Is Human Contact Now A Luxury Good?

As someone who has been within the folds of evangelicalism since conversion the notion of ‘presence evangelism’ has always struck me as being somewhat lacking. Unless there is a conversation at some point where the Gospel can be explained and an opportunity given to respond, presence evangelism has always seemed like a nice thing to do, but not very strategic. I spend a lot of time with people who don’t share my faith in Jesus. I get to dialogue about the Gospel with some at great depth, but with most I don’t. At times that leads me to question the value of the investment of time and presence in their lives. We have a message and the message must be explained. In other words, at some point, there needs to be talk.

But what does talk mean in a world where talk is cheap and your whole day is spent being bombarded with people pitching at you through multiple means? When I say people, I mean even your closest friends. Not a day goes by when someone I know as a friend doesn’t try and coerce me into something through false guilt on social media. You know how the posts start: “Not many of my friends will read this or even care…to show that you care repost this on your own page…”  We are assailed perpetually throughout each day by advertising and marketing, which in essence is someone trying to get you to perform a particular action. Quite often that involves supporting a belief or a cause.

Adding more words to a day that is already full of them may not always be the most effective way to communicate. You could be just another pitch, just another person seeking to coerce someone into thinking like you do, believing what you, and belonging to where you belong. It seems counter intuitive but the fact that you are not trying sell, pitch or coerce someone about may be what gains you an attentive and receptive audience when the chance does come to talk more explicitly about the hope of the world. Your mere presence may be more profound than you think it, and it seems that in an increasingly impersonal world it may grow in effectiveness.

A recent article in the New Yorker titled ‘Human Contact Is Now a Luxury Good’ outlined how “life for anyone but the very rich — the physical experience of learning, living and dying — is increasingly mediated by screens.” It details the use of a software artifice loaded onto a tablet helps care for older adults on low income. The software was developed by start-up Care.Coach and was made possible by Element Care, a non-profit health care program for older adults. The artifice is a cat, and behind the cat are care givers around the world on stand by for 24/7, typing out the responses that Sox the cat gives as the user interacts with the software.

In contrast the author notes that “The rich do not live like this. The rich have grown afraid of screens. They want their children to play with blocks, and tech-free private schools are booming. Humans are more expensive, and rich people are willing and able to pay for them. Conspicuous human interaction — living without a phone for a day, quitting social networks and not answering email — has become a status symbol.”

We’ve become accustomed to the connection between money and premium human interaction. Just watch how well looked after the people at the pointy end of the next plane you catch are treated compared to you back in cattle class.

I’ve noticed increasingly that in trying to contact companies that form an important part of my daily life is becoming harder to speak to real people. If I have a problem with Facebook or Google the first few rounds of communication are with artificial intelligence, rather than a person. Even if I can get through to a person to rectify issues with my internet, banking, mobile phone, etc the chances of me speaking to someone in the country that I am domiciled in are rare.

Some banks now trumpet aspects of their services that involve real people who you can see in front of you or talk to on the phone. This is a wind back from the last decade where banks stripped people and replaced them with self-serve machines. I watched the transition of my local post office from a staff rich shop with multiple products to a self-serve machine driven operation that looked clean, uncluttered, modern and clinical. Older customers were perpetually disoriented and required a staff person to operate the self-serve machine, negating the whole purpose of the costly change.

Personal attention is rare and is coming back into vogue, especially as a marketing feature. Churches have always been about personal attention, and this is a strong point of smaller churches in particular. The larger the church the more the capacity for an impersonal experience. Larger churches therefore have to work harder at making sure that people don’t get lost in the crowd.

The now retired senior pastor of one of my cities largest Baptist churches was renowned for chasing early leavers across the car park to make personal contact. Although the church was large and necessitated 5 services across the weekend the message was clear: every person counts and even the top dog will chase you down in the car park if you try to leave early and anonymously.  Everyone I know who belongs there talks about the highly personal nature of the leadership and staff. The church has tremendous buy in from its members and grows consistently.

Another larger church in my region uses the by-line of ‘people matter’. The size of the church isn’t really the issue, what matter is the passion for people, and leaders can set the example.

My local barista knows my name and my order. Sometimes I get messages written on the lid of my take away coffee. They know when I’ve been away, and they never fail to give highly personalised service. There’s no surprise that I always go back. My baristas have a passion for coffee obviously, but they combine it with a passion for people.

In order to capitalise on the trend away from human contact it won’t be good enough for churches to expect people to come to its building. Our greatest asset is that through our members we have a presence throughout our communities. FOSU stops plenty of Christians from engaging in evangelism (Fear of Stuffing Up).

However, in a world where human contact is increasingly commodified simple relational presence will mean the world to many people. The Gospel where possible is best heard in a relational context of trust and credibility. By making ourselves available and extending to people the commodity of time and presence we will find ourselves with more opportunities to explain the hope we have found in Jesus more than ever before. That is the great surprise I’ve found moving from a stage based evangelistic ministry to a community-based ministry of presence: I now have more opportunity to give a reason for the hope that I have. Permission in the Australian context is often everything. Without it you don’t get a hearing, with it you are allowed to speak and get a hearing.

This Easter plenty of churches will be inviting people to their Easter events. You will be asking people to come onto your turf, to hear what you believe, and to sing what you sing, etc. Hopefully this will not be the only opportunity you get to have human contact with your neighbours, and hopefully much of the contact you do have will be on neutral territory where possible. If this is the case hearts and minds will be a lot more open at the critical times you do invite people to your special events.

Click here to read the NY Times article “Human Contact is now a Luxury Good”

 

Stan Fetting, Crossover Operations Manager – April 2019