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Archives for 103 – Social Media and Christian Faith

One of my favorite tasks as a minister of the Manhattan Church of Christ is leading our annual women’s retreat.  Last year our theme was “Space to be Still in the Chaos of Life.”  We spent a lot of our time talking about the way technology has taken away the free spaces in our lives and the negative implications for our emotional and spiritual well-being. I went home feeling convicted and resolved to reclaim some space in my life by curtailing my use of technology, especially social media.  I was practically longing for the good old days when there were no iPhones, Facebook updates or podcasts. Given my newfound convictions, it is surprising, in retrospect, that my iPad was in my bag the day Cara died.

Cara was my new friend.  By the age of 43, she had suffered through breast cancer, a brain tumor and the sudden death of her husband.  As her health continued to deteriorate, she began a spiritual journey, and I was one of the women she graciously invited to accompany her. I was blessed to sit in a small circle with Cara and a few other women, reaching out to a God we were struggling to understand, but finding peace in God’s promises. When Cara entered the hospital for the last time, I prayed that nothing would separate her from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

My first five years in ministry were spent in hospital chaplaincy so I had been there before.  Life support was removed and friends and family gathered to say good-bye.  Old friends and new alike came to see her, some having driven all day long. Our suburban New York hospital bent every rule to allow as many as possible to enter the room after the machines had been removed.

A hospital room is a sacred space, especially when someone is dying. It is in this space that the temporal and the eternal meet; life and death and hope for life anew. As a chaplain I always strove to be a non-anxious presence any time I was in a hospital room. I would lean against the wall in an effort of blend in, while at the same trying to remain aware of anything I could do to make the situation more comfortable, more appropriate, more sacred for the patient and his or her loved ones. Without thinking, this was the posture I assumed in Cara’s room, taking the familiar role of hospital chaplain as a means of managing my own emotions. I leaned against the wall near the top of the bed. Cara’s mother sat by her side holding her hand.  Friends surrounded them both, whispering words of memory and comfort.  There were minutes of silence as we watched her breathe and wondered how long she would labor.

Someone mentioned music and the conversation turned to the hospital’s television options.  Perhaps there was a music channel we could access through the TV.  But no one moved to turn it on. As she mused through a haze of grief and memories, Cara’s mother said, “I wish we could play Dancing Queen. She loved Dancing Queen.”  Cara’s college friends laughed and began to tell stories about the girl they knew — the girl who loved to be that dancing queen.  I didn’t know that girl.  She had been so sick when I became her friend.  But I’d seen the pictures and I was hearing more and more stories; I could imagine her broken body healthy and young and dancing.

Then I remembered the iPad in my bag.  I quietly pulled it out, opened my Spotify app, and searched. Sure enough, there was Dancing Queen, the 1976 hit song by the Swedish pop group ABBA. I hit play and turned up the volume.  I will always remember the joy in her face as Cara’s mother sang along to her dying daughter. “You are the dancing queen, young and sweet, only seventeen.”  I’m sure for this grieving mother, her daughter was still just seventeen, twirling around the room, dancing and singing. As she sang to her daughter we all longed with her for healing for this beautiful woman.  We longed for her journey to end in the warm embrace of the God who created her, who gave her the will and the energy to dance so many years ago.

After the funeral Cara’s mother spoke to me.  She told me she had spent years worrying about her daughter’s death. She didn’t want her daughter to die, but if she was going to die, she wanted it to be painless and peaceful. She was relieved that Cara’s death had been so beautiful, peacefully surrounded by those who loved her. Then with a gleam in her eye she told me how happy Dancing Queen had made her. She thanked me, and I was so grateful to have been able to provide that memory for her.

So you can never put God in a box.  As soon as you preach about the evils of technology, God will stick you in a hospital room and ask you to use the internet to his glory.  And sometimes, even the quietest spaces in our lives need a mobile device with just a little bit of streamed music.

