Today I participated in a panel discussion at the Society of Vineyard Scholars’ annual meeting entitled, “Theology, the Church, and Social Media.” It was rather informal and we had some good dialogue that essentially proved that all of the participants essentially agreed on most issues (I think). We even learned that a man from Africa named Peter actually flew from Africa in order to hear our presentation… which was very humbling. At any rate, here are the thoughts that I shared:
When this panel began discussing the different issues related to this topic, we acknowledged that we needed to provide some sort of definition of “social media” to kind of build upon. Being such technically precise and responsible scholars that we are, we turned to one of the most scholarly resources known to undergraduates – wikipedia. Wikipedia provides a starting point toward defining “social media”:
“Social media refers to the means of interactions among people in which they create, share, and exchange information and ideas in virtual communities and networks.”
Perhaps the other panelists will build upon, push back, or completely disagree with this definition. It has been said that social media is “a million different definitions to a million different people.” Wikipedia’s definition is of interest because Wikipedia is the social media encyclopedia of the Internet, “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.”
This panel’s format will be pretty simple: we will each present a short summary of thoughts, reflections, and opinions that each of you can post on your Facebook timelines and tweet to your followers. After we are done with voicing our individual thoughts, we will have an interactive discussion and conclude by having some questions or responses from the audience. Due to time constraints, you won’t be able to tweet or Facebook those questions or comments!
For the next few minutes I intend to share some discernment, though briefly, I have concerning social media and its relationship to the church from the perspective of a pastor. I am not a scholar in the sense of being an academic but I believe that pastoral ministry should be both scholarly and reflective. I also believe that scholarship can be enhanced when pastors participate in scholarly conversations.
Kingdom Theology Influencing the Use of Social Media
There are some people who, because of abuses found on Facebook, believe that all social media is inherently evil. In other words, if some people gossip on Facebook, all usefulness of Facebook is antiquated. This same opinion was highlighted in 2010 when a pastor in New Jersey banned all of his married leadership from being a part of Facebook because he believed it was “a portal to infidelity.” I’m not convinced this takes into account the praxis of the kingdom. I think there are several ways that the Vineyard’s emphasis on kingdom theology can influence the way that we use social media.
Social Media can function as a tool towards being “present” in the lives of people.
As people of God’s presence, the Vineyard Movement believes strongly that presence is an important aspect of being the community of God’s people. Our inaugurated eschatology correctly recognizes that God makes himself actively present in the lives of his people and we are to follow his model by being actively present in the lives of our communities. Social media provides a means for this active presence to be expressed.
According to one study, Facebook has over 1.06 billion users, Twitter has 500 million, WordPress has 74 million blogs, YouTube has 1 billion users (4 billion viewers), Pinterest has 47.5 million users (99.9% of them are women sharing recipes and scrap booking ideas, but you get my point), and Myspace still has 25 million users (Tom apparently has a lot of friends). The reality is that most people in our communities and spheres of influence are using social media (grandparents, deployed soldiers, teenagers, etc.). This also appears to be true in many countries that are considered “third world.” For example, I have many friends who I initially connected with on ministry trips while in Kenya, Tanzania, and Nepal that I now communicate with via social media. Clearly social media gives us an opportunity to be present in the lives of people. For example:
(1) Pastoral care. It’s amazing what people will reveal through a keyboard or microphone that they seemingly will not admit in person. In the same way that some people are much tougher behind a keyboard, some people become more vulnerable and transparent. Through social media, people have communicated with me regarding a variety of complex issues (e.g., adultery, homosexuality, rape, etc.).
I would also suggest that church leaders and church members can often get some limited insight on people’s spiritual status based on what they are posting on Facebook, tweeting, blogging or promoting through their social media. We can also have a better understanding of the struggles or concerns that people have by their postings. Furthermore, I’ve learned through Facebook that not everyone who says they love Jesus and are committed to the values of the kingdom and who have “Christian” as their religious status actually are. Or, as Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.” Social media can provide information on people and can help us with both discipleship and missional relationship development (i.e., evangelism). If employers are checking out Facebook and Twitter to gain a better understanding of potential employees, shouldn’t church leaders also?
