I can remember when the internet first became a resource for the public. Prior to the internet one would hook up their computer to a modem via their phone line, listen to annoying squawking sounds while modems connected, and then access the information highway at the pace of an overweight snail. I go back to the days when the online experience involved CompuServe, Delphi, America Online, Prodigy, and public bulletin boards.
Now we turn on our computers, our tablets, our phones, and in some cases our watches, and access the internet. My grandchildren can’t imagine life without it and have a hard time thinking that there was a day when it didn’t exist.
There’s a lot of good that comes from the internet, email, and the like. Being able to interact almost instantly with missionaries on the other side of the globe or with family who live at a distance are great blessings. Because of the internet, millions of kids were able to continue their education, and millions of adults were able to retain their jobs during the coronavirus pandemic. As a baseball fan, I am able to follow my favorite sport in greater detail. And there are a host of great resources for every interest.
But I also realize the internet can be a great distraction, and that some of us have a hard time being separated from our technology. In addition, like anything humanity touches, the internet can also be used for great evil.
For a long time Christians have been urged to avoid the immorality that is pervasive online. But I’m beginning to wonder if it is time for us to back away from social media too.
Listen, I was a Facebook user back in the day. It was fun to catch up with old friends (“Oh! Guess who I found on Facebook?) and see what current friends were doing. However, I’m not sure that the benefits of Facebook, or Twitter, or Instagram, or other sites that some younger folks have gravitated to (Facebook is kind of, you know, for older people) outweigh the negatives. I’ve hardly conducted world-wide research, but several people, including some pastors, have expressed concern over the way that social media has become a playground on which Christians are behaving badly.
In the last paragraph I said I “was” a Facebook user. Past tense. One reason I closed my account was because I grew tired of people telling me things like “I’m really busy right now and don’t think I can continue helping in nursery once a month” and then sending me an invitation to play FarmVille. To me, Facebook became a time-waster. So I ditched it. Yet I have ways of accessing content on those rare occasions when I want to. And what I see isn’t good.
Back in December I wrote the following about the 2016 election: “I remember some of the exchanges I read on Facebook and hearing of online conflict that took place within congregations and families over the two principal candidates, both of whom were polarizing figures. Frankly, some of what I read was horrible.” Has it gotten any better?
There are two possible answer to that. You choose: No or No.
This is what Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere” (2 Cor 2:14 ESV). That’s what we’re supposed to be doing, but it is subverted big-time when the rancor and disagreement gives off a strong whiff of evangelical stink. When you look at what your people are posting, what are you smelling?
Yes, social media can be valuable for ministry. But I wonder how many wince-inducing posts exist there are for every one that is uplifting?
So here’s the bottom line. Most of us – at least here in the US – have been locked away for three months. The use of social media has been one of the ways people have been able to “get out of the house.” But as we start to regather into our congregations I wonder if turmoil that began on social media will carry over into regular church life.
Maybe its time to encourage people to take a break from social media. To give up the political debates, the social arguments, the criticism of their churches (yup, that happens too!) the snarky complaints, the cute animal stories that we are urged to pass on, and all the other inane detritus that litters our online life. How much of it do we really need?
How to do it? I don’t know if I’d start bashing social media right away. But as you preach you can point out some of the problems that unfiltered, emotional, confrontational posting creates. If in your preaching you touch on the themes of unity, speech, witness, or other related topics, you can gently point out how our online conduct needs to be controlled by the admonition of Colossians 3:5-17. And maybe you can probe a bit and ask how much of social media is all that helpful. You’ll be poking the bear and some might accuse you of meddling, but doesn’t the Gospel “meddle” in everything we do?