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“Facebook is evil.” Steven got our attention when he said those words at a gathering in our home. He went on to clarify: “Maybe it’s more accurate to say that, for me, Facebook was evil. With my addictive personality … I had to check it all the time. It took up so much time and emotional energy … Finally I just canceled it.”

The many strong pro and con opinions about online social networking and other forms of electronic communication come in part from the fact that so many new forms of communication have exploded into our world in the past few years. We simply don’t know the best ways to use them yet.

I recently heard an interview with Bruce Ramos, lighting director for four U2 concert tours. He said that what made U2 concerts great was the focus on what they had to say, and for each concert he always took a lot of time to ponder that question. After the message was clarified, he could turn his attention to the technology required to communicate the message, which took much less time to figure out. He stressed that content comes first, technology second.

I was struck with the way his words apply to friendship in this age of so many communication technologies. “Content first, technology second” is a relevant concept to keep in mind with respect to specific communications with friends. What matters is what I want to say. Then I need to think about how best to convey that message to my friend.

On an even deeper level, “content first, technology second” helps keep the broader focus in the right place. What matters is the friendship itself, the relationship with another person. All forms of communication need to serve friendship, not the other way around.

Biblical Guidelines

In fact, the content of friendship is love. Let’s look at the words in 1 Corinthians that describe love. I invite you to read these words, keeping in mind the challenges of electronic communication.

“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends” (1 Cor. 13:4-8, NRSV).

Love for his friends who were in close proximity motivated one man I interviewed to drop online gaming, which connected him with people all over the world. Those people had become friends as well, but he believed God was calling him to focus on his nearby friends, because those relationships had the potential to be deeper. He felt those relationships with people in close proximity were more likely to reflect the kind of love described in 1 Corinthians 13.

Love motivates my younger son to use communication technologies that are comfortable for his friends, rather than just the ones he prefers.

Love helps us avoid posting embarrassing photos of others. The photo of our friend in an awkward pose may be funny, but would it be kind to post it without asking our friend’s permission?

Love encourages us to slow down when we read posts on a blog or a social networking website, to engage in the kind of patience and receptivity that allows us to hear what’s going on in a friend’s life and perhaps pause to pray for him or her.

Love helps us keep our envy under control when a friend accomplishes something wonderful, and love helps us rejoice with him or her and post words online that are affirming and encouraging.

Love keeps us from posting rude, glib or flippant words that can hurt. Using social networking or texting to bully or hurt others is wrong, and the principles of love help us understand why.

The kind of love described in 1 Corinthians 13 provides insight about why it feels uncomfortable to engage in voyeurism online. We know intuitively that we were created for something more than mindless accumulation of details about other people’s lives. We know that people are more than objects. When we sense that the online world objectifies others, we feel slimy and yucky.

Avoiding the Dangers

How can we avoid voyeurism, objectification, bullying and the other negative sides to electronic communication? By placing some limits on the amount of time spent on electronic communication with friends. By choosing to see friends face-to-face whenever possible. By fasting from technology occasionally to gain perspective and to pray for guidance about using it wisely.

By talking with friends about the best ways to nurture relationships. By praying each day that all our relationships, online or offline, would be characterized by love, care and compassion. By asking for God’s help to grow in clothing ourselves in love, patience, kindness and compassion.

I long for leaders, ministers, writers and observers of culture to stop describing electronic communication in black-and-white terms, to stop viewing it as all bad or, as occasionally happens, as all good. Almost all relationships these days have electronic components. Electronic communication can be helpful in nurturing relationships across the miles and in the midst of busy schedules. It can also be addictive, impersonal, consumeristic and individualistic.

The challenge is to focus on content first and technology second. The content of friendship is love, and we need to grow in showing love by every means available to us.

Because so many forms of connecting with friends are so new, it will take some time for us to find the best ways to use new communication technologies to show love and nurture friendships. It will take creativity and self-discipline to learn to use electronic communication as a means to demonstrate care and compassion, just like it takes creativity and self-discipline to show care and compassion in face-to-face settings.

Adapted from Friending: Real Relationships in a Virtual World by Lynne M. Baab, copyright 2011. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515. No portion of this article may be copied or redistributed in any form. Visit the IVP website for more information on this and other IVP titles.

is a credentialed minister and freelance editor living in Sacramento, Calif.