In 2008 I was on a short home assignment in the U.S. when my brother introduced me to something called Facebook. I had never seen it before but was hooked instantly. However, as time has wore on, Facebook (and Twitter) have changed from an exciting way to connect with people to something a bit more tedious, and a bit less personal. Judging by the number of people deactivating their Facebook accounts these days, it seems that others are having a similar experience.
As Christians got on the social media bandwagon, numerous blog posts and magazine articles appeared, warning that if Christians failed to get with the times, they would miss out on fantastic possibilities for evangelism and discipleship. If your church or ministry did not have a presence on Facebook and Twitter, you would become irrelevant. And irrelevance is the thing that evangelicals seem to fear most, even more than sin itself. However, as that wave passed, a small deluge of books (both Christian and secular) have begun to appear, calling into question the utopian claims of digital media. People have started to notice the effect that social media and perpetual connectedness are having on them. And not everyone likes what they see.
While I am not about to shutdown my Facebook, Twitter, or email accounts, I too have begun to see the serious limitations of such media for fostering serious, deep, joy-giving relationships. Besides the fact that social media is a huge time-suck that (like Reader’s Digest) often kills more brain cells than it creates, interaction with online “friends” is often shallow, awkward, and fraught with the potential for misunderstanding. Notwithstanding the fact that I have gained some real friends from relationships that have started online, the impersonal and shallow nature of Facebook is starting to make itself known. Instead of phoning or emailing someone to see how they are really doing, we “just” Facebook them.
But should Facebook-ing people be our default way to show we care? Is social media really a good way to care for others? Or perhaps ministers, missionaries, and Christians in general should use a different way to care for people? In his recent book “Unfriend Yourself: Three Days to Detox, Discern, and Decide About Social Media,” Moody graduate Kyle Tennant includes the following chart derived from a class lecture given by Mike Boyle, Assistant Professor of Pastoral Studies at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago.
Tennant writes, ”This chart helps us know if we are deferring relational responsibility. We can’t go wrong by moving farther up and to the right of this chart. In light of what the apostle John wrote, the more we move to the right the more complete our joy becomes. When we move down and to the left, odds are we are deferring our relational responsibility to technology, efficiency, and selfishness.
The funny thing is that we can all accept this chart based on our experience. When you are home sick, or in the hospital, or feeling down, which of these would you prefer? A text would be nice, certainly. And who doesn’t like a “get well soon” card? A phone call is nice, but when someone comes to visit you, that’s the best. As you read this chart, ask yourself, How do I care for the people in my life? Do I tend to hover at the bottom or top of the scale?”
(Kyle Tennant, (2011-12-20). Unfriend Yourself: Three Days to Detox, Discern, and Decide About Social Media (p. 67). Moody Publishers. Kindle Edition.)
After reading Tennant’s book and thinking about my own experience with social media, I made a decision. I would pick up the phone a lot more and talk to people. I would send more personal emails and messages, and less comments on people’s wall, or timelines, or stream, or whatever. Social media is big in the West and it is exploding in Thailand where I serve as a missionary. It has good uses, but it is probably overused and Christians, ministers, and missionaries would probably do well to ask the hard question, “What method of communication will best show the love of Christ to those around me?” The easiest, more technologically advanced option may often not be the best.