Donald Miller’s recent compositions about why he doesn’t go to church have clearly struck a nerve within the Christian blogosphere. A flood of responses, most of them feverishly trying to explain why it’s actually a good idea to go to church, have poured forth.

It’s been a pretty interesting conversation.  For the record, I like Donald Miller’s work. I’ve used and recommended a couple of his books. I think he writes well, tends to think outside the box, and generally has been a blessing to those who read him.  I also think some of his ideas about how church could look, for those who don’t like its current manifestation, are pretty good.  All of that said, however, I do take issue with a basic premise in his discussion…that his “learning style” is the leading rationale behind his decision not to go to church. He has even answered some of his critics by asserting that they’ve ignored that “learning styles” is what his original blog is really about.

A major part of my life’s mission as a psychologist is to try to help educate people about the extent to which they’re exposed to loads of pure baloney masquerading as science.  Many of these wolves-in-lab-coat-clothing notions just seem so commonsensical that we easily presume that there must be some good science behind them.  Along with this dangerous presumption, whether we would admit it or not, virtually everyone considers herself or himself to be an expert in human behavior and mental functioning. We’re all self-styled personality, emotional, and cognitive theorists and have become such just simply by living and observing people every day. Just pay attention and you’ll figure out how people tick, right? Further, once we’ve decided how things really work, we proceed to see the world with a biased perspective in favor of evidence that supports our preconceived conclusions, and ignores or undermines evidence to the contrary.

Added to this problem is the tendency of paper never to refuse ink (and word processors never to refuse a keystroke.)  Much of what is written, blogged, or otherwise published calling itself behavioral science is bunk, but plays on our common sense, appeals to our inflated sense of our own expertise about how the human psyche works, and thus masquerades as good science or good reasoning.  Mix all of this together and you end up with a pretty sophisticated mythology of human thought and behavior that often bears little resemblance to how people actually think and behave. A prime case in point is the “learning styles” understanding of how the mind works. It seems right, but really isn’t.  I think this issue is an important part of the ongoing discussion of Miller’s blog, since he has made learning styles the real basis for the entire case he makes.

The idea of a “learning style” has been floating around educational circles for a few decades. In many circles, it has achieved the status of canonical wisdom. Most teachers subscribe to it in some form.  Many believe they intuitively know and understand that some people just learn visually, while others require auditory methods, and others (particularly those who have been subjected to the ubiquitous diagnosis of ADHD) are kinesthetic learners.  Miller says he’s one of the latter. So, since church doesn’t let us move around much (with the exception of occasional standing or some kneeling if you’re Catholic or Anglican) we don’t really learn by doing much in church. So, it follows that kinesthetic learners can’t really benefit from being there. They’re just not wired up for church the way it’s typically done.  It’s a brain thing, you see? Neurophysiology is destiny.  God made each of us to learn and function best using particular sensory modalities, so we should seek our spiritual experiences and connections with God through the modalities with which God made each of us to uniquely function best.  Miller is far from alone in this perspective.

This notion has some huge problems.  First of all, the whole idea that we each have a specific learning style that is wired into our brain and we must seek to learn through that style if we’re going to learn effectively is probably a fiction.  The good science to support it is simply not there.  In 2009, the American Psychological Society drew this conclusion after extensively reviewing the literature, and there’s a growing body of empirical work supporting my assertion (e.g. Dan Willingham, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Virginia has a short YouTube clip that debunks the learning styles concept pretty well).  The idea of learning styles appeals to our common sense. It also appeals to the current tendency to try to reduce every complex human function or characteristic to some neuroanatomical or neurochemical process – another notion that crumbles under the weight of either a thorough scientific or logical analysis. It just doesn’t hold up well to scientific scrutiny.

