“SOCIAL MEDIA is the devil… and I’m getting old!” This tongue-in-cheek title of an article by blogger Gem Nicholls could easily describe the apprehension with which cautious Christians approach social media. Is this claim substantiated? And is it true that some of us are “too old” for social media?
Firstly, what IS that amorphous giant we call “Social Media” today? The term is often used to refer to platforms of communication such as Facebook, Twitter, weblogs or “blogs”, YouTube, Instagram, Pinterest, and many more. These platforms are called “social” because they allow a greater degree of peer-to-peer exchange of information, as compared to traditional broadcast media such as newspapers or television that mainly use a one-to-many model of information flow.
These platforms allow two-way as well as multi-way communication with friends, colleagues, strangers and even among people with common interests. In short, these “social media” platforms have no boundaries in terms of connectivity. Today, there are one billion active users on Facebook – if Facebook was a country, it would rank the third largest country in the world, after China and India.
Each social media platform comes with its unique strengths and flaws. However, the genre as a whole has the following characteristics:
- Round-the-clock accessibility
- Immediate display of uploaded content giving a sense of things happening “live”
- Low gatekeeping – anyone with an Internet connection can publish anything
- Connections (existing or new) made based on shared interests
- Potential for immediate feedback
- The possibility of a more intimate glimpse into another person’s life
It is this last feature that makes people nervous – especially in combination with low gatekeeping that allows a piece of news or bad publicity to proliferate or ‘go viral’ quickly. How often have we read news about somebody making an unwise comment online, receiving infamy for it, all the while tut-tutting about how scary it was that such things travel so quickly?
Such a response might stem from fear that it could happen to us, as well – that unwarranted rumours about us could spread online like lightning, and that we would be powerless to defend ourselves and our reputations. However, the sorry truth is that such rumours can spread offline, through word of mouth – and would be harder to counteract, as you would have to speak to every single person who heard the rumour, and you may not even know who they are.
However, all is not lost. The redeeming feature in social media is that its very nature will allow you to publish a clarifying statement that will reach many more people who might never hear your explanation otherwise. You can also search for those who started the rumour, and engage them in order to correct their misconceptions. With social media, companies such as IKEA Singapore can respond rapidly to rumours such as the horse-meat scares with clarifying facts, and the verified explanation can quickly be shared in order to stamp out false information.
Proponents of privacy may also be concerned that people are sharing too many details of their lives online. In some cases, that is true, as pointed out by the satirical website “Please Rob Me”, which shows how people can unknowingly share detailed information about their houses and when they are not at home. However, this ability to share thoughts and opinions also allows people to build deeper relationships with each other, online as well as off. This can help believers to more effectively respond to seekers who may be uncomfortable about sharing their doubts face-to-face. In addition, social media platforms can help us build up and encourage fellow believers in different parts of the world, and even give a listening ear when we sense that they may be facing difficult situations.
It is clear from the scenarios above that social media platforms, in and of themselves, are not more evil or dangerous than a screwdriver or a needle. That is just what they are – tools that, although requiring us to handle them with care, can nevertheless be very useful to a Christian seeking to love God, love others, and bring them into relationship with God.
But it is undeniable that there are vulnerabilities in social media platforms that can be exploited, and distractions are certainly pervasive on such platforms (although arguably offline distractions are no less tempting).
How then can Christians use social media tools in ways that are not only responsible, but also glorify God and edify other people – Christians as well as non-Christians?
John Piper, a respected preacher and writer whose books like Desiring God and Don’t Waste Your Life have influenced many, shares his opinion in a blog post entitled “Why and How I Am Tweeting”. The 67-year-old acknowledges the dangers of social media such as the tendency to shorten attention spans and weaken discursive reasoning, but writes: “Instead of boycotting, try to fill these media with as much provocative, reasonable, Bible-saturated, prayerful, relational, Christ-exalting, truth-driven, serious, creative pointers to true greatness as you can.”
In other words, Piper’s response to the challenge of Twitter’s 140-character limit, “Can you magnify Christ with this thimble-full of letters?” is as follows:
The sovereign Lord of the earth and sky
Puts camels through a needle’s eye.
And if His wisdom see it meet,
He will put worlds inside a tweet.
Social Media, then, is not an exclusive club for the under-30s or worshippers of the “cult of youth”. To be sure, they may take to it easier, having grown up in a time when such technologies are much more easily accessible. However, middle-aged and elderly Christians are becoming increasingly comfortable with social media platforms after some careful exploration.
Piper does caution that “everyone should abstain from some of these media” and notes that before going public on Twitter, he explored it anonymously for a month to “test its spiritual and family effects on me”.
Adoption must be coupled with discernment, and this is where mature believers can provide guidance – though they must do so with an understanding of what social media is and the great potential it has for both good and bad.
Considering that God Himself noted “It is not good for man to be alone” (Gen 2:18), any tools for developing deeper relationships with fellow Christians and non-Christians ought to be welcomed for the potential that God may use them through us to draw people to Himself.
The bottom line is: Our God is a relational God, He desires for each of us to be in a relationship with Him and with each other. Social media tools as defined in this article can be used to our advantage in building relationships with each other – but then again, we need to take pains not to forsake other “social media” like phone calls, letters, notes and to have face-to-face meetings.
Our words – whether digital, handwritten, or spoken – and our presence are the God-given “media” for us to remain intentionally social in all that we do for His glory and to build His kingdom.
Creative ways that Christians are using Social Media
Internet Evangelism Day: A website to help Christians understand the huge and growing potential to share the good news of Jesus through digital media. This year’s IED@SG is on Apr 21. https://www.facebook.com/IEDSG
Facebook: Blogger Steve Fogg demonstrates 11 imaginative ways to use social media for a church. http://www.stevefogg.com/2012/12/13/social-media-church-imaginative/
Twitter: The United Methodist Church set up a Twitter account to send out short pointers for prayer throughout its 11-day General Conference in 2012. https://twitter.com/GC2012Pray
YouTube: Casting Crowns, an American Christian band, posts songs, messages and even Bible studies on their YouTube channel. http://www.youtube.com/castingcrowns
Instagram: Christian Memes shows the humorous side of Christianity by sharing Christian-themed jokes in a popular picture format known as “memes”. http://instagram.com/memesforjesus
Pinterest: Crosscards.com, a website offering ecards with Christian messages, shares inspiring quotes and Bible verses in picture format. http://pinterest.com/crosscards/inspiring-quotes/
Grace Toh is the Assistant Editor of Methodist Message.