I am a twenty-two year old senior in college. I have a Facebook that I check about five times a day, either at my computer or through my phone’s web browser. I joined Facebook in its early days, days before “liking” and commenting and even status updates. This practically makes me a dinosaur in such realms.
I had a MySpace before a Facebook, but I preferred Facebook early on for its clean lines and uniform design. Fast forward a few years later and Facebook has so many bells and whistles and needless games and applications that sometimes I think I’m not even using the same website I was only a small handful of years ago.
I study at a small conservative Bible college in the Midwest, and my degree is in “Pastoral Ministries.” This translates to classes on preaching, counseling, and ministry leadership, in addition to loads of Bible and theology classes to fill in the gaps. I know the basics of how to run meetings, pick a staff, set vision for a church and communicate Christ to people in the pew. Yet, the one thing I have yet to learn is how to be a cool pastor—one with horn-rimmed glasses and a few tattoos and a gelled hair style. You know, the ones who Tweet and run multiple Facebook pages and blog incessantly. Somehow, my academic superiors failed to incorporate such classes into the curriculum.
So, a little less than a year ago, I wrote my own course on social media and the church. At the time I was a newborn advocate for social media in the church—at the time I was attending a very social-media-savvy church, and I wanted to do a project on how to use social media in the church well. I expected that, at the end of the project, I would be preaching the social media gospel to churches, imploring them to integrate these technologies into their ministries in order to reach the culture for Christ. I wanted to see the Church rush into cyberspace and preach—or perhaps Tweet—the Gospel to every creature.
Then I met my professor for the project—and he told me I was asking the wrong questions. He pointed out that asking how was not enough—that I needed to ask should. Should the church be using social media, he said, was a much better question. So he pointed me, not to authors that are alive and kicking, but to authors that have been dead for a decade or so. And as I read and reflected on the words of those far wiser, I found myself slowly tip-toeing away from eager embrace toward skeptical caution and restraint. In fact, the longer I thought and the more I read, the faster my pace became until I practically sprinted to where I am now, by the standards of most a fundamentalist Luddite.
Social Media: It’s All The Rage
Social media are the new black. “It’s in, it’s cool, it’s chic – everyone is doing it,” they say. And they are right. Social network evangelists are encouraging everyone and anyone to jump into their “online communities,” “social networks,” and the like. Facebook, Yelp!, Twitter, Foursquare, and LinkedIn are all the rage. They are selling, and everyone is buying.
How do we know? Well, to start, a quick walk through the halls of Twitter and Facebook reveal that many of the major players in Protestantism are using at least one form of social media. Mark Driscoll, John Piper, Joel Osteen, Rick Warren, Matt Chandler, Rob Bell, John MacArthur, James MacDonald, and Albert Mohler can be found blogging, Tweeting, and updating Facebook pages with frequency. Many of those listed not only have personal accounts, but also accounts for their various ministries, whether church or para-church.
Perhaps more significant, at least in terms of dollars and cents, is that Mars Hill Church (Seattle, Washington) recently sold its home-brewed social network, The City, to Zondervan. Other churches are delineating significant parts of their budgets to create their own social networks in order for their people “to feel connected.” Congregations across the United States are creating full- and part-time communications directors to manage their Facebook pages and Tweet on behalf of their corporate identity. This topic, once considered worthy of a breakout at some major national conferences, has found itself thrust center-stage in major venues across the nation.
In response to these new media phenomena, Christians have taken one of two stances—both of which display shallow thought and little reflection: open-armed acceptance or outright rejection. The former is clearly the most popular: all of the major Christian publishers have some kind of media-engaging work on the shelves. The latter receives furrowed brows and is quickly brushed aside as “fundamentalism” and “ignorance.” Anyone who does not love media may not love Jesus, and certainly does not love the culture.
We Need Something More
Yet, what I have come to see clearly is this: neither the position of unconditional acceptance nor the stance of wholesale rejection is a sufficient response to the new media. Let me be clear: I do think that social media are significant enough cultural phenomena that they ought to be discerned and evaluated and critiqued, and yes, utilized. Thus, this paper will not be a series of reactionary theses on the ills of social media. They are simply too significant a cultural artifact to be ignored or rejected.
Instead, in this paper, I want to argue for a better way, for the creation of a new cultural artifact. If we want to significantly engage with the cultural context in which we find ourselves (a loaded phrase if there ever was one), we need a better response than simple condemnation and critique; we also need a more creative response than mere consumption or imitation. Instead, we must craft a new way for using social media, because the creation of a new cultural good, or a wiser use of a good, is the way in which we can change the technological culture.