What’s probably true is that many of us have an impression of how we learn best that’s based on our subjective and biased self-observation and that impression doesn’t match the reality of how we actually experience the world and learn. What the predominance of current evidence suggests is that we all learn some things best by seeing, some other things best by hearing, and some other things by doing.  Whichever of these categories of things happens to best fit our preferences, our personalities, the mood we’re in at the time, and a bunch of other individual variables becomes what we label as our “learning style.”  We tend to make life choices that indulge those individual proclivities and preferences and reinforce our notions of our own styles of learning, thinking, and doing.

How all of this relates to Miller’s reflections on church is that he and others who use similar arguments have found a sophisticated, psycho-educational (and by implication neurobiological) jargon to explain their personal preferences and proclivities.  It’s all a kind of pseudoscientific facade for the reality that church, the way it is typically done, is just not his cup of tea.

Believe me… I get that.  I often feel it and I strongly identify with much of what Miller says.  What I try not to do, however, is to dress it up by implying that the reason for all of it is some sort of hard-wired cognitive and behavioral way of being that God made me.  Let’s not have this conversation based on those false premises, but rather accept that our styles, preferences, and choices are just that. From what Miller has written, I think it’s perfectly safe to say that he simply doesn’t like going to church.  (He compares it to self-mutilation at one point.) Okay, so he has honestly and courageously expressed what many people feel.

I think Miller is using the learning styles idea as convenient intellectual cover for an issue that most churches are facing.  Many people don’t come to church because they’re bored with it.  They just don’t like it.  And, in the consumer-driven culture to which we have become so thoroughly assimilated, we can all just exercise other options to get our experience of God.  That’s not really news. But it is really important.

There is one thing that the learning styles research can help us with in this conversation.  In looking into the process of learning, what we’ve discovered is that what really gets a point home is a good example or illustration, whether it’s visual, auditory, or kinesthetic.  In other words, what matters most is the quality of the presentation, not the sensory mode in which it’s offered.  A lot of people don’t come to church because they’re simply tired of hearing bad sermons, songs they don’t like, or being in an atmosphere where they just aren’t comfortable.  Churches need to own up to that.

So, here’s a modest proposal about some ground rules for the ongoing conversation. How about we say – It’s not fair for people who simply don’t like to go to church to try to justify it by calling it a neurological condition.  And, it’s not fair for churches to justify doing a poor job of connecting with those disinterested and bored multitudes by blaming them for not making enough of an effort. Maybe if we start with those premises, we can proceed with a healthy discussion of how we can all better accept the mutual and shared responsibility of doing and being church.

A couple of new things have gone live over the last few weeks. The first is the ministry job board. On this board churches who are looking for a minister can post minister job descriptions so that ministers and churches can be informed and networked. Our prayer is that God will use this service to benefit many congregations over the years. Many thanks to Brad Palmore for getting this built into the site. We only have a couple of jobs in there so far, as this is a new feature. We want to see this grow and we need your help and recommendation of that resources to churches and ministers you know who are looking. Thank you for your help! Here is the link churches can use to post jobs (which is see in the drop down links on the site) https://wineskins.org/submit-job-listing/

Second, the Wineskins archive of all past issues starting in 1992 is up and indexed by author and subject (still working to complete the subject index). There are nearly 1600 articles written by everyone from Mike Cope to Max Lucado to Rick Warren, Henri Nouwen and many more. I am very excited to see the archive back up and running.

Last, a book giveaway! We are going to give away a copy of one of our Featured Authors, Josh Graves’ book “Heaven on Earth: Realizing the Good Life Now“. Josh co-authored the book with Chris Seidman in 2012. In order to be in the running for the book, comment on this post and we will randomly draw a name on Friday.

heaven-on-earth-graves

Much of what is written on the Internet about churches and social media is targeted toward big churches, big enough to have meetings about “branding” and “marketing.” Big enough to hire pros to help with their branding efforts.

Most Churches of Christ are 200 members or less and have only one or two ministers on staff. These churches aren’t trying to be Saddleback, but they have needs that social media can help — and can help very inexpensively with only a modest investment of staff and volunteer time.

