News and analysis are constantly available to us through our handheld devices, and we’re uncovering injustices every day in our broken world.
For many, a basic Christian responsibility is to speak on behalf of the marginalized, or to raise the voices of those society has tried to silence, and social media has become an indispensable tool for doing this efficiently and effectively.
Social media has given rise to a wave of virtual ministry.
In one way, this is a good thing.
Issues that we expect people to know about are reaching a wider and younger following. For example, racism is being captured more often on video and posted online, and this easy access to video and information has opened up a new way of learning about racial injustice, which has prompted people to be more involved in racial justice movements.
A ‘Prophetic’ Voice
One might call this rise in virtual ministry prophetic. Like the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, people feel called and compelled to speak out when the world would prefer to remain silent. Thanks to the internet you don’t have to be an author, a public speaker or on TV to spread the word.
According to Walter Brueggemann, this is typical of a prophet. They aren’t required to have credentials or a degree, but “they just rise up in the landscape.” On Facebook, you don’t need credentials or degrees to speak out on important issues—you just need a profile.
On the other hand, social media has a shadow side: It can polarize. Disagreements are inevitable when there are large groups discussing important, complex issues, and people who are acquainted with civil discourse know this is not always a bad thing. Conflict can be the source for much growth and learning.
Sometimes, however, the toxicity in a disagreement can be so thick that there is little room for reciprocity. This problem is not unique to social media, but online forms of communication where you can’t see the other person tend to perpetuate division.
We naturally take sides because we gravitate toward people who are like us (or think like us), but we polarize when we remove ourselves from, or demonize, people who are different. The more we remove ourselves from the risk of coming into contact with people who are different than we are, the greater the risk for polarization.
Social media does not cause polarization in the “cause and effect” sense, but it does remove an extra level of vulnerability that comes more naturally in meeting someone face-to-face.
Online communication removes a level of exposure and emotional risk that naturally comes with in-person conversation, and that’s part of the appeal of social media. You don’t have to be face-to-face with someone when you’re sharing or posting things. You can say whatever you wish, and there’s no individual directly in front of you to judge you, even if you believe they might be judging you from afar.
Creating a Platform
The use of social media as a pulpit also reveals something collectively about Christians today: There’s an eagerness and urgency for change in our world for the justice issues that arise all the time from the endless access to video and news information.
The impulse says, “Things are not as they should be—let’s begin to change things here and now.” Throughout human history, things have usually not been as they should be, but now we have access to endless visual information that are continual reminders that things are not as they should be. There are moments when we wonder, where is God?
In the gospel according to Matthew, Jesus promises to be where two or three gather (Matthew 18:20). God is where His people gather. Sometimes the face-to-face is where we would rather not go. It is one place where we are acutely aware of our imperfections and our faults. It is where we are vulnerable, where the way we see and think about the world can suddenly be put to the test; but that is where God meets us.
God is in the face-to-face.
Meeting together with other Christians helps us learn how to think theologically. The infinite amount of news and information on the internet can make someone well-informed (and potentially biased), but it will not make someone thoughtful or wise. For good discernment and for forming ourselves to be thoughtful Christians, we cannot underestimate the power of meeting intentionally with people who are both similar and different than we are.
Social media is not a good replacement for intentional Christian community.
Where Two or Are Gather
In Matthew, Jesus says that when we are present with the poor, the sick, the outcast and the imprisoned, that Jesus is right there, too (Matthew 25:40). God identifies with those who we might consider difficult, messy, dangerous and the most vulnerable where we would rather not go if it were only up to us. The marginalized is not where we find the absence of God; it’s precisely the opposite.
This is where we find Jesus and a community that is much more inclusive than we ever imagined.
God is with the vulnerable.
As I write, I am aware that I am a hypocrite on both sides. I am a classic hermit, who is afraid to post important things on Facebook and afraid of meeting with others for the risk of being exposed for how much I don’t know. But I have to meet with other Christians and meet with those who I would not choose to know on my own, even against my wishes, because this is where God calls. This is the work of love and the making of unlikely friendships.
Authentic Christian community requires intentionality and good hospitality practices that social media cannot replicate, because we are being formed to welcome people who are different than we are. Without such face-to-face encounters, we become less human and more robotic. And we may miss an encounter with God.