There is no good time to post about the challenges facing the church regarding social media and digital devices. We are living in a time when social media and smartphones can be useful for civic engagement and activism, sharing the knowledge of wise leaders and instant analysis on breaking news events.
However, living in a time when the church could stand to be a place of renewal and spiritual transformation so that we can better engage with the pressing issues of our time, I have seen too many church leaders and Christian media experts who are far too willing to adopt technology without paying sufficient attention to its dark side.
As I offer updates on my research into digital devices and spirituality, I wanted to share a bit about the urgency of this kind of reflection for the church today:
Growing up evangelical, I learned that sharing the Gospel message matters the most. Any means that I use to share the Gospel is just a “tool.”
So Billy Graham adopting radio was a necessary, if not vitally important “tool” for sharing the Gospel. Of course he should have done that, right? Thousands if not millions heard the Gospel through his radio broadcasts!
Of course there are factors to consider when sharing the Gospel in this manner:
- What kind of message travels the best over the radio? Are there modifications being made to the message for the sake of the medium?
- Are the radio messages appropriate for the people listening to them?
- What becomes of the people who hear these messages on the radio?
- Can those responding to radio sermons figure out their next steps toward discipleship and Christian community?
That isn’t to say Christians shouldn’t be on the radio. Rather, Christians have generally believed that reaching more people, more efficiently should always be pursued, regardless of the adaptations that must be made or the unintended consequences.
The medium of blogging has tended to reward those who are the most revealing, most sensational, and most combative, so I dare not throw stones from a glass house here. Each medium for sharing the message of Jesus can present particular challenges
If radio and blogging come with such a laundry list of potential concerns, then we should pay particular attention to the movement of most churches to adopt social media in one way or another. More and more denominations and congregations are asking members to bring their smartphones into the service and to USE them.
There are opportunities to tweet questions to sermons, to leave comments on Facebook posts, or to share images from worship on Instagram.
The folks in favor of these innovations use words like engagement, interaction, and community to justify this embrace of smartphones in church.
If we dare to speak about the outreach opportunities on social media, then the barriers between social media marketing executives and church outreach teams start to blur really, really fast.
Social media is where people are spending their time. So, regardless of whether this is good for them, Christians have reasoned that this is the place to have a presence, sharing the Gospel, sending invitations to church, and inviting the “unchurched” to “engage” in the big questions of life.
Once again, writing from my glass house, I share my own writing about Christianity on social media because that is where people are spending their time, whether or not it’s good for them. I am part of the hyperlink game, trying to “capture” the attention of readers with the hope that they may even buy one of my books on Christian topics or sign up for my newsletter.
The only way I can even begin to justify going about the whole social media game like this is whether I can offer a respite, a bit of a refuge in my blog posts, newsletters, and books:
Can I empower people to take more initiative in their daily searches for God?
Can I give them greater awareness of the game being played to suck in their attention?
We’re all compromised to one degree or another, but perhaps we can begin to live with more intention and healthier boundaries by understanding how conflicted the goals of Christianity can be when stacked up against social media and digital devices, such as smartphones.
A smartphone can be useful. It can be a tool. Heck, it even has a flashlight built into it!
But a smartphone exists and the apps on that smartphone exist to collect data about you. The more data they collect, the more profitable they will become.
Yes, Google will help you figure out where to go, but Google is also collecting data.
Yes, YouTube will help you complete a household project, but it also wants you to watch more videos and will continue to suggest another video, then another video, and then another video. The data and ads begin to flow, and it doesn’t really matter what’s good for you as long as the data and ads flow.
Yes, Instagram can be a fun way to share your life with friends and family who are far away, but at a certain point, does it not become a carefully curated presentation of a self and a life that aren’t real? Is this the kind of “curation” we want to invite into church when it’s already challenging enough for folks to be their authentic selves?
I use all of these tools, but having examined the ways they function and the goals behind their designers, I’m not sure about them being neutral tools anymore. They are all designed with an agenda that does not have your well-being or my well-being in mind. Whether or not they “can” be beneficial is beside the point.
The benefits of smartphones and social media are the bait set up in an attractive trap that is designed to maximize user attention and, that word Christians love to use, engagement.
While I don’t think we should necessarily give up on smartphones or social media altogether, we should use them with our eyes wide open. We should know when the goals of these “tools” run counter to the deeper goals of the Gospel to bring us to a greater awareness of God’s love and to love our neighbors more completely.
Engagement and attention on social media or smartphones doesn’t require virtue, love, or community. These industry goals can defy human well-being, let alone flourishing.
If our goal is to draw near to God and to truly become present in love for our neighbors, we should remember that the makers of the smartphones in our pockets (or hands) won’t benefit if we are sitting in silence before God or embracing our neighbors.