And so, for the normal church, I’m going to make this really, really simple.  Read more »

This was written by Jake Jacobson and Jonathan Storment, preaching intern and preaching minister at the Highland Church of Christ.

“The Internet is a Gift from God” –Pope Francis”

“He [Pope Francis] apparently hasn’t scrolled down to the comments yet.” –Steven Colbert

A few years ago the head of the Catholic Church in England took a stand against the next wave of sin. 
It wasn’t homicide, abortion, or drugs. The sin this time was something far more innocuous.

He took a stand against Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and all the other ways that we can connect to one another virtually. He said that too much communication via technology is dehumanizing. We lose the social skills that are necessary to interact face to face. Or even worse, we lose the desire.

His main point was that real friendship is hard work that involves sacrifice, time, and serving one another. The danger of our social networking is that the emphasis seems to be on quantity of relationships above the quality of them.

How many times have you been sitting at a table in a really good conversation when your pocket starts to ring, or your conversation partner starts to text someone else? Are we losing the art of being fully present anywhere by attempting to be present everywhere?

This is not to be nostalgic, or to say that we should just go back to the good ole days of candlelight and ink pens. But when was the last time you turned off your phone? Or went to visit someone instead of sending an email?

There’s one Saturday Night Live character who often has some fairly insightful commentary on social media and how it is used today. The problem, he says, is that kids today don’t understand how to show respect to other people because all they care about is their social media profiles. They only care about the way people view them based on how funny, pretty, intelligent, or fill-in-the-blank-here that they are. It’s all about image.

But I think that problem belongs to more than just kids.

Many adults are catching on to the benefits of social media as well. Facebook and Twitter are picking up steam in the business world; sites like LinkedIn allow professionals to become connected with one another. The problem with these sites is that it’s all about image. How do you present yourself? Who are you?

These are questions most of us ask throughout life. Who am I? What is my purpose? How do others view me, and what do they think my purpose is?

These are good questions, but they can also be dangerous ones.

They can become consuming questions. Like Narcissus, we can find ourselves in love with our image, and find a crushing need to keep it up.

We want to appear as people have (or haven’t) defined us. And what’s worse is that we will do anything to sustain that image of who we are or of who people think we are.

In a word, it can become idolatry, only this time we aren’t bowing down to a golden calf.

Now, we are simply looking in the mirror (or more likely, at the computer screen).

I like the way that John Ortberg talks about this:

“Technology is always a doubled-edged sword, because it reflects the wonder of the Imago Dei and the wickedness of the fall. The printing press which brought the Bible to the masses did the same for pornography.”

Is Social Media good or bad? Yes.

It puts on full display the human condition for better or for worse. But we’ve been doing that for thousands of years without the Internet, and so maybe it’s time to learn how to plug some ancient ethics into how we live in a very new era.

The apostle James has an important word to say to the church that had grown and spread all over the ancient world, and it can be helpful for this discussion about social media as well. He writes about the tongue in chapter 3, about how it has all this potential for good but the trappings of evil too. The tongue is capable of doing things like offering words of encouragement or thanks to men and women who serve other people. It is capable of complimenting our spouses, children, co-workers, or friends on something well done. It is capable of telling that inspirational story of a man or woman who beat the odds of cancer and is able to go home to their family.

It is capable of great good. But the tongue is also capable of great evil.

As if we didn’t know that already.

Sure, it’s capable of blessing the Lord, but it can also curse human beings who are made in God’s likeness (James 3:9). It’s with our words that we are capable of bullying, gossiping, and many other words of violence, hatred, and division.

In Genesis God speaks a world into existence, and then God creates humans in His image with that same ability. The tongue is capable of creating our identity, of presenting an image—an image of who we may or may not be—of ourselves to others. This image tells other people that we are funny, pretty, intelligent, or better on social media.