My thesis is rather simple, though perhaps inflammatory, especially to those who have completely bought into the social media movement; it may even cause some to fly into a technological tizzy. I am arguing for a wisely limited application of these tools in ministries—because social media, by their very nature, are self-promoting, and thus not to be mindlessly accepted by the Body of Christ. We have to ask if the nature, associations, and present fruits of a technological medium and its surrounding sub-culture are to be seriously considered and utilized when deciding whether to incorporate it into the public life of the people of God. We must ask these questions because if my thesis is true, then we will quickly see that social media are of great danger to key tasks laid before us: preaching the Gospel and constructing loving community. Social media, and the inherent biases held within them, stand in direct opposition to two tasks of overwhelming importance.
Social Media? Which Ones?
Throughout this paper, I will be using the words “social media” frequently, often paired with the well-known networking sites Facebook and Twitter. I do not have a personal axe to grind with either of these sites; nor do I have a personal vendetta against either of these companies’ founders. So let me be clear and offer a few definitions and reasons for this choice.
When I say “social media,” I mean any kind of electronic, Web-based networking tool, generally. This includes, but is not limited to, Yelp!, LinkedIn, Foursquare, and more. Most often, though, I will name Facebook and Twitter as my primary examples, because they are the archetypal social media which have set the bar for every other social media site. They are the social media par excellence, providing us the best glimpses into social media through the way they are structured and the way they organize information—but more on that later.
Is This the Person to Whom I am Speaking?
I want to make clear, before we dive in, just who exactly this paper is for. Is it for the cadre of cultural critics who sit in the balconies of our lives, pointing out to us the error of our ways? Perhaps a cultural critic may find this paper, a self-started project of an anonymous undergrad at a conservative Bible college, somewhat helpful. But it is not for them. Is it for the average Christian on Facebook, who uses it to stay in touch with friends, post some pictures and play Farmville? Perhaps the average user would find this paper instructing, but they may feel a little too defensive of their crops to take it seriously. No, this paper is not for them. Is it for the Christian communication specialist, one of those people now commonly found on the payrolls of many mega-churches across the country? They, of all people, might be the most obvious audience of this paper, and I would hope they would take some time to reflect on the words written here. But no, this paper is not for them.
No, this paper is for the church, the beloved people of God, who are trying to live holy lives in the world of the machine. Specifically, it is for the harried and haggard pastors who are trying to comfort the sick, grieve with the dying, and rejoice with the rejoicing. It is for the pastor who is so caught up with the daily life of his labor that he lacks the resources to begin to think about how to use social media, all the while his young and vibrant youth pastor is knocking down the door demanding that First Community Church of Somewhere, USA has its own Facebook page and its own Twitter feed.
Yes, this paper is for those who go before me, and on whose shoulders I would one day sit, my brothers-in-arms for the sake of the Gospel, who stand before the people of God week in and week out, and declare to them the truths of God amidst a flurry of information in a technological world. It is for those men and women who stand on the border between two worlds, the first and the twenty-first centuries, and work ever so hard at helping their people live in rhythm with the basic pulse of the Gospel.
This paper begins with an explanation of my thesis—that social media lend themselves to self-promotion in their very nature. Then, I will show that because of their nature, social media present significant problems for two key areas of church life: gospel communication and community construction. Lastly, I will show how, exactly, we can live well in a world of Facebook frenzy, first in generalities—speaking to how we ought to interact with media technology, second in specifics—how we ought to use, or indeed not use—social media in the life of the local church.
Part I: Social Media and Self-Promotion
In 1985, Neil Postman wrote his landmark work, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.His work is not only radical, but in many ways terrifying. In it, Postman claimed that all Western public discourse was becoming less about information and more about entertainment. “Entertainment,” he wrote, “is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television.” Though written a decade before the advent of the internet and two decades before the rise of social media, Postman’s work is our greatest informant on the nature of social media.
Postman’s work brings us to this: in the same way that entertainment is the “supra-ideology,” or over-arching system of belief, of television, so self-promotion is the supra-ideology of social media. To understand how this can be so, we have to understand that no medium is a-moral, or neutral. Indeed, each medium somehow tints the information which passes through it, forcing that information to become different. In other words, media technologies act like meat grinders, and whatever goes in one end comes out the other end altered; in the case of social media, information goes in and comes out the other side self-promoting.
