(RNS) — In the treetops of Fewell Island, South Carolina, six young adults in harnesses dangle awkwardly from ropes. Down below, a group stands huddled in windbreakers and hoodies in the frigid February air, calling out encouragement to the Irish girl tearfully embracing the 20-foot-high pole overhead.
“Come on, Paula! You’ve got this!”
Forty minutes later, a crowd greets Paula as she ziplines her way back to solid ground.
Our group’s easy camaraderie belies the fact that most of us have met less than 24 hours ago. We are here for an A-GAP experience — all of us Christians and all of us voluntarily without our phones.
Started in 2018 by Marygrace Sexton, founder and CEO of Natalie’s Orchid Island Juice Co., A-GAP is a nonprofit with the mission to help people of Christian faith journey to clarity, unity and simplicity in a technology-free environment. In short, Christian digital detox.
Over the last decade, Sexton, a Florida business owner, mother and grandmother, had developed an acute sense of technology’s adverse effects, particularly decreased intimacy and professional performance within her own organization. This led to the launch of A-GAP: a reprieve to encourage contemplation, spiritual rejuvenation and healthy technology habits.
Most of the attendees, ironically, found out about the retreat through the internet: A post on the Instagram account of Charlotte One, a young adult ministry in Charlotte, North Carolina, drew a sizable portion of the group. Paula McKee — Paula from the high ropes course, an au pair originally from Belfast — was invited by text. But we each took a step of faith and showed up.
We can credit the internet with fostering these kinds of trusting acts, which have also powered the growth of the sharing economy. While the debate rages on whether this so-called gig economy is undermining secure jobs by replacing them with an army of mercenary, part-time workers, it has opened up new avenues of trust and camaraderie between citizens as they become customer and client.
The traditional commercial relationship, too, becomes more complex in the gig economy. Instead of grunting a rote “How are you today?” or “Have a nice day” or other platitudes as we do at retail outlets, we want to know more about the person we’ve contracted before we accept their services or rate them. That’s opening up intimate conversations and relations most consumers have never had to have before, which in turn opens up all types of opportunities to network, trust and share.
Ten years ago, no one would have dreamed of getting into the back of a stranger’s car or staying in their apartment. Now, thanks to Airbnb and car services like Lyft and Uber, it’s commonplace. (The Anabaptists, cool kids that they are, were doing their version of Airbnb, called Mennonite Your Way, long before there was an internet.)
Trust is built (and broken) the same way online and off — through the keeping or severing of promises. While trust can begin to grow online, it is solidified in close proximity. That’s why when we meet our ride-share driver, our trust in them and the sharing economy grows. We’ve closed the gap.
Of course, this trust can be broken in stunning ways, and the internet, through people’s use of blatant visual distortion and propagation of misinformation, provides plenty of opportunities for that as well. Trusting communities require a balance between nurturing existing relationships and extending outward to form new ones. Mistrust can grow when communities only take care “of their own.”
Chris Lawrence is a pastor of Living Hope church in New York City’s East Harlem, an English-speaking congregation in a historically Spanish community. His church members are making progress slowly with what they call “re-neighboring the street”: connecting 400 households that share the same block but do not currently have much to do with each other.
“Although lots of them are on their phones a great deal, wired into the cyber relationships that beckon to them,” says Lawrence, “we are focusing efforts on creating a ‘people friendly urban village’ on our block.”
Those efforts include an annual, block-long “De Colores” street feast where a church member who is an Elle magazine photographer takes family portraits. Another program pairs teens with elderly neighbors to help them buy Christmas gifts for their grandchildren online. Their mission is to reclaim the trust they feel they lost over the last 20 years by focusing inward.
While these efforts are primarily embodied, Living Hope is also working with local technologists to build an app for the immediate neighborhood.
“It will be entirely bilingual and needs to touch the demographic of local low-income households and not just mimic the platforms frequented by ‘gentrifiers’ such as the ‘NextDoor’ app,” explains Lawrence, referring to a neighborhood app that is seen as facilitating nasty gossip from upwardly mobile users seeking to weed out “problem” neighbors and businesses.
Ultimately, Lawrence said, the goal is to get people offline and into each other’s lives, where lasting trust can be built. “I’m aware that in our neighborhood we need to work at every level — including the internet — to get people to be more comfortable sharing their lives and stories and being curious with who lives on the same street,” said Lawrence. “It is incredibly important.”
How we build trust in a digital age is of utmost importance to Christians. We can’t know our neighbors at arms’ length. The model that the sharing economy has created over the past decade might show the way to connect.
Steven Watts, lecturer in church history at Westminster Theological Centre in the U.K., explains the biblical mandate to trust in this way: “What we are commanded to do is love one another — and that love, as Paul puts it, ‘ … does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.’ Trust may simply be treated as a fruit of that love.”
Reflecting on the theme of trust in the culture at large, author Jen Pollock Michel says: “A verse that comes to mind is: ‘Trust (lean on, rely on and be confident) in the Lord and do good; so shall you dwell in the land and feed surely on his faithfulness, and truly you shall be fed.’ A biblical example that comes to mind is the trust that was required in the early church as the Jews learned to embrace the Gentiles. (Acts 15) In a very practical sense, when we have positive trusting encounters, it gives our hearts the courage to trust more.”
As we choose to trust in God more, our trust grows. As we choose to trust each other more and that trust is met by trustworthy people, our trust is strengthened. This helps us build trusting relationships — the bedrock of thriving families, communities, neighborhoods and nations.
In an age of unprecedented mistrust (particularly in the United States), the sharing economy — based on mutual trust — is thriving.
What kind of world do we want to live in?
Surely, it’s a culture of love. It’s a world worth making.