Recently, Christian author and popular blogger Rachel Held Evans sent out an observation and question on Twitter.
Rachel’s observation was that nearly every Christian blogger of her acquaintance was getting burnt out.
And her follow-up question was simple: Why was this happening?
It’s a question worth pondering. Why are many Christians getting burnt out on social media?
There are lots of answers to that question. I expect many of us have pledged to give up the Internet at one time or another. The debates on Twitter can seem petty and pointless. Nastiness runs through comment sections. And blog rants shed way too much heat and not enough light. To say nothing of Christian charity.
No doubt that’s a huge part of the problem. But sometimes I think we get demoralized by the Internet because of our expectations. Burnout is often the product of disappointment.
What sort of expectations? In this case, an expectation many Christians are vulnerable to, the belief that it’s our job to save the world.
This problem isn’t new to social media. I see it a lot in my college students and in my local church context. You get a passion, say, for the poor and start pouring your life into that issue. But the needs are so overwhelming and your time, energy, influence and bank account way too limited to make a dent.
So you pull away from the big global challenges and focus on local ministries that reach out to the poor. You make new friends. But these new friends start asking you for money. Or they tell you lies to cover for their drug addiction. Or they steal from you. Or they are just too socially damaged to reciprocate the friendship. You give and give and give. And the need out there–even in just one person–seems like a vast hole you’re throwing everything into. And getting nothing back. Eventually, you burn out.
A lot of us started out on the Jesus-life as radical young idealists. And then reality hit.
And I wonder–and I am just wondering here–if something similar doesn’t happen with social media. We start thinking our blogs or Twitter accounts are “platforms,” locations where social media influence can be used to make the world a better place.
So that’s what you try to do. And sometimes it seems to work. You write something and the world responds. Your post goes viral and the comments fill up with words of gratitude.
Those are good days. I think I’ve helped people, in all sorts of ways, with something I’ve written. Words can give life.
And yet, the opinions and positions out there in the world of social media can be so calcified and dogmatic that conversation feels like banging your head against a wall.
Add to this the fact that social media “debates” are so impersonalized that our worst selves tend to get drawn to the surface.
Over time, then, we begin to feel that all our social media activity and advocacy isn’t changing the world much at all. It feels rather, as I said, like we are banging our heads against the wall.
And sometimes it feels like we are making things worse, that the more we argue on social media the more polarized and entrenched we’re becoming.
We are not connecting or changing. We are drifting further and further apart in confusion and anger.
So we get disillusioned with social media, like we do with any sort of ministry that sets out to change the world. We start off as idealists but when the world doesn’t change as fast as we’d like it to we end up tired, disillusioned and, well, burnt out.
So, is there anything we can do about this? Is there a better way to participate as a Christian on social media? Can we shift our expectations in a way that our time online is filled with joy and grace rather than with anger and disappointment?
I can only speak from my own experience, both as a blogger and as someone who is working hard to make friendships “at the margins” as a part of a local church plant.
I don’t know how I can solve the problems of many of my friends. The issues are daunting. Chronic poverty. Drug addiction. Mental illness. Physical disability. Cognitive disability. In the face of all this crushing need for the first time in my life I sort of get what Jesus meant when he said, “The poor you will always have with you.”
I can’t fix it or make it go away. I can’t change the world. I’m not the Messiah. But I can be a sacrament. I can be sign of love, a sign of life. I can be a friend. In a cruel and inhumane world I can be a location of kindness.
I wonder if something similar might be necessary for social media.
I think it’s really, really hard to change a person’s mind by debating with them on social media. I don’t think people are all that persuadable on social media. Everything is working against you, especially the lack of face to face contact.
In short, I think that trying to change people on or through the Internet is sort of like trying to address world poverty with your own checking account. If the poor will always be with us there will also be people with very strong opinions who will disagree with us or vote differently from us.
So I’m wondering, as I’m learning with issues like poverty, if we might learn to Tweet and blog sacramentally. The goal isn’t to argue, debate, call out or “win.” Because that game, as best I can tell, isn’t winnable. Minds don’t change because of social media debates. I’ve never seen it.
So the goal is to use social media sacramentally so we can be a sign, a sign of life and grace.
Looking back, my blog has been at its best when it has been sacramental. I wrote a post that told a story about love and grace. I shared something that educated, shed some light, inspired thought or reflection.
Being truly sacramental isn’t all that viral. But maybe it could be. Slowly and quietly. A flicker here and a flicker there. Signs and sacraments. Eventually. Everywhere.
Maybe that’s the way the world changes.
Richard Beck is the chair of the psychology department at Abilene Christian University. He has written several books including Unclean, The Authenticity of Faith and his newest book The Slavery of Death. Richard blogs at Experimental Theology, which is one of the most widely read blogs in Churches of Christ.