What is mean by “self-promotion”? Its definition is not secret nor hidden, but plain. Self-promotion is the advertisement and propagation of the self—a person’s (or organization’s) beliefs and experiences. It is the activity in which everything about me is propagated to you,and that information becomes of great importance. Social media invite us to be self-promoting, but with great subtlety. Yet, if we look closely at how social media sites like Facebook and Twitter are structured, and the means offered to us to participate in their “online communities,” we begin to see the self-promoting nature of social media with greater clarity.
It’s Just the Way We Do Things Around Here
When I log on to Facebook, I am invited to update my “status” with this provocative question: “What’s on your mind?” Twitter is not much better: “What’s happening?” Facebook asks me to list my interests, the music I like and the books I most enjoy reading. I have the ability to “like” bands and books and organizations and even other famous individuals—and then the rest of my network is informed exactly what it is I “like.” I can even go so far as “liking” what another person has written on their status. On social media, my thoughts and my feelings on any particular item of the day becomes tantamount.
What’s more, every post on a form of social media begins with two crucial aspects about me: a picture and my name. While the characters in my name on Twitter or Facebook (@kh_tennant, or Kyle Hamilton Tennant, respectively) do not go against what I write, they still take up a large portion of the characters published in my post. When I change my picture on Facebook, or upload a new photo album to my site, all of my friends receive notifications that I have uploaded new pictures of my life and my adventures. When friends upload pictures and I am “tagged” in them, I receive notifications that I am appearing somewhere else in the world of online society.
Speaking of friends, we are told to have many of them. For some reason, the natural boundaries of friendship are blurred as mere acquaintances become my online “friends.” These days, it is not uncommon for people to go on purges of their friends list, “un-friending” people no longer in their circles, because I should only have to associate with those I wish. We have even reached a point in which if one finds that they have been “un-friended” they are personally offended. On Twitter, you do not have friends, but “followers” which has a whole other kind of connotation to it. A follower is often an equal, someone with whom we share our lives. A follower is someone we lead, and thus stand over in some sort of authority; a follower eagerly listens to every word that comes from his leader’s lips. Once again, the thoughts and feelings of the followed become tantamount.
A quick look at my Facebook “News Feed” (oh, what passes for news these days) shows me what my friends are thinking and doing: a friend just finished reading Harry Potter, another quotes a song lyric, another comments on the fun had over dinner with friends, and another shares plans for the evening (dinner and a show). Very little of this information is vital or necessary to my life; in fact, if I had not just written that information down, I probably would not even be remembering it now. Most of the information we find on social media is not information that we can act on, or for that matter is information on which we would act. It is simply meaningless and mindless thoughts and ponderings from a thousand different minds. Like the telegraph before it, social media provide us with contexts full of useless information. It would seem that triviality is a necessary side-effect to self-promotion.
Is This Without Exception?
The question, of course, is if there is any escaping this self-promotion. Is it possible for us to use social media and not be self-promoting. Maybe. Postman explains that there are a few cases in which information that passes through television is not entertaining, or is at least minimally so. “After all, it is not unheard of that a format will occasionally go against the bias of its medium.”  There are times when information disseminated through social media does not come out self-promoting, or at least not drastically or immorally so. This, however, is the exception and not the norm.
Surely, making such a claim is self-promoting on its own, right? Besides, everyone is self promoting all the time, so why does it matter? Such an objection as this may prove my thesis outright; could it be that we see everything as self-promoting because of the pervasive influence of self-promoting social media in our culture? Postman would agree because of the principle of “resonance”; he says, “Whatever the original and limited context of [a medium’s] use may have been, a medium has the power to fly far beyond that context into new and unexpected ones,” he says.  In other words, the bias of a medium effects not only the information which passes through it, but its bias extends into our social institutions and even our very consciousness. A further response to this objection would be: people are always inclined to jockey for notice and pridefully promote themselves, yet the commonality of this error does not negate its immorality. Further, we are discussing a medium and its inherent bias, as well as the resulting moral value of that bias, which I am arguing to be morally unacceptable. Social media, I say, have a morally incorrect bias: self-promotion. Print, on the other hand, is biased to rational, propositional thought, a bias much more morally acceptable than self-promotion. Even further, the issue at stake here is not only a medium and its inherent bias, but that medium and its bias placed in the hands of churches.