And what’s dangerous is that we recognize bullying, gossiping, violence, hatred, and division as much worse than fibbing about who we are. If we are caught up in our use of social media in the number of “likes” or “favorites” that we have, we probably have forgotten something about who the Bible says we are, something about who God says we are.

I think social media tells us something very true about ourselves: that we are social beings. But I also think it misses what God tells us about who we are: created beings who represent the image of the creator himself.

And that means that we are already “liked” and “favorited” by the one we worship.

So we must bear the weight of the image of God well, even in the virtual world of images, or maybe especially in the virtual world of images.

As James says later in chapter 3, our tongues proclaim (or fingers type) the wisdom that comes with knowing who we are: words that are pure, peaceful, gentle, obedient, filled with mercy and good actions, fair, and genuine.

Repeat after me: “Social media is neutral.”

The image above (the source of which I am having trouble locating; I can’t remember where I first saw it floating around the Internet) is a humorous reminder that our knee-jerk reactions to new technology are often found – in hindsight – to be unnecessarily alarmist.

It is particularly ironic that I am writing this because, as my husband (or really, anyone who knows me) will tell you, I have an immediate negative reaction to change. Every time an app updates, or Facebook changes its layout, or I install the new OS on my iPhone or laptop, I insist that I hate it, that it’s ugly, that I don’t need all these newfangled features. In college, before I had a cell phone, I soap-boxed about how pointless they were. Once I got a phone but before I had texting, I ranted about how silly it was: “Use AOL Instant Messenger on your computer, or just call them!” I said. (This is particularly ironic now, since I honestly could not tell you the last time I used my iPhone to make a phone call.) Before I had a smart phone, I waxed eloquent about how it seemed unnecessary: Since I already have a laptop and a phone, why would I need a “worse” version of both of those things? Just this week I was complaining about Instagram: I don’t see what it gets me that I don’t already have on Facebook and Twitter…and by saying that, I prove that I never learn my lesson. See y’all on Instagram in a year.

To my husband’s endless entertainment, I am a “late adopter” (well, technically, I’m probably the “early majority” – check out the technology adoption lifecycle). I miss the way things used to be…and then I get over it. Eventually. It is my tendency to see the negative aspects of change before the positive.

And certainly, there are some bad things about social media/new technology.

  • Depersonalization – We have all seen, if not participated in, a comment thread or Twitter exchange gone terribly wrong. Somehow, on social media, people speak to each other and react in ways that we never would if we were speaking face-to-face. It is all too easy to “other” the commenter, to see them as a battle to be won rather than an embodied person.
  • Distraction – As social media and technology intertwine (that is, as our technology makes our social media increasingly easy to access) it becomes more difficult to maintain separation from social media. Again, I think we have all been eaten lunch with someone who was checking their phone (by which I mean actively texting or looking at Facebook, not just “keeping an eye on their phone in case the kids call”) the entire time we were talking. In fact, we have probably all been that person. We text while we talk, play games while we watch TV, check email while we walk down the street; our brains (hearts, selves) are constantly in two places at once. But of course, we’re not fully in either place.
  • Deception – (Okay, that is more harsh a term than I would usually use, but I’m on a roll with D-words.) What I mean is that people portray their best selves on social media. We post pictures of our children being sweet and cute (or, occasionally, pictures of them misbehaving, if it is funny) but rarely post updates about parenting on the days that we aren’t sure if we can stand our kids for another minute. We post updates when we are offered a scholarship to our school of choice, accept a new job, get pregnant/have a baby, but rarely post about our rejection letters, flopped interviews, or miscarriages. For some people, this makes it difficult to even participate in social media, since everyone else’s life seems to be so easy when your life seems so hard.
  • Decreased Intelligence – The Internet is making people “dumber.” (I’ll stop with the D-words now; I promise.) In my experience grading college students’ written work over the last five years, the grammatical and stylistic competence has decreased. It is not just that they are not proofreading (although that is certainly true) but that, even when they do proofread, they are so unfamiliar with the edited written word that they do not know they are making mistakes. More importantly, their critical thinking skills seem to have decreased. People’s ability to discern and distinguish (Oops! More D-words!) between valid and invalid sources of information, to weigh input and synthesize a response, seems to have decreased. Whatever is in the top three Google search results wins.

