How many friends do you have? Two? Five? Ten? According to social researchers, the most typical American response will be “2 friends.” Sadly, for 25% of Americans, the answer will be “no friends.” Loneliness is rampant in our culture. We crave meaningful contact with one another, but our extremely busy, mobile lifestyle makes creating stable, enduring relationships a challenge.

Perhaps this is one reason why computer social networks like Facebook have become so rapidly popular. As I watched “The Social Network” take 3 Oscars at the Academy Awards last Sunday, I was reminded that the creator of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, became a billionaire in just a little over 5 years. Obviously his idea filled a need felt by many. In fact, Facebook has over 600 million registered users worldwide, and it is estimated that 41% of Americans are members of a computer social network.

Collecting “friends” has become a preoccupation, and even a status symbol among many Facebook users. Currently users have an average of about 140 “friends,” with some users listing 700-800 or even more than 1000 “friends.” There is no doubt that Facebook allows users to maintain contact with friends, relatives and acquaintances by posts to their Wall, sharing photo albums, and notifying others of changes in life situation or location. It also makes it easier to find and reconnect with people from the past.

But just how many “friends” can we maintain at one time, even with computer-based technology? And is a virtual friend (someone you know only from the internet), a real friend? Can virtual social connections become a substitute for face-to-face encounters or possibly be a way to compensate for a lack of friendships, or lack of time with real friends? 

While the popularity of Facebook is clear, an increasing number of users are also deciding to drop out of the network. Many say they felt it became too much of a drain on their time and energy. And many echo what one dropout stated: “Sometimes we have so many friends on Facebook, we can not find the real people we are.”

But real friends know more than news updates about our lives. Real friends know us, the real us, and we know them, the real them. There is mutual self-disclosure, respect, affection and loyalty. There is a deep emotional resonance in real friendship, which creates a sense of stability and a willingness to help each other in need and crisis. Proverbs puts it this way: “A friend is always loyal and is born to help in time of need. A real friend sticks closer than a brother.” (Proverbs 17:17. 18:24b)

Obviously we can’t maintain this level of commitment with too many people at one time. But we need to be connected in this way to some others in order to remain emotionally healthy and secure. God knows we have need for this type of relationship. He encourages us: “Dear children, don’t merely say that you love one another. Show this truth by your actions with each other.” (I John 3:18) Love is real, not virtual. While Facebook can be an enjoyable social outlet in our lives, it will never take the place of time spent with real friends.

At HROCK Church we are committed to being a welcoming community where healthy, loving connections happen. Please come and join us this Sunday at 10:30 AM as we discuss ways to grow in reaching out and welcoming others. My sermon, “Preparing the Nets” is the first part of our new series, “Preparing for the Harvest.”

Ché Ahn and his wife, Sue, are the Founding Pastors of HRock Church in Pasadena, California. Ché serves as the Founder and President of Harvest International Ministry (HIM) and the International Chancellor of Wagner Leadership Institute (WLI). With a Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary, he has played a key role in many strategic outreaches on local, national and international levels. He has written more than a dozen books and travels extensively throughout the world, bringing apostolic insight with an impartation of renewal, healing and evangelism.