The self-promoting bias of social media, if true, present significant problems to the church of Jesus Christ and how she seeks to use social media. Historically, Christians have used media to disseminate the gospel and Christian truth. Now, with the advent of social media, Christians would use social media to spread the Gospel and other Christian truth to a lost world. In addition, Christians—people who love community so much that “community” is a buzz word in our circles—see social media as a means to enhance and build community. In short, we would use social media to spread the Gospel and build community. In the sections that follow, I will show that social media simply cannot be used to accomplish these tasks; or at least, in using social media to accomplish these tasks we significantly hinder our ability to accomplish these tasks well.
Part II: Social Media and the Gospel
“Our message must never change, but the way we deliver that message must be constantly updated to reach each new generation.” Such is the thought which has dominated Evangelicalism for decades. Historically, Christians have capitalized on each new medium, from the printing press to the television. The church has historically had a plug-and-play modus operandi: take the message and plug it into any medium available, and surely we will make disciples.
Yet, as noted, no medium is neutral. Every medium affects the message it carries, and the user cannot really control such effects. In essence, the plug-and-play methods of using technology are not wise, because “not all forms of discourse can be converted from one medium to another. It is naïve to suppose that something that has been expressed in one form can be expressed in another without significantly changing its meaning, texture or value.”Something is lost in translation when we take a message that passed through, say, print, and run it again through another medium, say, television. This is why so many people who watch a movie based on a book do not like the book when they read it; it has lost, as Postman says, meaning, texture, and value. Something is lost in translation when we use media interchangeably.
This is just as true with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. A message that was communicated to us through the medium of words and print cannot be translated into a new medium without some losses. I suggest here that due to the self-promoting nature of social media, any kind of Gospel proclamation (a strong word for messages compacted into 140 character Tweets and 420 character Facebook status updates) is altered in such a way that the message becomes warped. This warping causes the focus of the information from the message (the Gospel of Christ) to the messenger (the medium’s user).
The Message > The Messenger
When the power of the messenger eclipses the power by which we are saved, the Gospel is no longer communicated clearly and so the message is emptied of its power. This is essentially Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 1-2, in which he expresses concern with the Corinthians’ focus on the messenger rather than the message. “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the Gospel,” he says, “and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross be emptied of its power.” Paul goes on to say that he preached “in weakness and in fear and much trembling” and that “my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith may not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” In short, Paul is reminding the church that the power is in the message, not the messenger. The danger is that, through social media, the message loses its power as the messenger is put in greater focus than the message itself.
A Trivial Pursuit
Further, the danger of using social media for proclamation is that the Gospel may be emptied of its power as it becomes trivialized. As mentioned before, information passed through social media becomes self-promoting, but it also becomes trivialized because it is placed against a backdrop of the inane and meaningless. The message of the Gospel, like many other religious messages and symbols, is endlessly repeatable. Such symbols, however, are “not exhaustible … the more frequently a significant symbol is used, the less potent its meaning.” It is far too easy for symbols to be drained of their power and value as it is repeated over and over again. Is it possible for the Gospel to be meaningless? No. But it is possible for its message, or messages related to the Gospel (i.e. quotes from Christian song lyrics) to become trivialized, causing Christian messages transmitted across social media to fade into a greater background of meaninglessness.
Nothing I have ever read on Facebook is something memorable; if I do remember something I read on Facebook, I tend to remember the event that I read about more than the post itself. The Facebook “News Feed” is an unending list of meaningless comments and thoughts. If I were to write something very true and profound and biblical and post it, though many may read it, few would remember it. The message would be lost in an unending deluge of drivel, as the next person’s thoughts erase mine, and then that person’s thoughts are erased by the next.
It is, admittedly, possible for social media to proclaim bits and pieces of the Gospel message, but it is not possible to communicate the whole Gospel through a microblog. Thus, we cannot rely on it in the same way previous generations did the television. John Piper says that he tries “to fill these media with as much provocative, reasonable, Bible-saturated, prayerful, relational, Christ-exalting, truth-driven, serious, creative pointers to true greatness” as he possibly can, but notice that he uses the word “pointers.” Piper expresses a key factor: social media are not the next tool for Gospel preaching, but they may be the next tool for disseminating Christ-honoring, thought-provoking, bite-sized pieces of truth to people that lead them to ask more questions.
Part III: Social Media and Community
Social media are often hailed as a means to a constructing deeper, more meaningful community. A recent article in the Christian Century reflects on social media’s ability to offer to people what they so lack between Sundays:
The popularity of social media sites seems to testify to the fact that many people miss what the church used to provide: a place to know others and be known, a place to weep with those who weep and laugh with those who laugh, a place to bear one another’s burdens and share one another’s joys, not just once a week or once a month or at Easter and Christmas, but daily. And that is what Facebook is all about: reflection and confession, support and community.
