Neighbours. Everybody needs good neighbours. Never does this feel truer than in moments of crises. Australia has seen neighbourliness come to the fore in floods, cyclones, and fires. But the question facing us now is how to be good neighbours when this means “social distancing,” and when a trip to the local shopping centre seems to reaffirm the doctrines of original sin and total depravity.

These times of COVID-19 present unique challenges to neighbourly love. But we Christians are called to be different. We’re called to love our neighbours (Luke 10:27). 

‘Social distancing’ and the danger of a new epidemic

Nobody knows how effective the public health measures being implemented now will be for containing the health impacts of COVID-19. What we do know is that the containment measures themselves will have an impact. They will keep people in their homes, in local neighbourhoods and apartment complexes, and this ‘social isolation’ and ‘social distancing‘ has the potential to exacerbate another epidemic our society already faces; the epidemic of loneliness.

This ‘social isolation’ and ‘social distancing‘ has the potential to exacerbate another epidemic our society already faces; the epidemic of loneliness.

In response to the isolating effect of social distancing on our neighbours,  Christians can explore how technology—in particular digital technology—could minimise some of the negative impact of social distancing.

The ‘Global village’ of social media: A challenge and opportunity for neighbourliness

Social media is a mixed blessing. American social psychologist Sherry Turkle observes the “alone together” phenomenon; the way that our disconnection from embodied, local, relationships to disembodied, digital, relationships has exacerbated this condition of loneliness with damaging implications for our mental health, and our ability to function as a society.

Social media, like other technologies, pulls us away from physical neighbourliness, and turns us into citizens of what Marshall McLuhan called ‘the global village’; free to be bombarded with the concerns of people from all over the world, and pulled away from the concerns of our neighbours. In the Screwtape Letters, Lewis has Wormwood remark that the best way to distract a person from the task of neighbourliness is to have them loathe the people closest to them, while focusing their benevolence on those furthest away.

Social media often pulls us away from the neighbourliness modelled by the Lord who dwelled among us—turning us into disembodied, digital, communities mediated through pixels. These communities can be a blessing, but are often a curse. We experience both in crises. Fake news machines can send incorrect information flying around the global village. But, at the same time, we’re able to connect with experts and others in a similar position to us around the globe.

Most of my responses to COVID-19, as a church leader, have been formed in consultation with people in our congregation, and people from all over Australia. Even this simple idea of starting a neighbourhood Facebook group has spread from our church in Brisbane, to streets around Australia.

Could this crisis be an opportunity for neighbourliness?

Crises are disruptive events. They have potential to change our norms and our behaviour for a long time, even permanently. We have an opportunity presented by this crisis to ensure that those changes are positive in the long term. We can use the imposed shutdowns on church gatherings as occasions for cultivating new habits. We can learn new ways to approach life together in our local geographic communities.

Our challenge is to avoid negative ways that push us further into isolation; to avoid “solutions” that become problems as soon as the moment of crisis passes.

Imagine if instead of technology disrupting our lives and pushing us away from neighbourliness, we embraced the possibilities of technology for pushing us towards presence in our community; using technology to connect us more deeply to those we live closest to.

Imagine if instead of technology disrupting our lives and pushing us away from neighbourliness, we embraced the possibilities of technology for pushing us towards presence in our community

Imagine if this disruption lasted beyond the crisis of COVID-19, and became our new normal. This is why we, as Christians, tasked by our Lord with loving our neighbours—and with going into the world the way the father sent him (John 20:21), called, then, to dwell among people in the flesh, we might use the disruptive opportunity presented by this crisis to set up community groups for our most immediate neighbours on social media.

My experience of using Facebook to create community among our neighbours

Our street has had a Facebook community group since 2015. We use it to arrange regular social gatherings—from afternoon drinks, kids play-time on the street, lemonade stands, a yearly chicken wing cook off, Easter-egg hunts, and weekend barbecues. We use it to exchange memes, mark birthdays, organise working-bees and to seek assistance with DIY projects. We use it to augment and grow the ‘in the flesh’ neighbourliness that now exists on our street. We’re well prepared, on that front, for social distancing to not be isolating, on our street.

The Facebook group you start in a crisis might pay dividends for neighbourliness. It might help you push back against the discombobulating impact of the ‘global village‘. It might even increase your ability to truly love your neighbours beyond this crisis where you’re sharing frozen meals, survival ideas, and toilet paper.

On Sunday, after our church spent time discussing responses to COVID-19, we put out a template invitation for people to use to set up their own group. You don’t have to use Facebook—my folks have setup a whatsapp group for their street (they’ve been at this neighbourly game for longer than we have, with a street that hosts regular get togethers and a hotly contested pizza competition).

Hi neighbour,
As we enter this pandemic and face new measures in response, our church has encouraged us to love our neighbours and to find ways to care for those who are sick or isolated.

We thought a Facebook Group for our street would be a good way for us to stay in touch with each other and offer support during these times (and grow our connection beyond this crisis). We have set up this group, you should be able to search for this name ______________. 
If you can’t find it with the search, please add me as a friend and I’ll invite you to the group. My name is _________. My profile picture looks like _____________. You can contact me by ______________. Our church is hoping to help with groceries or practical needs as they come up. Please let me know if we can help you.

Why not try printing something like this out and dropping it in the letter boxes on your street? If your neighbours are not social media types, why not also exchange contact details on your phone and offer the same sort of assistance and community. Our street uses our group to care for some of our elderly neighbours—arranging meal drops and lawn mowing at different points.

You might be surprised how many of your neighbours become virtual friends, and then real ones, and how despite its tendency to pull us out of embodied reality, towards virtual reality, technology can be used to build strong local connections where you, as a follow of Jesus, might be able to literally love your neighbours.