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Better Than Instagram: How To Form Digital Relationships

Written by Bob Martin on

Group Members

Does your group have members who attend virtually (via Zoom or another videoconference software)? Is that okay? Or is that a second-rate form of community? And how much work does it take to make sure that you’re still in real relationship with that face on the screen?

Willing to Change

“You are an essentialist now,” writes Christian researcher Andy Crouch, “Your job is to protect your [group], not preserve it…. [Be] willing to change as much as necessary so that the mission might be advanced.”1 It might feel like Zoom calls threaten the very mission of my Small Group. Do I really need to adapt to “digital relationships”?

Still Need Relationship

We need to be in relationship. Relationship is why Small Groups exist: to find hope together!

It’s with each other that we find hope, and it’s with each other that we ignite our passion to follow Jesus. Those who are unable to gather physically with the group need relationship too.

Fortunately, this vision for hope-swelling, passion-inflaming relationship can happen even when we can’t see each other face-to-face. Although physical face-to-face interaction is by far preferable, relationships can still grow through non-physical contact.

4 Dynamics in Relationships

Relationships grow through the following key dynamics:

  1. Proximity: nearness in space
  2. Trust: feeling of being able to rely on another
  3. Regularity: consistent interactions
  4. Intimacy: vulnerability and accountability

If you look across your relationships, aren’t the ones that are thriving those that have these four elements at work?

Physical and Digital

So, can I get there with someone I don’t see face-to-face? Yes. Relationships can form through two different means: what we’ll call physical and non-physical—or “digital.” We use these “digital” channels to build relationships every day:

  • Phone calls
  • Texts
  • Emails
  • Video conference calls (like Zoom calls for the group gathering)
  • Any person-to-person communication that is not in physical proximity

While “digital”/non-physical relationships cannot grow through proximity—because by nature you aren’t in the presence of the other person—all the other three dynamics are still available to help deepen these relationships!

7 Ways to Do Digital Relationships

If you are in a situation where you’re unable to see a person face-to-face, here are seven ways to still grow your trust, regularity, and intimacy:

1. Up the Frequency: Increase the frequency with which you reach out using text messages, phone calls, etc. It takes a larger quantity of non-physical interactions to catch up to the quality of one physical interaction.

2. Go Deeper Faster: Digital interactions are usually briefer, and people are more mindful of the time that they are spending on a device. Therefore, it is necessary to get to “deeper” personal conversation more quickly so that the heart level doesn’t get missed.

3. Be Extra Personal: It will probably feel awkward, but use Zoom calls to show someone photos of your child or make sure to include personal stories, struggles, and examples in your non-physical interactions. Ask others for personal tidbits. This naturally happens in physical interactions (like someone pulling out their phone to show a photo of a recent experience), but they don’t happen naturally in digital interactions. If you are a leader, realize that vulnerability (e.g.: verbalizing weakness, struggles, etc.) is an element of great leadership.

4. Say Your Intent: If you know someone appreciates hugs, say, “I really wish I could give you a hug right now!” If you care about someone, let them know, “We love you.” Or even express what you wish was a reality (“I miss you and wish I could see you face-to-face”), so they hear the intent and affection of your heart—since they can’t experience your non-verbals in a physical interaction.

5. Give: Find ways to give to the person; dropping off a meal or a gift basket, sending cards of encouragement in the mail, or helping with their yard. People feel loved and relationships deepen when someone gives (even if receiving gifts isn’t their primary “love language”). A College Park Small Group member that recently went through a difficult week received a huge gift basket on her front door from her leaders and group and was overwhelmed with appreciation to her friends in the group. It knit their hearts together, even though they’re only able to attend group virtually.

6. Use Different Communication Methods: Send texts and emails. Set up times to talk on the phone and utilize communication apps like Marco Polo. Send them mail (letters or gifts). Use different methods to get the message across: “I care about you!”

7. Get Creative: Based on the individual’s situation there may be lots of creative ways that you can continue to engage with them beyond close face-to-face contact. Be creative with pursuing your relationship in non-traditional ways. It just might help you keep your hearts united, even if you can’t see their face.

1 Dave Blanchard, Andy Crouch, Jon Hart, Scott KauGmann, and Jena Lee Nardella, “Strategies for Winter: Redemptive Leadership in Survival Times,”, accessed Oct 13, 2020

Bob Martin

Bob first joined staff at College Park as a Pastoral Resident in 2011 and has served in several important roles since that time. He now serves as the Pastor of Membership & Connection. Bob is passionate about seeing men and women enter into community with others to find hope together. He enjoys spending time with his wife, family, and friends.

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