My thesis, in stark contrast to this sentiment, suggests that Facebook and other social media have nothing to do with support and community and everything to do with mass self-promotion. Because of this, I argue that social media cannot provide a place to know others and be known, or any such interaction—instead, the natural bias of social media significantly hinders such interactions, and perhaps even makes them impossible.
Network vs. Community
Before we begin, it is worthy to note that it would seem that “network” and “community” have become synonymous in our culture. Yet, the distinction between these terms is crucial when we think about the self-promoting bias of these media and how this nature relates to community construction and life in the church. For the sake of clarity, allow me to briefly define these terms.
A network is “an interconnected or interrelated chain, group or system,” or perhaps a better definition for our purposes, “a usually informally interconnected group or association of persons.” A network, then, is made of people who are not intimately, but informally, connected. For that matter, they do not live together or have shared experiences, they are simply interconnected. Networks are designed to be touch points—shallow connections that do not require intimacy or self-disclosure. Such touch points generally find their center in a specific task or interest, and these relationships do not extend into all of life.
In contrast, communities are marked by formal, intimate relationships (over and above simple connections) and hold things in common. They share common interests, common location, common characteristics, common policy, and common history, and common purpose. Thinking about community in light of the people of God, all of these statements—interest, location, and so on—ring true to a profound degree. As the people of God, our common interest is twofold: Christ and one another; our common location are the places in which we meet, the four walls of the church structure; our common characteristics are holiness and love; our common policy the Word of God; our common history the Sacraments; our common purpose the proclamation of the Gospel.
Social media, those tools and means often used for the purpose of building community, do not build or foster loving community, they only harm it. It is not possible for social media to foster community because they inhibit—or even make impossible—three of the aforementioned aspects of community. The three aspects of community endangered by social media are common location, common interest, and common purpose.
Common Location: Orality and Presence
Common location is hindered by social media because, by using such technologies, we abandon orality and presence. Orality is “our speaking and listening ‘in person’ with each other.” Presence is physical, in-the-flesh togetherness. These, I suggest, are the two sides of the coin that make for common location. Orality is necessary for community, because orality is at the very center of our createdness. God brought us into being by His Word, and as His image bearers, we share in His verbality; Quentin Schultze speaks of “the fundamentally oral nature of our createdness.” He says that “speech is primary communication for all human beings; it is our chief means of communion with one another.” Orality is necessary for community because it is how we make ourselves really present to another person; it is only in the cycles of speaking and listening (and thus, sharing and empathizing) that community is built.
Yet, when we move online, orality is abandoned. While online, we do not listen, we read. We do not speak, we write. This breaks the fundamentally oral nature of community, which ignores the oral nature of our createdness. That is, men and women are “created principally as speech agents, as conversationalists, not as keyboarders, uploaders, and downloaders … A facility for keyboarding or Web surfing cannot reasonably substitute for the abilities to speak carefully, listen wisely, and dialog congenially.” Keep in mind that we are not just speakers, but listeners—we look one another in the eye and meet another’s grief and shame with kindness and compassion.
Orality was of importance to the biblical writers, especially John, who said, “I had much to write to you, but I would rather not write with pen and ink. I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face.” Even as he was writing letters, he hoped that he could move beyond mere pen and ink to speak with his friends in person, acting out the oral nature of his createdness. Further, Moses’ relationship with Yahweh in the Old Testament was marked by a significant attribute no other prophet has ever known: “Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.” This kind of unmediated orality reaches its fullness in Christ, the Word of God no less, of whom the writer of Hebrews says “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.” Thus, we see that the intimacy which comes from speaking and listening to one another “face to face” is of significance to the authors of Scripture and even to God Himself.
Presence is also necessary for community; one cannot be in community with someone who is not physically present before them. In this way, orality naturally leads to presence, and vice-versa. In essence, removing ourselves from one another’s presence makes community very difficult, if not entirely possible. It is very difficult to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep outside of their presence. We can recognize that presence is of profound biblical importance when we reflect on the fact that God’s greatest form of revelation to mankind was in Christ Incarnate. Physical presence and orality are of primary importance to community. As Shane Hipps identifies, when we use technology as a means to community, we are “no longer fully present.” He points out that we lose a sense of presence and place, of location and geography, which until the technological revolution, were absolutely vital to community. In fact, it is arguable to say that until the advent of the internet, people thought of community solely in terms of geography.