But, having made it through my initial resistance phase, I can now see that social media also has significant positive potential. For instance:

  • Connection – I have the unique experience of ministering at a church that is two hours away from where I live. Certainly, this is not ideal. However, this is the best fit both for me and for the church right now, and social media has made it possible for me to connect with people in that community throughout the week when I am not there. Through Facebook and Twitter, I am able to show up on Sunday morning with some idea what has been going on in the lives of church members (and vice versa), which would previously have been impossible.  You’ll rarely hear any complaints about social media from grandparents with younger grandchildren who live far away. And I am frequently “friended” on Facebook by people I have not met in person. Sometimes, these are people with whom I have friends in common, so it is simply an extending of the network. But more often, for me at least, these are younger women in Churches of Christ thinking of pursuing ministry who are in search of support or advice. I imagine the beginning of my journey down this path would have been easier if I had someone to walk alongside me. I could go on about the connections that social media makes possible: increased access to advocacy, guidance, inspiration, encouragement, etc.
  • Globalization – Social media has the potential to enlarge our perspective. Just as much as social media can distract us from “real life” (that is, from the people that right in front of us) it can also connect us to “real life” (that is, to what life is like for the majority of people). The Twitter hashtag “#FirstWorldProblems” (when taken seriously) has the potential to remind us that the things we complain about are generally unimportant. The Twitter Revolutions of 2009-2011 not only enlarged our Western perspective, but also made possible some real change in the Middle East.
  • Access to Information – Similarly, although there may be work to do in terms of discernment, social media and technology mean increased access to more diverse information. Again, we have a ways to go, but the world in which the winners write the history and minority voices are completely wiped from the record is becoming more and more difficult to maintain, which can only be a good thing.

This has certainly been only a cursory survey of the potential of social media for good or not-so-good. What do I recommend? Ultimately, I can’t say that my advice about social media is all that different from my advice about life in general:

  • Be hospitable. See others as made in the image of God (Genesis 1-2). Interact with others as if you are interacting with Christ (Matthew 25). Don’t forget that behind every comment is a person. Well, unless that comment says something like “very nice put up, i certainly love this website, keep on it.” Then it’s probably a computer trying to sound like a person, and you can ignore it.
  • Be discerning. Think before you speak. This is only more important because what you put on social media is visible to the public and there forever.
  • Be realistic. Social media is limited. Be realistic about what it can/cannot do. It might bring some new people to your church, but it is not going to change your target demographic. It is going to change the world (has already), but it is not going to change human nature.
  • Be present. Be where you are. (Credit where credit is due, I can’t separate my use of this phrase from this great blog and the product it inspired) If you are with people face-to-face, put down your phone and be with those people. And if you’re on Facebook, great; make connections there. But don’t do both at the same time.

Maybe you see more bad than good in social media, or maybe you think that my saying there is anything bad about it makes me old-fashioned. But when it comes to social media, there is at least one thing upon which we can all agree: Ain’t nobody on Google Plus.

You sit down for dinner in a nice restaurant. Across from you there are two couples, one young and the other old. The young couple is talking away…not a moment of silence between them. The old couple sits together with one very noticeable difference…less talk, more silence.

Maturity leads to security:
It is easy to think the young couple is more in love because they have so much more to talk about with few of those awkward, silent moments and that the older couple has been together so long that they have lost their spark. How can you tell? Their silence seems to tell us that much. To the young, silence feels awkward, highlighting our own sense of insecurity. Silence allows our thoughts to race and for us feel like we have been left out of what the other person is thinking (social media has trained many to think that we really should have constant access to the thoughts of those around us). In our desire to re-establish our sense of security and to quickly eliminate the anxiety that the unknown tends to produce, we race to fill the silence with either questions or answers.

