Losing substance in the quest for a particular image

The virtual and social media worlds and our church’s ministry — Part IV of a series

By Rev. Rick King

While I lately struggle with whether to get off of Twitter entirely or not, due to Elon Musk offering to buy it, my uneasiness with social media in general did not start with that. Or with Donald Trump, before he was banned from mainstream social media platforms.

It started a couple of years ago when I realized how much time I had begun to spend on social media—time that could be used on more productive pursuits, like exercise, prayer, play, and getting outdoors.

I worried I was becoming too preoccupied with how what I posted on social media affected how I was perceived by others. A New York Times article https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/31/learning/what-students-are-saying-about-how-social-media-affects-their-body-image.html is but the latest in the news coverage of what researchers are finding out about how social media affects our mental health. And you guessed it: The findings are not positive.

Carey Nieuwhof says one of the pitfalls of social media is this growing preoccupation with image—whether with the plethora of filters and apps designed to make us look thinner, erase wrinkles, and improve our other features. As I age—and as I’ve spent much more time looking at my face in the computer screen while attending Zoom meetings—I’ve noticed these things, and I have to decide whether they bother me enough to seek solutions to them, or just accept that image matters less than substance.

One of the reasons why I have clergy collar shirts is for those days when I’m attending a protest, or leading a memorial service, or representing our church at some function—and I don’t want to spend time thinking about what to wear. There’s a good argument to be made for having a uniform as an option.

Some, like those in the clergy, law enforcement, or the culinary arts, have uniforms that have a long history behind them and continue to convey a message that we know what we’re doing.

Other famous examples are those who have chosen simple attire to free their minds from having to make decisions about what to wear so that they have the brain space to focus on matters of substance. Think about the late Steve Jobs of Apple and his black mock turtleneck and jeans, or Albert Einstein, who bought several versions of the same tweed suit so he wouldn’t have to think about what to wear each day.

You and I can choose whether we get pulled into social media’s tendency to overemphasize image at the expense of substance. We can choose, as my wife did a couple of years ago, to go off social media entirely. She says doing so has improved her life. For the time being, I’ve chosen to stay on Facebook and Twitter and try to use them as tools for reaching and building relationships, linked to the real-life, flesh and blood relationships that are so integral to what I do.

Whatever you choose, let it emerge from real discernment and the substance of who you are—not what others say you should do, or a blind rejection of social media.

Those who focus on substance don’t need to worry about style and image. And that goes for the church, as well.