For years I rejected using social media. That was just what I needed, another unprofitable thing to waste time on. However, as family spread out, friends moved on, and my communication network expanded, I finally relented and hopped on the train. I don’t regret this decision and in fact, it has been great to have this as a platform to communicate with friends and family around the world. Not only can I share pictures and updates about my life, but I also have the opportunity to know what is going on in their lives.
With the advent of e-mail, the internet exploded to eventually become the primary form of communication. That has been furthered by the expansion of what is now known as social media. With Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest, and so many others, the interconnectedness of the world can be seen by the rapidity in which information spread between people these days. For example, when Jordan finds a job right out of college in Montana, she calls her mom in Texas to tell her of the exciting news. But mom has already heard about it from Aunt Carol in Florida because Jordan’s friend posted a congratulatory note on Facebook that Aunt Carol read.
The example of Jordan’s news has become a commonplace occurrence, and one cannot deny that social media not only has impacted our culture, but continues to do so. This impact is so vast, that it demands an evaluation be done. More importantly to us in the Evangelical Christian Community is what kind of impact social media is having on Christianity and the Christian life. Much of what is contained within the following paragraphs are based on my own observations and interactions with people, rather than research I have conducted, coupled with a concern for a people who are quick to dismiss the idea that being a follower of Christ requires integration between Christianity and daily living. As a Christian, one must live ever-present of the dangers that exist in a humanity that finds jubilation in gratification through sin rather than satisfaction in sanctification through Christ. Never has this been as important as in the world of technological marvels in which we live today, in which we have access to almost anything and everything at the click of a few buttons. Therefore, we must consider the effects both on the overall world in which we live, and thus the effect on the Christian life.
One of the most common things pointed out in this age of technology is how instantaneous society is. As such, the culture morphs into a group who demands everything now and is unwilling to wait. While this is clearly an issue, it has been talked about enough and does not need to be brought up here. However, this time of rapid-fire information has caused something that I find far more troubling. We have become a society of reactionaries in which we leave the veracity of information we receive unverified. Seldom does one research the truth of information. If someone posts it, then it is automatically deemed as true. We fail to recognize the difference between mere opinions and verifiable truth. Because of the speed at which things transcend across the internet, this can be especially damaging, chiefly when something is false. Often there is irrevocable harm done……and people often seem less interested in spreading the truth once it becomes available.
What prompted me to think more critically about the impact of social media was the fact that hardly anyone thinks for themselves anymore. So very many simply repost the same video links, stories, and photos. It is so much easier to allow others to do the thinking for us and then repost what they said or showed. When I logon to Facebook these days, I don’t know what is going on in the lives of others because reposts dominate the feed. Now I am bombarded with the same cartoon drawing with the same funny comment on it a mere 283 times, and I didn’t even think the comment was that funny the first time I saw it. Not only does this express our inability to think for ourselves, it expresses our desire to be like everyone else. What happened to our individuality and the opportunity to express our uniqueness? In a culture that screams, “I am my own person; I am unique; I am an individual” we are sure quick to make ourselves look like every other person out there by simply repeating the postings of others.
And yet, interestingly, although we lose our uniqueness and try to look like everyone else, we become more narcissistic and focused on ourselves. More often than not, social media caters to people simply because they want to promote themselves. Don’t believe it? Think about how you spend your time on any of the websites. More often than not a person spends time evaluating their own popularity. They are seeking more friends to see that number go up, or counting how many people shared and commented on their photo. Popularity becomes the goal, but the definition of popularity is based on how many people liked your status on Facebook or shared your feed on Twitter. As a result, people begin to think of themselves as higher than they ought to, going around basking in their own supremacy because they have 300 friends on Facebook while their neighbor only has 150. This works the opposite too. Because this becomes the definition of popularity, which people are always trying to attain, those with fewer companions, fewer comments, or fewer clicks begin to think of themselves as a nobody, without recognizing that God made them just as He did any person.
Narcissism has a side-effect too. Everything becomes superficial, because no longer is the focus on quality but rather it is on quantity. We could care less about having a support group of five friends around us during the difficult times as long as we have those 600 followers on Twitter. This superficiality becomes reflected in our relationships in which face-to-face time is no longer considered a priority. Instead a relationship becomes defined simply by the fact that two people ‘talked’ on Facebook the other day…….and usually talking means when I posted a photo, you said, “Awww……how cute.”