Common Interest: Love One Another
The community aspect of common interest is also harmed—specifically, the common interest of one another. Christian community and its common interest—one another—is made impossible when selflessness is hindered. We have already seen that social media make everything we communicate in the medium more about the messenger than the message. This is a problem, because when my message is received by someone I want to lift up and encourage, I cannot do it well, seeing that my message is more about me than it is them. Selflessness and other similar virtues necessary for community are greatly hindered through social media. “For all the rhetoric about cyber-community, the Internet is less a forum for shared public life than an arena for individuals to express their egos and find information in tune with their personal needs and desires.”At the end of the day, social media are about me and I, a pattern of thinking diametrically opposed to that of community, which emphasizes we and us. In essence, “technological and informational ends are insufficient for the kinds of communities we as human beings are called to embrace.”
The Scriptures call us to, out of humility, consider others more significant than ourselves, and to please our neighbors for their good, seeking to build them up. Peter insists that we “love one another earnestly from a pure heart” and that we “honor everyone” and “love the brotherhood.” Community requires of us a willingness to be found in last place, to earnestly seek the other’s highest good. Community cannot happen through a medium that, by nature, makes everything said or done about the self because community necessitates an interest in one another, a selflessness of spirit.
Common Purpose: Preach the Gospel to Every Creature
Lastly, the common value of proclamation and evangelism is further hindered, because social media are not capable for aiding us in such tasks. This goes directly against the teachings of most social media gurus, who claim that social media are revolutionizing social activism (or, in the case of the church, evangelization). Evangelism is a high-risk kind of activism, a public activity wherein much is at stake. Such kind of activism requires strong connections and affinities with those joining us in the activism; that is, there must be a high degree of personal connection to the vision of the activism, as well as to other people engaged in the same activity. In sociological terms, high-risk activism (in our case, evangelism or proclamation) requires “strong ties,” or very intimate and highly personal friendship.
Social media, however, do not and cannot promote strong ties: “the platforms of social media are built around weak ties.” Such weak-tie relationships resemble acquaintances; such relationships are good sources of ideas and new information. However, “weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism” The “relationships” we build online are not true relationships; they are missing orality and presence and selflessness. Thus, they cannot lead to strong ties, to intimacy and to trust, which so naturally flow into activism.
The church’s sense of mission comes from its sense of trust and intimacy, which demands to be offered to others. God sent Christ into the world out of the overflow of love that existed within the Godhead: the strong ties that existed between the Eternal Trinity caused the Divine to engage in mission. In the same way, as the people of God, our sense of love and intimacy, our strong ties, cause us to go into the world and invite people into the community. Our orality and presence and selflessness climax to mission and purpose and movement. We experience something beautiful as the gathered people of God, and that experience impels us to invite others into it—thus we proclaim and engage in evangelism.
However, social media cannot help us to do that. They are ineffective tools when used to share the Gospel, because such a task requires such a strong tie. Social media, it seems, are excellent tools for mobilization, but not to incite sacrifice. “Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice.” Evangelism, however, requires sacrifice—a willingness to die to the self, to take up a cross each day, and to lay ones’ life down for friends. Such virtue is made impossible by the weak ties of social media.
Sacrifice is a necessary part of proclamation because such proclamation always receives opposition. The New Testament is clear that proclamation through our lives and through our words will lead to persecution and suffering: this is why the Scriptures talk about suffering in terms of certainty, “when,” and not possibility, “if.” We rely on social media to aid us in proclamation in the face of danger, because such media were not designed so. Online activism “is simply a form of organizing which favors the weak-tie connections that give us access to information over the strong-tie connections that help us persevere in the face of danger.”It is such strong ties that help us persevere in suffering, because as the apostle Paul would say, “I endure all things for the sake of the elect,” and “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake.”
What follows the loss of these three vital aspects of community? What happens to us when we move community from the home to the internet, thereby forgoing orality and presence? What happens to a community that loses its virtue of selflessness? When a community attempts to live out its common purpose in cyberspace instead of their neighborhood, what is the result? We lose any and all senses of authentic community. The biblical depiction of a church that was devoted to fellowship and to one another, which held everything in common and in which no one had any lack, remains in the past.
When we rely on tools that can only, at best, augment our communities and expect them to foster community, we ignore a desperate need of the world around us. We live in a generation desperate for community, for orality and presence and intimacy, “because their own voices have atrophied: they communicate mutely via a constant stream of atomized, telegraphic text messages.” Could it be that one of the great missional tasks of the 21st century church would be to craft communities of loving presence, in which we are allowed to be our flesh-and-blood selves, baggage and all, apart from our well-crafted online profiles?
