh on flesh contact where we look in one another’s eyes and not just at our screens.

Final Word

Listen to how Dr. Cutillo ends his essay in A Secular Age, and prayerfully consider how this reminder can be applied to your life in such a way that ignites the flame of passion in your heart and benefits the world around you:

Ever since Jesus Christ came in the flesh, the spirit of disembodiment has been at work in the world to separate what belongs together – whether body and soul, knowledge and experience, nature and supernature, or you and me.

Though the excarnation of our age presents unique challenges, the basic dilemma of the neighbor on the road still remains the same.  We worry with the priest and the Levite, “What will happen to me if I go near?”  while we wonder with the Samaritan, “What will happen to him if I don’t?”  The surprise of the incarnation is to discover that crossing the road is the path to truth health for both of us.