New series: The virtual and social media worlds and our church’s ministry

By Rev. Rick King

Justin Rosenstein had tweaked his laptop’s operating system to block Reddit, banned himself from Snapchat, which he compares to heroin, and imposed limits on his use of Facebook. But even that wasn’t enough. In August, the 34-year-old tech executive took a more radical step to restrict his use of social media and other addictive technologies.

Rosenstein purchased a new iPhone and instructed his assistant to set up a parental-control feature to prevent him from downloading any apps.

He was particularly aware of the allure of Facebook “likes”, which he describes as “bright dings of pseudo-pleasure” that can be as hollow as they are seductive. And Rosenstein should know: he was the Facebook engineer who created the “like” button in the first place. (From an article in The Guardian, October 2017)

At FHC, as with other churches, our Facebook, Instagram and Twitter feeds vary in the regularity of their posting but have become ubiquitous tools in our communications toolkit. And while you and I are well aware of the outsize role social media play in many of our lives, we may not be aware of these same dynamics in our church’s relationship with the surrounding culture.

Rosenstein, in the opening words above, was referring to the “attention economy,” a term coined to describe an Internet that’s been shaped not around the needs of users, but the demands of advertising. If you’ve been on Facebook since around 2009, you’ve seen the shift in Facebook from being a place where you and I could share memories and photos of them with our family and friends, and reconnect with old classmates around the world, to being a revenue generator through advertising, including paid political advertising designed to look like someone’s post.

One of the things that’s on my mind a lot is the question of when our church using social media crosses a line into supporting things we don’t believe in and cannot affirm. When, to use the apostle Paul’s words, do we move from being “in the world” to being “OF the world”? In other words, when does the medium of social media become our message itself?

So, this new column series will explore the phenomenon in churches of having two groups they are now addressing:

  • Those we know, who are local and whom we encounter in person and in real time; and
  • Those we don’t know, who encounter us virtually (as on our livestream) and on social media.

Carey Nieuwhof, a Canadian pastor/blogger/podcaster and online trainer, has explored these issues and questions more than I have as he has embraced the virtual world and social media platforms to extend his reach. There are good lessons for us to learn and discernment questions to consider as we navigate our way back to in-person, on-site gathering, but now with a larger online platform. Nieuwhof says that the very existence of more than just the flesh-and-blood, in-person group is where the problems can start.

But could the solutions and a path forward exist there, too? I wonder. What do you think?