Many ministries, churches, and Christians face the challenge of social media today. What are we to think of it? Should we embrace it, ignore it, celebrate it, demonize it? We see opportunities to share and explain our faith but we are also wary of who we might meet, the company we might keep, the inherent dangers in the online world. Whatever our personal views, social media has become a normal and integral part of our lives and society. We are no longer confined geographically, or socially, and the number and range of people with whom we can share ideas has become almost limitless.
This does not mean the number of meaningful relationships has grown. We recognise that ‘Facebook friends’ are not always the same thing as real-world friends. Signing a petition because of a shared concern, hitting the ‘Like’ button, sharing a meme, none of these things make us bosom friends. Discernment online is every bit as important as it is in any other area of life. That said, it cannot be denied online communities exist and in overwhelming numbers. We are faced with the challenge of whether and how we engage with them.
One helpful way of looking at it is in regarding the online world as being like the public square. Throughout history, Christians have engaged with people where they are. Integral to the call to mission is the imperative ‘go into all the world.’
When the apostle Paul arrived at a city he would visit the synagogue and the market place, the public square. When John Wesley wanted to break out from the narrow confines of his middle-class church and reach ordinary people he climbed on a horse, rode thousands of miles and in a predominantly agricultural society, preached in fields and graveyards.
In the nineteenth century preachers like Spurgeon were able to attract great numbers into cavernous preaching halls and their sermons were often published in newspapers. In the twentieth century the Christian message began to be broadcast on radio and television.
Go and preach in the street today and you will be mainly ignored, possibly arrested, largely ineffectual. Preach in a field and you will be preaching to cattle. People no longer consider going to hear a preacher as a good use of their Sunday mornings and those cavernous buildings are half-empty and irrelevant to the people who walk past them. And you will not find a newspaper editor ready to print your sermons. In the twenty-first century, while radio and TV still influence people, they are rushing to the Internet in an effort to remain relevant to a burgeoning online world. The Internet and social media are the new public square and if you are not there you are effectively silent.
One thing all these means of broadcasting the gospel have in common is that sin got there first. When Paul arrived in Philippi he found himself surrounded by idolatry, worshippers of Artemis and the silversmiths who profited from the attendant commerce. When Wesley preached he was up against folklore and superstition, paganism, the ideas of country folk. Is it necessary to point out how sin got there first when it comes to radio and television? The church arrived late to the party in all these instances and it took courageous and visionary people, such as William Booth for instance, to step into the public square and challenge the sin already there.
The same is true of the Internet. Our young people (and not so young) today are spending their time in this new public space. They are being fed a diet of what the world thinks as opposed to what God says and the Bible makes plain.
People can be snooty about, even fearful of social media, and for understandable reasons. Matt Dabbs, on his blog, Kingdom Living, writes about the inherent dangers of social media and offers helpful advice. The problem, he writes, is not the medium itself but our own maturity and how we use social media. He goes on to observe:
‘Social media does more than communicate information. Social media does the work of spiritual transformation as well. It is one more tool that shapes our souls for the good or for the bad. It shapes our thoughts and our handle on our emotions.’
It can be messy, like real life, difficult to navigate, like real life, and it can be dangerous, like real life. But that is the very reason we need to be there, to clean up peoples’ thinking, help them find their way to God and, like Paul in Philippi, risk the danger for the sake of souls.
Its a steep learning curve and we can always learn to do it better, speak more wisely, in a more timely and sensitive way. Many churches now have a social media policy to guide leaders in using the medium wisely. But use it we must for where else will people find a voice confidently proclaiming truth in relation to the big issues if we are not where they are?
At the end of the day, the problem is not that it is too risky, noisy, and challenging, it is that we are all-too-often timid, silent, and absent. We can argue the fine details of online etiquette, warn each other of dangers, but the church must finally do what it has always done when at its best, stand on its hind legs and proclaim a sure and confident message.
For those wishing to do more with this Justin Wise of Think Digital has produced The Ultimate List of Social Media Policies for Churches and Ministries.
Here are some ideas I have lifted and adapted from one of the linked sites:
1. Live the First and Second Commandment – Mark 12:28-31
Represent God, not yourself.
Invest in others rather than ‘broadcast yourself’.
Make sure your communications are above reproach.
2. Be Yourself and Be Transparent – Philippians 2:3
Even when you are speaking or writing as an individual, people may perceive you to be speaking or writing on behalf of your church or ministry. Including a simple disclaimer on your blog or posts can help avoid any confusion: “The opinions and views expressed on this site are my own.” That said, your conduct online will still reflect on your church or ministry so develop a good practice of self-censorship.
3. Keep Your Cool – Proverbs 29:11
One of the aims of social media is to create dialogue, and people won’t always agree on an issue. When confronted with a difference of opinion, stay cool. Express your points in a clear, loving, and logical way. Don’t pick fights and choose your battles wisely. Correct mistakes when needed and be prepared to apologise, correct, and move on.
4. Don’t Confuse your Identities
Multiple personalities don’t work well in social media. If you confuse, you lose. If you are ministry expert one day (posting best practices in your area of ministry), a personal blogger the next, and a church marketer after that (promoting church events, media, or news), people will ultimately stop connecting.
5. Stay Timely – Proverbs 15:23
Part of the appeal in social media is that the conversation occurs almost in real time. So, if you are going to participate in an active way, make sure you are willing to take the time to refresh content, respond to questions and update information regularly, and correct information when appropriate.
6. Uphold Christian Values and Demonstrate Church Loyalty – 1 Corinthians 14:12
All to often, ‘Christian’ online conversations begin with ‘the trouble with the church.’ Christians who talk down the church are not more discerning, or prophetic, and leaders who talk up the church are not usually wilfully blind, or deceived. We all know the church isn’t perfect, but ‘Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.’ (Eph.5:25) This is the model for a husband’s relationship with his wife. Stop and consider what you would think of someone who ‘washed their dirty linen in public.’ Always demonstrate loyalty to the church and to each other and, ‘if you have anything against your brother…’ (Mt.18:15-17)
Be sensitive to linking to content. Redirecting to another site may imply an endorsement of its content. I will discard a story I might otherwise have shared because the only source for it is inappropriate for a Christian, or Christian ministry to reference.
7. Protect Confidential Information and Relationships – Acts 20:28
Online conversations and postings are not private unless you set your privacy settings accordingly. Know that what you post online may be around for a long time and potentially shared with others. Therefore, Avoid identifying and discussing others (gossiping), including church members, ministry partners, etc. – especially any pastoral/personal details such as hospitalizations, deaths, health concerns, or counselling engagements. Note: Do not counsel/minister to people online. By all means discuss doctrine and ideas, encourage faith and recommend materials, churches, and ministries, but don’t take to the public square discussions that should only happen in the counselling room.
Obtain permission before posting pictures of others or before posting copyrighted material. You must take proper care not to purposefully or inadvertently disclose or distribute any information or intellectual property that is confidential or proprietary to your church/ministry or an individual.
Its like being in the real world. We sometimes fail but we strive to honour God, be transparent and polite, keep a level head, be the same person to everyone, show loyalty to Christ and his church, respect others and their own privacy and property, ‘always being prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you the reason for the hope that you have. [Doing] this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.’ (1 Peter 3:15-16)