Have you ever felt the shot of excitement – the dopamine rush – that comes when someone ‘likes’ your photo or status on Instagram and Facebook? Well dear reader, you are not alone. In 2015, Instagram reportedly exceeded 400 million users with 40 billion photos posted. The popularity and increasing use of social media has been a growing area of heated debate and controversy topic in the past couple of years, in both Christian and secular circles. But how does social media affect us in regard to God’s mission? Adam Jeske (website) (twitter) addresses this question in this afternoon’s seminar.
From Dec 27 – Jan 1, volunteers with our network of early career Christian academics are liveblogging seminars at the Urbana conference, a mission-focused student gathering of 16,000 Christians from across North America and the world. This post was co-written by May Yuan and Vivian Chen.
The seminar’s speaker is a Wisconsin Native, and an associate director of communications and director of new media for InterVarsity/USA. Adam Jeske is a bread-baking yogi and father of two with an MBA in International Economic Development. He has a unique global perspective from living and serving in ministries in Nicaragua, China, and South Africa. He currently serves as a Senior Writer and Content Strategist with InterVarsity. Adam and his wife Christine Jeske regularly collaborate on articles for Relevant Magazine (https://www.relevantmagazine.com/user/100278 if you are a subscriber). Adam and Christine have also co-authored the book, This Ordinary Adventure: Settling Down Without Settling (IVP).
Is social media “bad for your soul”?
According to Adam, one common phenomenon of modern day social media is that “it sucks us in and before you know it you’re endlessly scrolling through your newsfeed” — and this is true whether it is Facebook, Snapchat, or Instagram. Jeske first asks the audience to reflect how social media inhibits its growth in Christ. He then offers some examples, such as how social media can be a huge time suck and distraction from work, making us restless. As Jeske says, we are “twitchy all the time” because of the incessancy of constantly checking our phones. Social media also isolates us and makes us lonely, because on it we see the gaps between us and people we thought know better. In addition, because people usually only post what they want others to see, it is a breeding ground for sinful desires, such as envy, greed, lust, narcissism, and pride. In addition, popularity on social media is able to make people smug, falsely increasing their sense of importance and puffing them up, inflating their egos and pride. Overuse of social media numbs, keeping people from having an integrated picture in Christ, and instead, forces them to live in a realm that is crafted and shallow. It can lead to overextension and dissatisfaction, making people feel like they must constantly please their audience, or that they are not doing everything that they want to do. In addition, as Adam says, social media “distracts us because we’re not fully present,” and “our heads are constantly in our devices.”
Followers of Jesus go into dark places and light them up
If this is the case, then should Christians even be on social media platforms? Adam argues that we should. Although it is a given that social media can be bad for our souls, he says that we must use it. Because as Christians, we must preach the good news to dark places, and there are just as many dark places in social media such as Snapchat and Yik Yak than in the inner cities or the slums. Our job as Christians is to to go into dark places and shine light – and that is what we as Jesus followers are supposed to do. He states, “I want us to go there to shine life and offer new hope… We don’t need to discern any more of our calling. We know what our calling is, our calling is to make disciples – go to dark places and light them up, go to unloved places and love them, go to hopeless places and offer true hope. We need to go into those places and use those tools to communicate with them – and be on the social platform that they prefer.” Some examples of using culturally appropriate platforms would be using Kakaotalk for Koreans, WeChat for Chinese people, or VK for Russians.
Adam remarks, “I don’t think it’s an acceptable to opt out of social media in this day and age. If you’re a follower of Jesus, you have to steward your digital life as much as you steward your money and your time.” It’s true – ministry is fundamentally about relationships, and in this day and age, social media is also about relationships and connecting with people. The younger generation is becoming more and more obsessed with their phones and applications such as Snapchat and Instagram. Thus, completely rejecting social media is, in a sense, rejecting an entire realm of connection and relationships that could potentially be formed. However, he also states that we need to develop communication in deeper ways – such as in genuine one-to-one conversations. However, social media and the internet can be a great start to bridging that connection. In this way, the life of a modern day disciple can be lived both in person and in a digital stream.
