Even though we consume ourselves with social media, Christians and non-Christians alike can agree that it hasn’t delivered on its promise to improve our lives and make us a more connected people. Despite its instant gratification and access, we feel more disconnected than ever. If anything, social media—and digital media on the whole—has led us to more depression, isolation and obsession with self. It has also fed our appetite for comparison, as we assess and shape our lives based on the seeming realities of others via 200-word platitudes, edited images and short video clips that capture all the right moments.
But that’s not to say social media is itself evil or bad, something from which Christians should “flee” and then “cling to what is good.” Like other cultural artifacts, we believe Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and the like are good gifts from the Lord, tools that can be leveraged for the gospel. We believe social media can actually help us live out our mission as Christians. This is an attempt to think together about what it might look like to use social media faithfully as the people of God.
It’s easy to point out the bad effects of social media. But what about the good? How are we seeing it used “faithfully” and not merely to promote self?
David Roark: Andy Crouch recently Tweeted about a “new discipline” he’s adopting: “Use short, quick media like Twitter for praise, gratitude, and affirmation. Use longer, in-depth media like articles and books for critique and criticism.” It’s funny that Andy called this a “new discipline,” because he’s always embodied the recent rule he established. I’ve seen people like Andy use this tool, particularly Twitter, with a sense of positivity and optimism, to build up and not tear down, to encourage and not to challenge. That’s some good I’ve seen on social media, and if I’m being honest, it’s not always reflected well on my Twitter feed, which is really convicting.
Ian O’Donnell: Like anything else we see in the media, the bad tends to be brought to the forefront most often. Dan Murrell, one of the hosts of an entertainment and media podcast I follow, put it this way, “Everyone loves silently and hates very loudly,” and that’s the sad truth. It’s a lot easier to discourage and tear down rather than encourage and build up. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening, and that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight for it. Jennie Allen recently wrote a post on Instagram that said, “I just got off the phone with a friend who called because her mind was spinning… We talked through everything going on in her life but at the end of it all, there was only one answer – ‘go be with Jesus.’ Hide your phone, turn it off, get your Bible, close your eyes, just be with Him. Don’t look for another answer, when He is usually always the only answer. You too. Quit Scrolling. Go do it.” I find this a helpful example of how Christians can step into the spaces of social media and point to what is true, which is Christ Himself. Is there irony in using social media to encourage others to pause from it? Sure. But does that disqualify us from speaking life where we can? I wouldn’t think so.
Oghosa Iyamu: Social media gives us instant access to communicate with the world. This is why, when used with intentionality, it can serve as a tool (but not a replacement) for spreading the gospel.
- Gospel Advances: Many of us have encountered individuals who are/have used social media to raise financial support for missions work by posting crowdfunding or Venmo links on social media. I’ve heard countless stories from individuals who’ve posted such links and received more than half of their funds needed to take the gospel across the globe.
- Gospel Encounters: I’ve known individuals who specifically added non-believers on social media in order to share the gospel through posts on their account. Whether they share their testimony or a two-minute YouTube video about Jesus, it’s working. They’ve received messages from those wanting to know more!
- Gospel Implications: Social media has brought a greater awareness and mobilized action for movements related to social justice issues such as racial reconciliation, #MeToo and the END IT Movement.
How can Christians determine the difference between a post that glorifies God and one the glorifies ourselves? Is self-expression always bad?
David: It’s really difficult to create a hard and fast, universal rule for all Christians. There’s some gray area here, where a guideline may be okay for one person but not for another. To me, it all goes back to our motivation. I don’t think there is anything wrong with self-expression, per se. Without it, social media would cease to exist. Yet, if anyone knows the dangers and complexities of self, it’s Christians. We know that our hearts are prone to wander and we often desire things other than Jesus. I’m reminded of 2 Corinthians 10:5, which tells us to “take every thought captive to obey Christ.” Everything we post starts with a “thought,” an idea or moment we want to share with the world. Before we go to load up a pretty image, write something profound and especially before pushing “Share,” “Tweet” or “Post,” we need to take it captive and see whether or not it is in line with the gospel.
Ian: Intention and motivation are, indeed, key here. When it comes to posting anything, we have to be willing to simply ask, “Why am I posting this? Does it benefit me? Does it benefit others? Does it benefit God above all?” During my time in high school and college, I posted plenty of things (way too many), and my motives were all over the place. Sometimes I hoped to encourage someone, sometimes I sought praise and other times I subtweeted another person out of anger. Either way, I think it simply comes down to asking, “Why?” Why do I feel the need to write this sentence? Am I promoting myself? Does this post divide or unify? Does it encourage or discourage? It reminds me of John 1:6–8, where John the apostle writes of John the Baptist (not confusing at all), “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.” We should follow John the Baptist’s lead when considering social media. We are not the light so our pages shouldn’t point to us. But we are here to bear witness about the light, and we have so many opportunities every day to do that on our social media platforms.
