Social media makes it too easy to live someplace else and not really live where we are.

Social media brings great benefits, but for Christians serving overseas it can make truly investing in the place they are serving a challenge, as Karl Dalhfred relates.

5 minute read

When I first went to Thailand in 1999, our missionary supervisor cautioned all of us newbies about spending too much time on email. He said we should check email no more than once per day. The reason was to help us focus on getting to know our new environment, learning language and culture, and making new Thai friends.

It was good advice, but to be honest, I didn’t always follow it. But on the other hand, there were fewer temptations to spend endless hours on the computer back then. The internet was still young, there was no social media, and getting online with my snazzy new internal dial-up modem was slow. One evening, my housemate got an email with some kind of attachment that was 1MB. It took him an hour to download it before we could see the 30 second funny video that he’d been sent. I don’t want to repeat the cliché that “it was better in my day”, but in some ways low tech and almost zero connectivity was a big plus in getting adjusted to the completely foreign culture I found myself in.

A blessing in disguise

With only so much to do on my laptop and few opportunities to watch movies in English, I got out into the community. I went down to the local sports place, wandered around the local market, talked to my neighbors, and had a nerve-wracking experience trying to tell a motorcycle taxi driver how to take me home in the dark when I had only learned “left”, “right”, “straight ahead”, and “stop” that same day. That experience, and many others, improved my prayer life and motivated me to really learn Thai well. Without mobile phones, GPS, or Google Translate, life in Thailand as a new missionary was sink or swim.

One of the blessings in disguise back then was the expense and difficulty of being in touch with what was happening “back home.” I could email with my parents and others but there were few photos or phone calls. The sense of separation and being “far from home” was more acute than it is today. With the exception of watching an English-language movie once in a while, the sense of living in a completely foreign culture was nearly constant. When the going got tough, there was nowhere to escape to. I could read a book or talk to a foreign friend or maybe even eat something foreign that reminded me of home, but the sights and sounds of Thailand were still all around me. The intense heat and humidity, the smell of fried basil, and sounds of people speaking Thai were part of the regular rhythm of life.

Social media escapism

The sights, sounds, and smells of Thailand today haven’t changed much compared to twenty years ago, but what has changed is the ability to escape them by getting online through social media, and the internet more generally. The sense that I am disconnected from friends and family on the other side of the world is greatly reduced. In an instant, I can be video chatting with a friend thousands of miles away or following in real time Twitter debates, sports games, or breaking news stories from “back home.”

Is this a blessing or a curse? Surely, the ability to digitally maintain relationships with people we care about is a great thing. This has been especially true when so many of us have been stuck at home because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But at the same time, I fear that the possibility of connecting with the other side of the world with such ease has a negative effect on our ability to really connect with our new environment. This is especially true of new missionaries learning a new language and new culture, and often feeling a sense of foreignness and a longing for the familiar. But it can also be true for anyone moving domestically, whether that for work or school or some other reason. More than ever, it is easy to hang on to relationships and experiences that were important in another time and place. But the ease of hanging on to the past can prevent us from really living where we are now.

I fear that the possibility of connecting with the other side of the world with such ease has a negative effect on our ability to really connect with our new environment.

It may not be easy to allow to grow distant the relationships, events, and experiences that we enjoyed where we used to live. But unless those are allowed to become lesser, truly and fully living in our current context cannot become greater. If we move to a new place, especially a new culture, it is necessary to shift our mentality and to decide that, “THIS is where I live now. THIS is home.” It may not feel like home yet, but if we cling to what used to be “home”, we will never feel like our new location is home. We’ll always be living in the past, in some other place and some other time. Social media and the internet can unnaturally enhance the feeling that we are still living someplace else. We can keep up with much of what is going on “back there.” But is it healthy? Is it sustainable? Does the joy we receive from escaping to “back there” turn into disappointment every time we put down our device?

if we cling to what used to be “home”, we will never feel like our new location is home. We’ll always be living in the past, in some other place and some other time.

I have a suspicion that one of the factors in missionary attrition today is the failure of new missionaries to attach themselves to their host culture because they have failed to sufficiently detach themselves from their home culture. Social media makes it too easy to live someplace else and not really live where we are.

Social media makes it too easy to live someplace else and not really live where we are.

I don’t want to suggest any formulas for how much we should be online or what routines or disciplines we should put in place in order to help ourselves really invest in our actual surroundings. Everybody needs to examine their own heart and situations, and make some decisions. The question we all need to answer, however, is this:
‘Where do I want to live, and am I making choices to live there, or am I trying to live someplace else?’

If you’re interested to read more on this topic, mission blogger Eddie Arthur’s post ‘Being Completely There’ offers further reflections and links to the Twitter exchange that prompted this post.

Karl Dahlfred
OMF Thailand

Karl Dahlfred has served with OMF in Thailand since 2006. He has taught church history and missions at Bangkok Bible Seminary, assisted in editing and translation of Thai Christian books at OMF Publishers Thailand, and engaged in church planting efforts in Central Thailand and Bangkok. Since 2017, he has been pursuing a Ph.D in World Christianity at the University of Edinburgh. Karl and his wife Sun have three children. Find out more about the Dahlfred family and read their blogs here.

Start typing and press Enter to search

Watercolour Pictures