This is something you may have experienced in person but it is also highly likely that you have experienced this via facebook, twitter, email, text, etc. You may have experienced this when you sent a message to someone and they never responded and you worried over whether or not you hurt their feelings. You sent them that Facebook message that was marked “Seen” 30 seconds after you sent it and still no response. What are they thinking? Are they mad? And so you kept waiting and waiting for them to answer. When they finally replied, what felt like an eternity was only 2 minutes since you sent your message.

It is far too easy to worry and agonize over what people think about us, because in a world full of noise, it feels like all opinions are out for all to see. When they aren’t it worries us. It is insecurity of the highest order.

Back to those two couples…the truth may actually be the opposite of what our intuition tells us. It may well be that the young couple is so insecure in their connection and insecure with themselves that they feel the constant need to fill the air with noise, while the old couple is secure with their relationship and with their own identity so much so that they don’t feel the need to fill the air with chatter. They rest comfortably and securely in the moment, just being present with one another.

Maturity knows when to be silent:
The typical thought is that the more mature you get the more things of value you have to say. I am wondering if there is a flip side to that…the more mature you get the more you learn to embrace silence.The more mature you get the more you are able to not feel the need to call out every error, fix every issue and be the savior of every person you don’t see eye to eye with on every miniscule issue. It takes maturity to know which “fights” are worth jumping into and which ones are best avoided. It takes a solid maturity and personal security with one’s self to be silent…to not feel the need to fill the air with noise. We need more people who know when to be silent and often, that person who needs to embrace the silence is me.

In a world chocked full of social media outlets the whole point is to make noise. The crazy thing about it is, we send out noise to be recognized…we hope someone will notice. If they don’t, people get devastated, feel unloved or unwanted and try even harder to get noticed until they do something or say something they never would have said otherwise. We have created a system that rewards the outliers and the extremes…it takes things viral that normally shouldn’t have been said in the first place. In the process, there is spiritual de-formation taking place that is killing a whole generation.

Maturity adds value to others:
Many of us need to learn to be secure enough with ourselves that silence no longer feels threatening and that our feelings of value and acceptance aren’t based on who “likes” or “shares” our posts or whether or not our thoughts become the latest “viral” buzz. We need to spend more time and energy pointing people away from ourselves, not to ourselves and rejoicing in the well being of people other than ourselves.

A lot of you already do these things. You have already learned the lesson and this isn’t news to you. Praise God for that! But there are still many who need to learn that their value is not wrapped up in social media or superficial connections but in a God who truly loves them and in Christians who genuinely care.

How has social media heightened your sense of insecurity?

What have you done to address that?

Have you ever taken time off from social media?

How did that go?

Popular Reformed author and blogger Adrian Warnock and I recently had a conversation to discuss what Christians need to know about the online world — including social media.

There are moral and spiritual dimensions to reading and posting online. Consequently, God’s people need to be attuned to His ways as it applies to social media, blogging, email, etc.

Adrian and I recorded our conversation with him in England and I in the USA.

Amazing what can be done with technology today!

You can listen to our conversation in the following ways:

podbean

 

 

 

Podbean (Stream)

rssfeed

 

 

 

RSS Feed

Shame. That is what I felt when I finally came out of my fog of denial and admitted to myself how deeply I had let the roots of social media to grow into my sense of self. Shame and revulsion. Something had to change. I had begun to chase the fix that came with every retweet, share, “like” or “favorite.” I found myself getting anxious if I posted something that didn’t generate much response. This dis-ease could be compounded exponentially when paired with the fluctuating traffic on my blog which I tried to drive through social media. I awoke one day to the fact that I had become a social media addict in need of an intervention and rehab. I was neglecting my family and ministry for artificial connections with cyber-ciphers who created the illusion of relationship without the demands of incarnational interaction.