Part IV: Using Social Media Well
At the start of this paper, I suggested that the church needs to be about the business of offering the world a new and better cultural good—that we have to create something ourselves instead of just copying or condemning the culture’s use of social media. The final portions of this paper will deal with the practical side of viewing social media as self-promoting. In this first portion, I will suggest some broad principles before moving onto the second portion, in which I will offer practical actions that we can take with social media.
The following suggestions more readily apply to all media in general, not only social media. As Christians, we must think and reason well. Further, we have to engage with a critical and discerning eye. Remember I suggested a wisely limited approach to social media in the church because of its self-promoting nature. The principles I present in this section help us understand what is mean by “wisely.”
Don’t Be the Used, Be the User
First, we must use the tool rather than be used by it. That is, we must choose to wield the tools offered to us in social media, and wield them by our own decision, rather than simply wield them because we can. Neal Postman, in another one of his prophetic and terrifying works, describes the American culture as a “Technopoly,” which “consists of the deification of technology” and “seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfactions in technology and takes its orders from technology.” The last phrase is important: “takes its order from technology.” In a culture, like ours, where technology reigns supreme, the user takes its order from the machine and the tool rather than the other way around. Many social media proponents in the church are so much a part of the “Technopoly” that they become what Postman would call “technophiles,” who “gaze on technology as a lover does on his beloved, seeing it without blemish and entertaining no apprehension for the future.”
When we accept technologies and mediums without any kind of discernment, we become the used instead of the user; we become slaves to our technologies, or perhaps in more appropriate biblical language, our technologies become our idols. Before we know it, we find ourselves submitting the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a technological master that demands His message be communicated on its own terms. This is an immense problem. We fall into the sin described in Paul’s powerful polemic found in Romans 1, where he writes that sinners “exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator.” Through worshipping the creations of our hands—our technologies and media—we are in truth worshipping ourselves.
Now, in saying all of this I do not intend to be too polemical (though some polemics are certainly in order) but I do intend to be heard. As Christians who are called to watch the way we walk, “not as unwise, but as wise” we must be discerning about the media we use in ministry practice. Remember that every medium has its own agenda—it is greedy and cannot stand but to affect the information which passes through it at least slightly. As Christians in a technological world, we must use the technologies and media set before us, and we must do so wisely. This means we must ask questions about every medium’s agenda and what it means for the future.
What, exactly, are the questions we must be asking? To help us, I look to Andy Crouch and his work, Culture Making. In it, Crouch suggests a series of questions that we should ask of any good—and I suggest that by asking these questions (somewhat modified from his text and fit to our purposes) we can discern the agenda of the medium. The questions are as follows: 1) What does this medium assume about the way the world is? 2) What does this medium assume about the way the world should be? 3) What does this medium make possible? 4) What does this medium make impossible, or at least very difficult? 5) What new forms of information are created in response to this medium? Asking these questions help us to discern exactly what a medium’s agenda is; further, they help us to ask informed questions as to how we will go about applying that medium in the life of a church.
Apply Each on Its Own Merit
If our first principle is choosing to be the user instead of the used when it comes to media by asking questions about its agenda, the second principle helps us decide how to use the medium in our ministry practice. The second principle is that we cannot apply all media in the same way; that is, we must choose how to use each individual medium based on how its agenda will affect our purpose for using it. Not all media are created equal, and we must therefore apply them in light of this.
As Christians engaging in media, we must constantly be discerning when we are using the tools set before us. With some media, we may need to choose to be Luddites and abstain from using that form of media. With other media, we may be more willing to be Technophiles and willingly embrace and use the tool with gusto. For that matter, even within the realm of a specific medium, we may choose to be more one or the other as the need provides. For example, we may choose to have a Facebook page, but to only update our status using certain, pre-planned forms and goals.
In the pages that follow, I will suggest a few more specific ways we can be using social media in the church in wisely limited ways. However, I want to offer this principle as a principle of both caution and charity. It is a principle of caution because it instructs us to watch how we decide to engage with a certain medium, and to do so on the basis of each individual medium’s merit. It is also a principle of charity in that it instructs us to use media, and occasionally use it with gusto. In another light, it balances two Scriptural thoughts. The first is the command to walk in wisdom, to which I’ve already alluded: “Look carefully then at how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.” Media force us to use time, and we must do so wisely—this principle helps us to live wisely when we utilize media. The second is a doctrinal reminder: “For by Him [Christ] all things were created … all things were created through Him and for Him.” We can use technology recognizing that all things are created for Christ, even social media. We are thus called to live in balance, walking a
technological tightrope between living as Luddites and Technophiles, abstainers and wielders.
