The above photograph is a lot more than humorous for me; it sums up social media engagement. For the uninitiated you “follow” people on Twitter which adds up to receiving their Twitter feeds. Jesus was about a whole different kind of following altogether. However, for the Christian the following of Jesus on Twitter heightens the level of discipleship needed for such engagement. John Stott shared, in his final book The Radical Disciple, how in his last talk at Keswick, at the grand old age of 86, that he had lived his life believing that what God wanted most from his life was Christ-likeness. Perhaps a good passage to contextualise these thoughts on social media would be Ephesians 5; “1 Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children 2 and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. 3 But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for the Lord’s people.”
First, let me share something of my own social media journey with particular reference to Facebook. Working as a Chaplain I became aware of Facebook somewhere around 2006 and remember my students finding it quite quaint when the old man signed up! My first day though convinced me of its unbelievable potential. As I started “befriending” people I found myself in the first 24 hours engaging with folk who had lost faith, were looking for faith or had struggles in their faith. I remember at the dinner table suggesting to my wife Janice that there would come a day when we would need to employ a pastor simply to work on Facebook!
Over the years I have had significant moments on Facebook and had to learn a whole new pastoral pattern. As already noted I have had very serious moments of pastoral care and conversations with those who have lost their faith or never had faith at all. As the minister in a new congregation I have found that commenting on people’s Facebook status has speeded up pastor networking. This has been particularly true in terms of communicating with our Overseas Personnel (missionaries) across the world and our students in England and Scotland. We in Fitzroy have used Facebook and more recently Twitter as our main means of advertising events. We now have some members who joined us through casual Facebook engagement.
There have been dilemmas too. I remember in the immediate aftermath of losing a dear member of our congregation asking our pastoral assistant who else had heard the news? She told me a few names and then added that she didn’t get someone in person and she wouldn’t leave a message in a situation like this. Later I noticed that around the same time one of the deceased’s children had already shared the news on Facebook. This alerts the pastor to the different ways that are appropriate for different generations to share information. We need to be wise when we use social media or texting or voice messaging or whatever; what is appropriate for some might not be for others.
I also shared on my Facebook status one morning something that someone suggested a minister shouldn’t say publicly. I didn’t feel it was public but amongst a group of friends who had chosen to be my “friends.” I have also left messages on other people’s pages and not realised how many of their “friends” might read the comment! In conversations that have happened on my status I have added personal messages that others involved in the discussion didn’t know the meaning of and took the wrong way. So, yes, there are dilemmas and you have to always stay alert!
However, it is now part of life. The printing press must have raised dilemmas too. This new gadget was going to be used for propaganda, anti Christ literature and pornography. If we had decided not to use it the Reformation would have a very different history. The radio, the television, the telephone and indeed the computer have all changed the world we live in. The Church has oftentimes been slow to exploit the benefits. I was amazed when people heard I was going to take a positive approach to social media how many people were thanking me because they were fed up with all the negative response.
Yes, footballers have been very bad adverts for the medium. Yes, there have been politicians including our own MLAs who have had to catch on to the new rules of social engagement. Yes, teachers will tell me that cyber bullying is what they now spend most time dealing with. However, life is messy and we need to navigate our ways through the dilemmas of human interaction. Social networking does raise dilemmas but then doesn’t all forms of socialisation.
We are back to where we started. What new forms of social media call for is a heightened form of discipleship. Throwaway comments between friends, that you would get off with off line can expose your loose gossip, rumour mongering, bad mouthing and slandering on line. Never is it more necessary to be Christlike and to follow the advice of Charles Sheldon’s book In His Steps or the bracelets so recently a fad, WWJD (What Would Jesus Do). To really follow Jesus has never been more crucial. If ever we needed he wisdom and fruit of the Spirit in our social interaction it is now. Can you opt out? You can but as a Christian with a pastoral and missional intentionality to share Christ’s love with as many people as possible then I suggest that Social Media is a huge blessing and not a curse. It is time to engage.
(Part 2 to follow – Social Media as Incarnation)