Every day it seems there is another headline about social media abuse or trolling. Politicians, sportsmen and women, journalists, pop stars are all open to all kinds of anonymous verbal attack and threats.
As well as this we have been aware for some years at the teenage mental health problems associated with social media. Cyberbullying and comparing their lives with others have put a stress on teens that former generations didn’t have to face.
It would easy to just ban social media altogether but let us take a deep breath. New forms of communication have been shuddering the foundations of societies since the first picture was carved onto the wall of a cave, or a word could be written down, or the printing press was invented, or the radio, the telephone, television and the world wide web. At every stage there has been immediate suspicion, a time of coming to terms with and finally social behaviour patterns to deal with it all.
Of course during our Coronavirus Year we have suddenly realised that social media is not of the devil! Video chat apps, broadcast platforms, video search engines, or plain social media might instead have been a God given gift. They have been a blessed resource to creatively hold congregations together in the absence of gatherings
As the shuddering of social media impact slows we need new behavioural patterns honed and modelled and delivered. The Church has been slow to get to grips with this. At our Conferences and in our work on discipleship we should have been focusing in on material and resources for Social Media Discipleship.
On my first week on Facebook in 2006 I remember saying to my wife Janice over tea, “You know there will come a time when we will need a facebook Pastor”. My very first connections had had me pastor one friend, share apologetics with another and become involved in some evangelism with someone I didn’t really know at all. I knew then that there was a huge potential in this exciting if dangerous new world
Fifteen years later as we come out of Covid 19 lockdown Fitzroy as a congregation are imagining how we can reap the potential of social media. How can we reach, engage and disciple a world seeking God? The social media pastor is a whole lot closer to reality and many churches are already doing it.
As someone who spends hours on social media every day I have created my own discipleship pillars. Based on Paul’s letter to the Philippians I hold to four principles that I try to be consciously aware of as I engage. I have learned a lot about social media engagement over the years just as I hope I have matured in all aspects of my spiritual life.
Paul prays for the Philippians:
And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ… (Philippians 1:9-11)
Love and knowledge and depth of insight. Trying to line up those three things is a full house of wisdom. Love first. God’s love. Grace. Then knowledge. God’s revelation. Let the word of God dwell in you richly (Colossians 3:16). Finally, from the marriage of those two perhaps - insight.
Insight is defined as “the capacity to gain an accurate and deep understanding of someone or something”. The new world of social media should not be rushed into without seeking insight. How does it work? Where are the strengths? Where are the weaknesses? How are things perceived in a public forum? When you are talking to someone you know personally, how will others who don’t know the context read your post? How quickly do you respond to confrontational messages, if you do at all? When should you use the front page of Facebook or Twitter and when should you moved to personal message?
Prayerful insight is needed in all these layers of social media communication.
Philippians 2:5-11 is a wonderful poetic hymn of incarnation theology. Jesus attitude of love, posture of humility and actions as a servant. The incarnation changes the world and the ways to live in it.
Two lessons from incarnation that I apply to social media.
Firstly, that it was “the word made flesh and moving in among us” (John 1:14). Moving in. When we have the same attitude as Jesus our calling and mission is to be in middle of neighbourhood whether that neighbourhood is virtual or real.
There are an estimated 2.7 billion people on Facebook every month. Oh my. There are tens of thousands specifically searching for Jesus on-line. Where should we be? Those of us from a reformed tradition turned our backs on the monastic lives of abstaining from the world believing that God wants us to set up a Kingdom in its midst. The incarnation tells us to be involved.
When we get involved the posture of incarnation is humility. We follow the God of the manger, the donkey and the cross. Humility is a word that isn’t quickly associated with social media. I think particularly of Twitter. Twitter has a tendency to encourage acerbic arrogant pontification. God’s word made flesh in Twitter’s 280 characters should shine with a humble posture.
That is not to say our contributions need to be soft. We are in conversations about art and faith and politics and all sorts. Yet, even in the banter about football I try my very best to refrain from barbed attacks. Sometimes our ideas of fun don’t have a Christlikeness. I strive to be a good loser and humble winner.
If that is how it is with sport, how much more with politics and religion. We need to believe courageously but carry it gently. I attempt to engage on all social media with this spirit Paul’s words to the Philippians.
Humility also keeps me honest. Confession is good for the soul and for our life long repentance and I am always open to rebuke, reassessing my tone and apologising if something came across wrong.
Honesty and strong moral principles, integrity is pragmatic everyday holiness. Writing to the Philippians Paul spells it out, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8) If we bring such things to social media we will again stand out, be a light in a murky world.
I tend to try and be more positive and hopeful in my posts, sometimes slow to rush up an angry response to something but always quick to post anything positive going on in our current affairs.
That standing out in a murky world is what it is all about. Jesus called us “the light of the world”. Paul longs for the Philippians to “shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life.” (Philippians 2:15-16)
Casual engagement with social media is dangerous. Indeed Nona Jones writes in her book From Social Media to Social Ministry, “Passive consumption is what adversely affects users… The issue with Social media arises when it’s used primarily to share content that people consume and compare their lives with. The research shows that social media becomes a powerful and positive resource when it’s used to facilitate connections and rebuild community.”
We overwrite casual engagement by having a purpose to our actions. When we fall in with careless mindless living in any area of our lives we are opening ourselves up to that old phrase the devil finds work for idol hands. Our intentions to be Christlike in all our engagements with the aim of being a witness might save us from the many dangers at play.
All of the above are general principles for any kind of life of discipleship but for me they are particularly pertinent for this new social media world. Social media exposes sins that you can get away with in the real world. Gossip or back biting is have limited consequences around a coffee table but on social media it exposes the sin. For me therefore social media heightens our discipleship. We should remember that like social media, God sees and hears everything!