Oghosa: In Philippians 4:8, Paul writes: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, meditate on these things.” Why does Paul tell believers to think on these truths? How do we discern between good and bad? The key, Paul tells us, is to study and meditate on what’s real, the unchanging truths. God’s Word—His truth—will always glorify God. Philippians 4:8 is a guide to meditating on truth, allowing us to better filter good from bad. So here are a few things to consider before you post:
1. Is it true? Is what I’m about to post in line with what God declares to be true?
2. Is it honorable? Is what I’m posting valued by God and others?
3. Is it pure? Is what I’m posting harsh? Is it immoral, or does it involve coarse joking? (Eph. 5:4)
4. Is it lovely? Is my post grace-filled? Does it build others up, or is it critical?
5. Is it commendable? Is this bringing value to those who listen?
In the spirit of Romans 14:21, what are some ways we can avoid causing our brothers and sisters to stumble via our social media posts? How can we avoid feeding each other’s idols and our bent toward comparison?
David: As we scroll down our feeds, looking at fancy vacations, swanky restaurants and happy families, our default isn’t always to celebrate the person. Sometimes it’s comparison or envy or coveting the things they have. There’s a part of this that we all have to own. We’ve wrongly bought into a false notion of “the good life” where we think we’d finally be happy if we lived, dressed and spent our money a certain way. Knowing our tendency toward comparison through social media, Christians should be intentional about refraining from posting things that will perpetuate comparison. I wonder what it would look like to post a picture of our unmowed backyard, our child throwing a tantrum at the store or our peanut butter and jelly sandwich? It won’t ultimately solve the problem, but I think the more authentically we portray our lives on social media, the less likely we will be to cause others to covet the perfect lives we don’t actually have.
Ian: The difficulty of social media is the false sense of feeling like we always have to project our best. It leaves little room for people to be vulnerable, show weakness or be honest about their struggles and failures. Christians can be counter-cultural and tell our real stories. Life is messy and hard. It doesn’t always turn out like we hope it will, and we are not perfect. But in all of our imperfections, we are able to rest in the perfection of Christ. In our weakness, we are able to lean into the strength of our God. I think Christians have a unique opportunity on social media to invite people to simply be themselves rather than a projection of what they believe society tells them to be. Now, does that mean we can’t celebrate the goodness of God in our lives? No. That would be swinging the pendulum too far to the opposite side. If we’re going to be active on social media, then we should portray our lives as they actually are—up and down, happy and sad, mountains and valleys, with a good, gracious and worthy God through it all.
Oghosa: Look at Romans 14:18–19 (to help get a little bit of context for Romans 14:21) : “For the one who serves Christ in this way [seeking righteousness, peace and joy in the Spirit, v.17] is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then, let us pursue what makes for peace and for building up one another.” So how can you and I avoid causing our brothers and sisters to stumble via our social media posts? Seek to pursue Christ in everything we do. The problem enters when you and I seek to serve ourselves and our own kingdom. When it comes to social media, whose kingdom are we seeking to serve and build up? Ours or Christ’s? Let me encourage you with this truth: if your aim is to serve Christ by His Spirit, you have the freedom to post whatever you want. Yes, you read correctly. If you are aiming to serve Christ through the power of His Spirit, then guess who stirs your affections, desires and motives and redirects them toward pleasing God, even on social media? God!
Should all Christians be on social media? If it’s a constant struggle or temptation, is it ever worth it to “cut the cord”? What would be missed?
David: In no way should Christians feel the need to be on social media, regardless of the platform, especially if it continues to be a place that we run to for escape or a place that feeds our idols. After all, as John Calvin said, our hearts are idol factories. If we’re spending more time on social media than we are with the Lord, reading and studying His Word, confessing our sins and praying to Him, singing songs of lament and praise, then I definitely think we should take a break until we can find a healthier rhythm. Without social media, it’s possible we’ll miss some things—and not just funny memes and GIFs. We may not be as dialed into our world and our neighbor. We might even miss out on some ministry opportunities, but we have to weigh the costs.
Ian: If there is ever anything that leads you to sin, you should avoid it. The language Paul uses concerning sexual immorality in 1 Corinthians 6 is to “flee” it, and I believe the same should be said for anything that draws you away from the Lord and toward sin. If that happens to be social media, then maybe it’s time to cut the cord, or at least take some time away to observe how much it truly affects your daily life. We may miss certain things, but there is nothing we could be missing that is more important than our relationship with the Lord. In a message given by Ben Stuart, he mentions the practical steps we should take when it comes to disconnecting from our phones. He stresses the importance of not letting it be the first and last thing we interact with every day. If an alcoholic put a bottle of liquor right next to their face every night expecting not to be tempted by it, we would deem that unwise. We should approach our devices with the same caution if it is a temptation for us. Maybe we should consider charging it in another room and using an alarm clock instead?
Oghosa: Social media is not the primary problem; sin is (James 1:14). Social media is a playground, but you’re the player. As the old saying goes, “The ball is in your court.” You choose how your social media plays out. Many of us, myself included, manage the playground of our social media through healthy restrictions and boundaries, or taking a temporary break, all of which are wise and necessary actions (Eph. 5:15). However, we must dig deeper to find the root issues of our hearts and not just the ground in which they manifest.
So what do we miss by just “cutting the cord” and removing the playground? We never actually deal with the root of our sins—jealousy, comparison, lust and the like (Matt. 23:25). Our sin will always find another playground. Removing Facebook may do away with an outlet for comparing ourselves to others, but that sin can still rear its ugly head in a workplace or friend group. By all means manage and even forfeit the playground, but don’t neglect the player (James 1:14).