Jun 1, 2011

The Perils and Promise of Social Media

3 Min Read

Church leaders today find themselves caught between two equally valid but competing realities. Social media have become valuable, even necessary, tools for teaching and exercising leadership. Yet Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and blogs cannot substitute for the local church, which is a living testimony to Jesus Christ. Striking the right balance requires wisdom and discernment to prioritize the local church while learning the strengths and weaknesses of social media.

Awkwardly co-existing, the real and virtual worlds undoubtedly shape one another. Look no further than the recent resurgence of Calvinism among younger evangelicals. Whereas Calvinists outside the confessional denominations once found fellowship by attending occasional conferences and swapping sermon cassettes, they now have unfettered access to a supportive and boisterous community online, enjoying a large virtual network of like-minded thinkers.

Yet this network has evident limitations. Prominent bloggers may wield tremendous influence online with gifts for writing and promotion. But unless they develop a robust ecclesiology and solicit help from church leadership, they may employ these gifts outside the God-given accountability structure in the body of Christ. Already isolated by virtue of spending hours each day in front of computers, bloggers lose any hedge against common web temptations. They may become incurably skeptical toward the church or incessantly critical of other writers. Influencers disconnected from the seasoned wisdom of friends and mentors risk damaging the church. Though it may seem counterintuitive, social media foster and encourage lone rangers.

If individualism runs rampant in American society, it runs roughshod over the internet. Facebook is a helpful communication tool, but it also plays into our penchant for carefully crafting profiles for public consumption. We can make of ourselves whatever we want in the virtual world. The self-made man is a staple of American culture. Writing about the middle class in antebellum America in his famous book Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville said, “They are used to considering themselves in isolation and quite willingly imagine their destiny as entirely in their own hands.” He might not have been surprised to learn about the path to influence and affluence in the internet age.

Social media are the natural spawn of democracy and meritocracy. Ancestry, tradition, and location matter little, if at all. You can accomplish whatever your work ethic and talents allow. On the one hand, this can be a real boon to the Christian cause. Christian missions can flourish in this atmosphere. The free marketplace of ideas online allows opportunities for Christians to proclaim the gospel message in innovative ways for the benefit of those who have no personal contact with believers. Campus ministers can hardly imagine a time before Facebook, when they couldn’t so easily contact new students.

Yet on the other hand, social media may detract from basic discipleship. Unfettered American freedom that shuns community and tradition eventually devolves into “self-centeredness, loneliness, superficiality, and harried consumerism,” Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon wrote in Resident Aliens even before internet access became widely available. This culture doesn’t exactly reinforce Jesus’ command to pick up our crosses, deny ourselves, and follow Him (Matt. 16:24).

We walk on a foundation of individualism and suck in the air of postmodernism, thick with the heavy dew of multiculturalism. Absent today are the ties that bind. Never before has a generation so desperately needed the local church, the communion of saints, to help them follow Jesus. God has been faithful to preserve this place of authentic community in our culture. The Word says we have a duty, responsibility, and obligation to our neighbors, especially those in the household of faith (Luke 10:29–37; 1 Tim. 5:8). We may yearn for the freedom to express ourselves with the aid of social media, but we’re not truly free unless we’re responsible to a community. That’s what the apostle Paul taught in Galatians 5:13. Freed from sin by Christ through His death and resurrection, we’re free to love one another. The church affords us the opportunity to love and serve in a way social media never will.

I respect church leaders who abstain from social media. Yet I see no reason we should neglect the remarkable possibilities for teaching and leadership offered by instant, unrestricted communication to willing audiences. Still, I expect over the long term that tweets, status updates, and blog posts will pale in influence compared to our everyday, tangible pursuit of holiness and love with the support of our local church.

“The favor of the people may be won by some brilliant action,” de Tocqueville wrote, “but the love and respect of your neighbors must be gained by a long series of small services, hidden deeds of goodness, a persistent habit of kindness, and an established reputation of selflessness.”