How did it happen? Slowly. I was reluctant to get involved in the Facebook phenomena and even slower with Twitter. I saw it as dangerous and narcissistic at first and did not get on any social media until well into 2009. Even when I got on, I used it sparingly until I had a “legitimate” reason—serving God.

In 2010 I left congregational ministry for the para-church world. All of a sudden I was in a new world without a regular group of people showing up for stuff I planned to say and do each week. How could I get the word out about what we were doing at Missions Resource Network? How could we fulfill our mandate to equip churches to serve the mission of God if they didn’t know we were here or what we offered? How would prospective missionaries know we offered training or care if they never heard of us? Social media looked like the perfect platform: a readymade tool for promoting legitimate ministry.  And it was and is.

The marketing experts who train people like me who work for non-profits say you have to be in the social media. People don’t give to causes or organizations anymore. People give to people they trust who are advocating for values and causes they embrace.  To get their support, you have to establish yourself as a thought leader. How do you do that? Blogging, I was told. OK, I didn’t have time when I was preaching and couldn’t afford to waste the few ideas I had on a blog then, but now I had no other place to share what was bubbling up inside me and I was used to writing out thoughts every week.

Blogging was natural and easy. I was told the strategy was to get people to go from your blog to your organization’s website or to bring you in as a speaker. But how do you get people to your blog? Social media. And, you can’t just post your blog on social media, you have to be out there regularly and attract a following by being engaging, funny, and sharing useful stuff that isn’t always about your ministry. Got it. Create a social media presence with a following, move them to my blog (which must also be personal and vulnerable)), and then move readers to your website and your ministry. That will open up ministry opportunities and potential donors.

It made sense and it worked. I enjoyed it, a lot, too much in fact. What I didn’t take into consideration is what regular engagement on social media could do to me. It is addictive, especially to a praise junky like myself. I liked the attention without the demand that goes with congregational ministry. I found that being vulnerable and confessional was too close to narcissistic obsession for me to resist.  I learned that my addiction to attention cultivated as a preacher could become even unhealthier online. Next thing you know, social media and blogging began to pull me away from the people I loved and pulled me away from being the man I wanted to be.

So, what do I do about that reality that I need social media and blogging to advance my ministry in our current culture? I’m still working that out, but I’m more careful now.

  1. I had to stop blogging for a while. I took a hiatus of several months and stopped posting to my former blog which had generated something of a following. After several months away, I did start blogging but on a new site that is less personal and more ministry/missions focused. I want to be the guy holding the camera, not the guy on camera.
  2. I took Facebook and Twitter apps off my iPhone and iPad and stopped leaving them up on my desktop. I intentionally make myself go through several steps to get to them so it is a bother. In addition, I’ve set boundaries around my usage both in terms of frequency and content.
  3. I stopped carrying my iPhone around with me at home. When I walk in the door, it goes on a little desk in our kitchen by my wife’s. None of us have our phones on us at home. We restrict our 11 year old daughter’s use of hers to the weekend. I don’t check my phone unless I have a specific reason and then only rarely. No just browsing social media to see what’s going on. Even phone calls and texts can wait until my family is attended to appropriately.

I can testify that my family life is better now. I am a more fully present, loving husband and father who spends more time attending to others instead of wondering what people out there think about this or that. Prayer and peace are richer and more frequent.

I am thankful for social media and related internet outlets that make sharing, learning, and finding information easy. However, I found that my love of attention and capacity for self-deception require I be extremely cautious about how I use them. They are like alcohol. They may not be inherently immoral and may have some good uses, but they are profoundly dangerous and can cause you to make a fool of yourself and can even destroy your life through abuse quicker than you imagine. And, it is really hard to know when enough is enough. Good boundaries are essential if you are going to partake. So, use with caution.

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.

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