A Cautionary Tale
The common theme which runs through these two principles will be our third, which is really a restatement for clarity and certainty. The third principle is this: above all else, we must be cautious. As Christians engaging in media, and as the people of God engaging in a technological world, we must be reflective. Perhaps it is cliché to remind ourselves that God has called us to love Him with all our minds, but it is nevertheless true. We must be men and women who think deeply about the media with which we engage. I suggest here, before moving on to some very specific applications, that we always err on the side of caution instead of acceptance. I suggest that we feel pulled back by the biblical imperative to live wisely, instead of feeling pushed forward. This, I say, is no mere argument for “everything in moderation.” For this reason, perhaps, words such as “caution” are too weak. What I am suggesting is abstinence where there is doubt and refusal where there is uncertainty.
Part V: A Christian Code for Social Media
As 21st century people, whose minds are filled with thoughts of efficiency and practice, one of the questions that remain is this: “What do we do now?” To answer this question, I would present a “Christian Code for Social Media,” a list of suggestions that help us think about how we can be using social media well. Cultural critics, it has been said, are notorious for making bold statements and accusations without offering much in the way of living in light of their claims. This is not my intention.
In light of this, here are some humble suggestions for how we, the church of God, might use social media reflectively and wisely:
1. Have clear vision and goals for using the tool. John Piper exhibits this well, when he articulates his stance on using social media. He says “that aggressive efforts to saturate a media with the supremacy of God, the truth of Scripture, the glory of Christ, the joy of the gospel, the insanity of sin, and the radical nature of Christian living is a good choice for some Christians.”Thus, he writes: “I am not inclined to tweet that at 10AM the cat pulled the curtains down. But it might remind me that the Lion of Judah will roll up the heavens like a garment, and blow out the sun like a candle, because he just turned the light on. That tweet might distract someone from pornography and make them look up.”Here, we find clear vision for the use of the media, as well as clear boundaries for what will and will not be said, as well as an ideal end result for the use of the media. This kind of reflective vision-casting and goal-setting should be imitated by each church as they think about using these tools.
2. Instead of building the community, mobilize the network. Social media can be used to organize large groups of people quickly—they are built to disseminate information and can be used to exert a mobilizing force on already-existing relationships and communities. Instead of using social media to foster community, we should use them to mobilize the networks already created in our churches; another way to say this might be “arrows out, not arrows in.” Zondervan’s church networking software, The City, is a perfect example of using networks to mobilize the community to action. Event planning and information dissemination happens in the blink of an eye through this software, and organizes one’s church life in one place. The software is dedicated to church mobilization and if mightily effective in this area.
3. Foster authentic, in-the-flesh community. We live in a community-hungry time; people flock to online communities because they do not know how to find an accepting community in real life, or “away from keyboard.” Fostering authentic and accepting communities of love—communities of orality, presence, and selflessness—is a biblical task, one that may be one of the greatest missional endeavors of our time. We, must recognize that “the physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer,” and so live visibly with one another.
4. When in doubt, don’t. When posting online, ask a few questions. What does this say about me? What does it say about the church? What does it say about Christ? If the answers to these questions are not God-honoring, Christ-exalting, Spirit-filled and Gospel-centered, then do not post them. If you are not sure about the nature of the post, then do not post it. The adage says, “It’s better to be safe than sorry.” This is true for social media as well. It is possible to regret something put on the internet; it is impossible to regret something never posted in the first place.
I set out looking to become one of social media’s greatest supporters, and now I barely go a day that without thinking about getting rid of my Facebook account. I thought that, by studying social media, I could purchase my ticket into “cool pastor-dom.” After this study, however, I have chosen instead to be a skeptic, bordering on cynic, when it comes to social media. In the eyes of some, this might make me wise. In the eyes of others, it will make me a fool. Frankly, I do not really mind either way.
If we take seriously the notion that social media are by nature self-promoting, that this is their agenda, we are forced to live differently. This paper is written for the leaders of the church today, the current guard, and my hope is that this paper offers these leaders new categories with which to discern their church’s application of social media. For it is the leaders of our churches, especially, who must be asking if social media are the tools that help live out Paul’s command to the Ephesian elders: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which He obtained with His own blood.”