Another point that he makes is that it is important to not only use social media to preach the gospel to those already saved, but also to consider those to whom the gospel has not yet reached. He states, “it’s important that we recognize that a conference like Urbana, every single person wants to know Jesus – it’s a lot about the good news and proclaiming His kingdom.” However, it’s equally as important to use social media to interact with people who may not necessarily be seeking God. People outside of the church also want hope, to be loved, to have freedom and experience beauty – and social media can be a means to show that these are things that we find in Christ. It is a known fact that people who do not follow Jesus make their decisions with screens in front of them – and atheists also take in information by seeing how Christians around them interact both in person and also online.
How might social media help your walk with Jesus?
One way is that it brings accountability – through Facebook groups and group messages, social media has the potential to create community, bringing you closer to other people. In this way, it is a technology that can make you more like part of a body – the body of Christ that we are called to be. If used wisely, it can encourage us to spur each other on to love and good deeds, bear one another’s burdens, and celebrate each others’ good news. Although people sometimes protest that people are “fake” on Facebook, presenting a superficial image of themselves that they want others to see, Adam responds that people can also be just as “fake” in real life – you can be just as disingenuous talking about your vacation, or your new car, as you could be posting your vacation pictures onto your Facebook profile.
In addition, social media is another potential means of increasing vulnerability. In fact, some people are able to be more vulnerable behind their screens than they can be face to face. Adam says that there are many people who have not yet had the opportunity to have deep, thoughtful, and kind conversations with others in person, and may not yet feel comfortable doing so, but social media can be used as a platform to build trust and bridge into more face-to-face conversations. Social media allows us another way to be with people who are mourning. It can also reveal sin – he cites a piece on Relevant magazine about how Instagram makes people envious of other people’s lives. Some claim that social media is transforming humankind into a prideful, jealous, narcissistic, and superficial people. However, Adam argues that social media isn’t the problem; it is actually US who is the problem. It is not that Facebook is shallow, WE are the ones who are shallow. Thus, the problem is not the platform, but human nature itself.
Lastly, social media presents an opportunity to tell better stories and create conversation starters. There is an opportunity to, as he describes, “unlearn jargon” – it is rare for one to post “churchey” language on social media and expect people to like it. Thus, social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook forces us to find ways to talk about our faith in a way that’s accessible, especially to people who don’t have years of acculturation in the church. Social media is a tool that allows us to take a peek inside the Church, especially for the people who don’t typically go to a Bible study or small group. Adam also points out that social media can be a means that allows people to see inside the church for people who would not normally go.
“But what do I actually do on social media?”
Adam gives some practical suggestions for what we can start doing on social media to help us in our Christian walks. One thing is we can start (or continue) to do is sharing our joys – a lot of which entails what social media already embodies: (e.g. “Look at how awesome this is!”) Another way we can use social media is another means to being vulnerable with each other, and sharing struggles. Of course, this does not necessarily mean that social media is a baggage dump – after all, a solicitation for pity posts does not build anyone up. Rather, as Adam describes, social media can be a tool to share struggles “poetically”, such as saying “this has been a hard thing and here’s why…” or, “is there anyone who has dealt with this?” Such posts could lead to deeper conversations, and lead to further explorations of an issue. In addition, social media could be used to share wisdom – there is a lot of knowledge in the world, but not a lot of wisdom, and this world, according to Jeske, is hungry for wisdom. Lastly, one can use social media to share resources – not just for Christian friends but non-Christian friends – for attributes of Kingdom and for the King. He argues that in their heart, everyone wants to follow Jesus and receive what He has to offer, although some may resist and deny it outwardly – but such resources can be an important part of the transition.
Adam then tells a story of a woman named Samantha who he had met a long time ago, who one day sent him a friend request on Facebook. Two years passed after he accepted her request, without much mutual interaction or communication. However, one day he randomly received a Facebook message from Samantha: “Adam,” she wrote “I’ve been watching your life for these past two years.” It turned out that she had seen some of the talks, posts, and family life, and decided that he was trustworthy enough to provide an answer for a deep theological concern that she had. Because of the way that he presented himself on social media, it allowed him to become the person that was able to “pastor” her in that moment. Because he was letting her peek inside the church, the family, the head and heart of God, she became curious and wanted to engage with him. That was the “home run” moment for him, he states, the moment that he was able to use social media for God’s kingdom purposes.
Some more tips: get good questions while using social media: be quick to listen and slow to speak (James 1:19). Another tip is to request prayer: if you’re going through anything, you could ask those in your Christian community if they could pray for you. In addition, he urges us to be careful about what we post, and exhorts us not to put “any old stuff” online, but to write well, especially if we want to be representing our faith. He encourages us to use images – because “our brains are wired to like images.” Also, he recommends us to set boundaries – and to keep appropriate margins on the different areas of our lives.
