“I haven’t met anyone in a while, and I haven’t been on a date in a couple of years. I’ve thought about trying a dating site — what do you think?”
Having ministered among college and post-college men and women for more than a decade, I’ve heard some version of this question again and again. Each time, it’s clearer to me that Christians today are increasingly dating in a different world from the one I did (and I’ve been married only since 2015). Many experts have already observed the obvious: dating (like so much of life) is changing rapidly because technology is regularly revolutionizing everyday life. And dating websites aren’t the only flashpoint.
“A guy from church started texting me. What should I do?”
“She hasn’t texted me back in a week. What does that mean?”
“He liked a couple of my old posts on Instagram. Does that mean he’s interested?”
“She started following me yesterday. Should I ask her out?”
“She still uses Facebook. Should I be worried?”
“My friend found someone on an app. Should I try that?”
You’ve likely heard other questions (or asked them yourself). If you had to ask all the questions in one, you might ask, Does technology help or hurt Christian dating?
Blessings of Technology
As we ask about the potential benefits and dangers of technology in dating, I need to say up front that technology was a massive blessing in my wife’s and my story. We met at a wedding and dated long-distance for two whole years. Some 95 percent or more of our interactions before our wedding were made possible by technology. Our honeymoon was the longest stretch we’d ever spent in the same city.
Three days after we met in Los Angeles, I flew 1,911 miles away to Minneapolis. Why didn’t the relationship end right there? Because she had acquiesced and given me a special nine-digit code (a much longer story), which I could then type into a small plastic box and immediately hear her voice anytime anywhere, even from faraway snow-covered hills. Fifty years ago, every phone was attached to a wall. One hundred fifty years ago, you couldn’t make a phone call. And that’s to say nothing of the opportunities of social media and instant messaging (or cars and planes, for that matter!). Imagine dating in a world where you could talk only face to face with people nearby or else write long letters (which might take weeks or months to be delivered).
Were it not for planes, phones, and Wi-Fi, my wife and I probably wouldn’t be married. And with technology, long-distance dating wasn’t only possible, but came with its own advantages and benefits. So I thank God for technology, and specifically for how technology can serve dating and marriage.
Hurdles of Technology
Now, someone might read about our story and conclude technology is all blessing and no curse when it comes to dating. The reality, however, is that the blessings (which are real) come with equally real dangers and consequences — and all the more so in the pursuit of marriage.
“We were made to know and be known in real time and shared space.”
While technology makes many aspects of relationships easier (or even possible!), it can make other aspects more challenging. Probably the highest hurdle of technology is achieving and maintaining meaningful levels of relationship. We were made to know and be known in real time and shared space, to experience the kind of love and joy that’s possible only through physical presence (2 John 12; Romans 1:11–12). Technology can effectively (and even beautifully) complement that kind of togetherness, but it can’t replace it. We’re learning this again and again and again (for evidence, revisit the heartaches and challenges of the last three years).
For sure, technology allows us to have and keep many more relationships (or, in this case, allows us to “meet” many more men or women whom we might date), but technology struggles to create meaningful relationships where there wasn’t one already. Even how we talk about technology confirms its less-than-ideal role in our relationships: “I’ve tried everything else and come up empty, so I’m thinking about trying a website.” Technology connects more dots over larger distances, but the dots are unavoidably fuzzier (no matter how high-definition our cameras become). We simply can’t get to know people virtually the way we can in person (I mean, we call them virtual interactions). I would argue, then, that technology is weakest in what dating relationships need most: clarity and depth.
People pursuing marriage want to get to know each other well enough to decide whether to make an exclusive, lifelong, for-better-or-worse vow. So how well is technology helping us make that decision? Well, it depends on how we use it.
Two Kinds of Technology
I recently stumbled onto a new way to see both the benefits and the hurdles of technology in the pursuit of marriage. In his book The Life We’re Looking For, Andy Crouch helpfully differentiates between two kinds of technology: devices and instruments.
Devices, he says, are kinds of technology that discourage human effort and eventually replace human labor altogether (the furnace, the phonograph, the Roomba). Instruments, on the other hand, encourage and extend human effort and ingenuity (the bicycle, the piano, the telescope). Here’s how Crouch describes instruments:
There is a kind of technology that is easily distinguished from magic — a kind that involves us more and more deeply as persons rather than diminishing and sidelining us. This kind of technology elevates and dignifies human work, rather than reducing human beings to drones that do only the work the robots have not yet automated. It does not give us effortless power but instead gives us room to exert ourselves in deeper and more rewarding ways. (134)
As he goes on to observe (and this is where the distinction becomes hyper-relevant for dating), our phones can be devices or instruments, depending on how we use them. “With the right software it can become the ultimate instrument for any number of exercises of personal heart, soul, mind, and strength. Or, of course, it can serve as the ultimate device” (146). Our phones can encourage and extend our effort and ingenuity, or they can discourage and replace them. And perhaps never more so than in how we woo and date one another.