While I think these concerns are great to society as a whole, of greater importance to me is the impact this can have on the Christian world as it strives to be Christlike and exemplify that to a fallen world. What happens is we can look at social media and say it is impacting the world at large, but then out of that we must recognize it is also impacting the Christian community. For example, I earlier noted that people no longer verify the truth of what is being posted, but simply accept it as fact. This is not unexpected from a world that claims that truth is relative. But when we as Christians do this, we too deny the existence of absolute truth. This is contrary to the very Scriptures we are called to proclaim in which it states, “Your Word is truth” (John 17:17). This is further complicated by the fact that not only do people, including Christians, not verify the truth, but then they repost the very same things that everyone else does, so it spreads. In essence, we Christians are at risk of becoming post-modern when we do this because it indicates an agreement with the world saying, ‘Truth does not really matter.’
What makes the issue of reposting worse is that we have already established people lose their ability to think for themselves. Coupled with the fact that people do not verify the truth, this results in the inability to also think critically. We simply accept the statements of others as truth and therefore are not forced to evaluate whether or not people are using rational and logical thought patterns to form a statement. If a person cannot think critically for themselves then they will lose the ability to defend Scripture, as one is called to do (1 Peter 3:15). Likewise, if you cannot think critically about issues, how can you be expected to remain firm in the truth? Days are here in which false teachers are deceiving people in droves and each of us is in danger if we cannot critically evaluate the teaching of others so that we are not led astray (2 Peter 4:2-4).
We must also consider that not only do Christians lose their individuality as they were created, but they lose their identity that is in Christ. When we keep retweeting the thoughts of others, and posting the same cartoon on Facebook like everyone else, we ourselves become identified with the world. Unlike James, the half-brother of Jesus and author of the Epistle of James, who did not see himself as a man or someone who was related to Christ, but rather found his entire being to be wrapped up in Christ (James 1:1), we find ourselves not recognizing the greatness of who we are in Christ and because of Christ. Added to this discussion is the definition of popularity, which is based on social media. This is an issue because no longer is it about what Christ thinks of us, but the focus becomes “What do others think of us?” We spend our productivity time trying to determine who likes what we did on Facebook, hoping that people will take notice. And yet, as Christians, we know that the world will reject us (John 15:18-19) so why are we more focused on what the world thinks of us than what Christ thinks of us?
Finally, all of this comes to culmination into one great concern about the impact of social media. It becomes easier for people to sin. As one identifies with the world and not with Christ, it becomes easier to reason that if everyone else is doing it, then it’s ok for me also. Add to that the superficiality of our relationships and the problem becomes heightened because we also lose our accountability to one another. It becomes easier to fall into sin because there isn’t a group of individuals surrounding us, helping us, protecting us, and guiding us in integrity because there is no functioning aspect of accountability. A person can simply retreat into the darkness of their own home, maintaining separation from what is on the outside, and instead living in a virtual world inside that functions however he or she so chooses. That also has a secondary consequence. If there is no accountability with others, no teaching from others, and no true fellowship with others then it also suggests that growth into Christlikeness will stop (and may even degenerate). The body of Christ was meant to function together as one unit, not as individual parts, for the purpose of building up one another (Ephesians 4). Therefore, when we retreat to solitude, we neglect the community in which Christ has called us to live.
Therefore, we must be vigilant of our priorities and the danger social media poses to those priorities. I would not advocate for getting rid of social media, because indeed, it does serve a purpose. However, we need to maintain some legitimate mindsets and boundaries when using any social media. I would suggest some of the following when you engage in any of the social media forums available today:
- Maintain privacy: This should be done both for others and in your own life; some things should be shared with only a few.
- Share updates: Share what’s going on in your life, because people are interested.
- Share prayer requests: This can be done in conjunction with updates. Why not use this as an opportunity to have as many people as possible praying for you? You have a network of prayer partners, use it.
- Share Christ: I am sure all of us have some unsaved friends on Facebook. Use it as an opportunity to share the Gospel. This isn’t a substitute for conversations, but it is an opportunity that you can use for the glory of God.
- Do not use it as a forum for anger: This is especially important when naming individuals; you don’t want to say anything you might regret, we should never want to slander others, and anger should be dealt with privately between you and God, and if necessary you and others involved.
The most important recommendation I can make is to not use social media as a substitute for relationships. Social media helps us to keep in contact, especially with people who may be far from us, but it should never be used with the intention that it can replace real, one-on-one relationships. We were designed as relational people who were meant to function together in the body of Christ (Romans 12; Hebrews 10:25).
Is social media a bad thing that must be gotten rid of? No. Is it something that needs to be used within certain boundaries and with the recognition of good stewardship? Absolutely. If we are not careful, using social media can build walls around us, shutting others out of our lives, with the ultimate ramification of shutting Christ out of our lives. Instead, we can take advantage of the good that social media has to offer and minimize the negative effects. As a Christian, this should be of importance to each one of us as technology continues to change and be used at an ever-increasing rate in our world.