How do we do ministry in this day and age for people who occupy a digital space?
Building a platform? That’s great, if you are truly seeking to help other people, and if you are seeking to glorify Christ above yourself. In addition, on the missions field, social media can be very good: it can keep you tied back to your community, it can have others bear burdens for you, be in prayer for you, and be connected with you. It is even better when missionaries are away for a long time, to satisfy their need for engagement. However, he cautions, it is important for those on the mission field not to isolate themselves from the community that they are engaged with by being too immersed in connecting with their community back home via social media. Moderation and wisdom are key.
Conclusion: How can my interests in digital life mesh with my interests in glorifying Christ?
There is a lot of energy about the topic of social media, because the church often does not facilitate conversation about this new part of our lives. Jeske suggests that perhaps this is because a lot of our church leadership is older or intimidated by it. However, he argues that social media is an integral part of contemporary society, and in some cases, its use is unavoidable. As much harm as it can do, it can also be used as a bridge to a conversation, or an inside glimpse of what it is like to be a part of a church. At the end of the day, what is important is not the platform itself, but our motivation behind its use – after all, man looks at outward appearances, but God looks at heart (1 Samuel 16:7). Thus, it should not be us at the center of the narrative, but God.
Over the course of Urbana, Adam states that we have the ability to make deeper connections within the conference, and then to spread it to our church back home. He encourages us to share our experiences during Urbana with our friends and followers on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. And given the massive amounts of posts over the past couple of days with the hashtag #Urbana15, it seems like his message has gotten through.
Questions and Discussion
Q: When on social media, how do we set boundaries for ourselves? What are some good boundaries and time limits?
A: It depends on who you are. If it’s your job to be on Facebook, then you should be! If you work at Intervarsity, sometimes, that’s a critical aspect of your job. Last school year, I started to think more critically about engagement with my phone. I turned off all notifications except texts – and told the people important to me “if you need me, text/call me, or email.” Turning off notifications was helpful in unshackling me from social media. I also suggest setting specific time/ hours that don’t include social media (e.g. 10-15 minutes in the morning before tea), and starting work beforehand so as to don’t get sucked into email. After getting work done, I check to make sure I’m not missing anything important. I usually don’t have any distracting tabs open while I’m doing work. In the afternoon, I check again. Also, it helps to have a place where your phone goes when you get home (such as on the shelf), so that you are not incessantly checking; don’t have your computer incessantly open. No screens in the bedroom is also a good rule (because I know it’s going to keep me awake). I found that this encouraged me to read more (and as People of the Word, books are very important).
Q: How should I use social media to build community in an Intervarsity chapter on a campus, among people who have not met before?
A: Perhaps try a Facebook group, where anyone can post. It’s helpful to have a platform where most people can be included, and you should figure out grounds to communicate with people who don’t have Facebook.
Q: How do you pastor to someone who’s going through a dark time besides just saying “I’m very sorry to hear that” or “that sucks”?
A: Sometimes, you can share something obliquely, to pass them resources (e.g. “this is something someone else has gone through.”) You could also use it to pass along a resource, a book, a blog post, or to introduce a person you that you know.
Q: What do you think about using a business platform in sharing the gospel? How do you use social media to evangelize to people worldwide, since there’s a lack of trust?
A: That’s a difficult question. It is true that we’re ministers of the gospel, and we’re also ministering to that particular digital space. However, we need to be cautious in not violating in business relationships. When reaching out online for a business, sometimes it is also good witness to try to use empirical good marketing techniques (e.g. see what worked in the past, and what didn’t, and try to go from there).
Q: My biggest problem about social media is the negative or unbiblical posts by Christians… how do we address that problem?
A: These people are kind of like false teachers, which are regarded harshly in the Bible, and we must be aware of them. If it’s someone I trust, try to contact them one-on-one; instead of attacking them in the comments section, send them a private message (e.g. “Can we get a meal sometime and talk about this?”). Sometime it is a better strategy to come in sideways, especially when it is clear that coming straight at something will cause it to crash.
Q: If Jesus lived today, which social media platforms would he use?
A: Well, I guess he would have a drivenness for face to face interaction… But I actually think he’d be hilarious on social media; he would probably use humor incisively, and he would definitely be overturning some tables.