Two Kinds of Men
One question we could ask about technology and dating, then, would be, Is the way we’re using technology — phone calls, text messaging, social media, dating websites and apps — encouraging and extending the right kind of effort? Or is it rewarding (or at least compensating for) laziness? And while this question can go both directions, I have men particularly in mind, because I believe God wants men to bear a greater responsibility for leadership and initiative in marriage, beginning with dating. In the hands of the right kind of men, technology can strengthen and multiply blessings in a relationship. In the wrong hands, however, it can become a relational curse.
So when does technology help in Christian dating? When it helps us (again, men in particular) rise to meet the demands of love, rather than helping us avoid them. Technology helps when it draws the right kind of risk-taking initiative out of a man. And it helps when it serves what happens when we’re face to face (like we’re meant to be in relationships). Technology hurts when it replaces initiative and displaces presence.
The kind of man who uses technology well in dating wears the selflessness of Philippians 2:3–4, even when he’s online: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” He wears the intentionality of 1 Corinthians 10:31: “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” He wears the humility of 1 Peter 5:5: “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another.” Above all, he puts on love (Colossians 3:14), even when shielded by a keyboard.
Dating Devices or Instruments?
Let’s try to apply these principles to some real technology today. For single women, how do the men pursuing you use their phones?
Take social media, for example. Do they use social media to flirt and signal interest in order to avoid the possibility of rejection (device)? Or are their interactions with you marked by honest and intentional initiative (instrument)? Is their general presence online the typical exhibition of impulsiveness, laziness, and self-gratification (what social media companies prey on)? Or is it refreshingly selfless, considerate, self-controlled, and valuable to others (instrument)? I’m not encouraging you to over-analyze every post or like, but on the whole, what patterns do you see?
Or what about dating apps or websites? Do their profiles exaggerate their better qualities and hide their weaknesses (device)? Or are their profiles refreshingly honest, modest, and Godward (instrument)? When they call, are most of your conversations meaningful and beneficial (instrument)? Or are they shallow, meandering, and self-indulgent (device)? Are their texts consistently thoughtful and caring (instrument) — or listless and cavalier (device)? Do they text in ways they wouldn’t speak to you face to face (device)?
We could ask dozens of more questions. In short, are phones drawing the right kind of effort and intentionality out of the men interested in you? Men, you can ask some of the same questions of women you’re interested in, but over time men will inevitably (and rightly) set the tone in relationships. Technology can help relationships, and technology can hurt them. Unfortunately, many naively assume the former, while living the latter.
What Do You Want from Dating?
Another good way to assess technology’s role in your dating might be to ask, What do you really want from dating? For what it’s worth, this question is a good one for how we use technology in every area of life. Far too often we assume technology is helping us achieve what’s important to us. Often technology promises to help us, and convinces us it’s helping, but only ends up distracting and undermining us.
“Technology can facilitate clarity or impede it; it can accelerate clarity or slow it.”
When it comes to dating, then, what do you want to accomplish? Have you even thought of dating in those terms? As I’ve said elsewhere, the great prize in marriage is Christ-centered intimacy; the great prize in dating is Christ-centered clarity. Technology can be a wonderful vehicle to that kind of clarity (I know, because airplanes and phones helped bring my wife and me together). Technology can also be an obscurer, hiding concerns and dangers we would easily spot face to face. Technology can facilitate clarity or impede it; it can accelerate clarity or slow it. So, are the ways you use technology in dating helping you see each other more clearly? Over time, are your calls and texts and posts and video chats helping you each decide whether you want to marry?
If you want the short-lived, adrenaline-filled pleasure of thin, low-commitment romance, technology has very effectively reproduced those relationships by the millions. Billion-dollar companies are wholly devoted to this kind of “love.” You’re just a few quick swipes from your next fling. If, however, you’re looking for a deeper, safer, more durable, more satisfying, more Christ-exalting love — for the kind of holy intimacy and security only a covenant in Christ can provide — if you want to live out the mystery of the gospel in a lifelong union (Ephesians 5:32), if you want to see and enjoy more of God in the harrowing and thrilling trenches of marriage, then technology may still help you, but only when it complements and encourages what can happen face to face.