(2) Spiritual formation. The church I serve uses social media quite a bit and many of the uses are related to sharing prayer requests, devotionals, and biblical resources. Many of our members share our sermon podcasts with their family, friends, and followers. All of these can greatly enhance spiritual formation.
Social Media can help us broaden our reach and influence.
If marketing is “the process or technique of promoting, selling, and distributing a product or service,” I think it’s somewhat safe to suggest that churches (and movements) are involved in at the very minimum of promoting a king and his kingdom. Social media can be used to promote church events and the missional efforts of missional communities. Social media allows for information to transfer quickly and easily (I was informed that the Boston bombing was reported on social media ten minutes before news outlets began informing the world). I have also seen my personal blogs influence extend to thousands of unique visitors spread out all over the world, which builds upon both reach and influence as well as being present.
Social Media can help us clarify kingdom values.
For some, Westboro Baptist’s hate-filled rhetoric of “God hates fags” is the quintessential expression of Christianity. There are many other assumptions about the Christian faith that become what Olson and Grenz call “tabloid theology” and “folk theology.” Thus, social media allows for Christians, church leaders, theologians, and biblical scholars to make substantial clarifications. For the Vineyard, that means that we can use social media to further clarify the implications of who Jesus is and what being a follower of his looks like as well as the nature of the kingdom of God.
Cautions and Concerns about the Possible DisFunction of Social Media Use
We don’t always use tools in positive or healthy ways. A hammer can be extremely beneficial when being used do carpentry work, but when a hammer is used to physically attack a person, hopefully we all agree that it loses its positive usefulness. The same can be said about social media use. There are dysfunctional ways to use it.
Social Media can further a self-centered and self-referential worldview.
Reading Facebook can be fascinating and equally disheartening. People can literally spend hours informing the world of what they are doing and thinking with little concern for anyone else. We see posts from people informing the world of the most ridiculous things. As a public service announcement, let it be known to all: no one wants to know about your most recent bowel movement. John Calvin wrote that human nature “is a perpetual factory of idols.” One of the strongest idols of heart would likely be “self” and I am concerned that social media can further a self-centered worldview. If we’re constantly answering the question, “What’s on your mind,” as Facebook asks, we may become more and more influenced to think that what’s on our mind is of more importance than what is the will of the Lord, the leading of the Holy Spirit, or in the minds of those around us. James K. A. Smith makes this suggestion when he writes,
“… both Facebook and Twitter can seem to foster habits of self-display that closely resemble the vice of vainglory. Or at the very least, they amplify the self-consciousness and ironic distance that characterizes late modern capitalism— to a debilitating degree.”
Social media can control the rhythms of our life.
This is to say that I believe social media use should be in the service of the user and not the user in service to social media. If anything is controlling or influencing us apart from the Holy Spirit, we need to ask questions related to why and how. All things may be lawful, but not all things are helpful or healthy.
Social media cannot replace the quality and depth of physical interaction.
I realize some suggest that “virtual church” is the future of ecclesiology. With all of my heart I want to scream “No!” While I can see how virtual communities can be steps towards what Scripture calls koinonia, I am not convinced that it can replace or function as effectively as real physical relationships and communication. Social media has limitations. There seems to be a radical difference between offering condolences through social media versus being physically present in order to exchanges hugs and other physical touch.
 “Social Media,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_media (accessed April 10, 2013).
 Thom S. Rainer & Jess W. Rainer, The Millennials (Nashville: B&H Books, 2010), Kindle Edition.
 “Pastor Who Banned Facebook Admits to 3- and 4-Way Affair,” http://www.nbcphiladelphia.com/news/local/NJ-Pastor-Who-Banned-Facebook-Admits-to-3–and-4-Way-Affair-109485069.html (accessed April 10, 2013).
 Matt. 7:21.
 Inc Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary., Eleventh ed. (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2003).
 Stanley J. Grenz & Roger E. Olson, Who Needs Theology?: An Invitation to the Study of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 22-35.
 John Calvin, Institutes, I:XI.8.
 See Jean M. Twenge’s Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled–and More Miserable Than Ever Before for sociological insights.
 James K. A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Publishing Group), Kindle Edition.
 Ibid., chapter 3.
 See Tim Challies’ The Next Story: Life and Faith after the Digital Explosion for helpful thinking on this issue.