By Eddie Lowen
This is no self-righteous rant about abandoning social media. But I do wonder if I—and many Christians I encounter online—have always thought through the implication of what we post.
There were no newspapers, radios, or TVs. No blogs, podcasts, or social media. Sending a letter to 100 people meant scratching it out on parchment 100 times (that was a punishment when I was in elementary school).
In an age when no instant or mass communication tools existed, when fewer people lived on earth than in the United States today, James wrote, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak” (James 1:19).
If that guidance was needed before people posted their words online freely and frequently, how essential is it today when our words are so readily broadcast to everyone we know—and potentially around the world (with 40 times as many inhabitants on the planet)?
I Post, Therefore I Am
In early 2009, as Twitter’s servers crashed under the volume of its explosive popularity, Psychology Today tried to explain the appeal. The writer offered a familiar triangular chart featuring Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and included phrases like existential anxiety and social recognition, along with words like self-esteem and narcissism.
Twitter feeds our hunger for celebrity, the magazine said. I didn’t take time to research whether or not they tweeted the article.
Cynical commentary about our use of social media has been offered up many times since the twitterverse was created. And, all this could serve as a setup for my own pretentious homily about social media. But I don’t plan to disavow social media, and neither do many others, regardless of what the cynics preach. As for me, I think it’s better for us to be in the game. Today’s communication platforms are, like every other technology, capable of magnifying blessing or pain, love or hate, truth or falsehood.
My suggestion is that we ask ourselves WHY we post, why we post WHAT we post, and why we post AS OFTEN as we post. Meditating on these questions long enough can only help us. I’m thinking of questions like these.
What are my motives for posting this? Jesus taught that our words reflect the content and condition of our hearts. Whether written, typed, spoken, or posted, words always say something about the speaker. Words posted on social media often reveal insecurity, graceless attitudes, and dysfunctional ways of relating to others.
I’m grateful for people who know right from wrong, but how did we miss the memo on Jesus’ condemnation of a judgmental spirit? This principle was recurring in his teaching and obvious in his example. Judgmental people do not bring glory to God.
I’m amazed by the number of Christians who relate to the world online completely unlike the way they relate in person. Face-to-face, they seem thoughtful and gracious, perhaps even reticent. Online, their style is slash-and-burn. They speak from a posture of moral superiority.
When we communicate that way online, the impression (true or not) is that we wish to bring glory to ourselves. At best, it’s clueless and inconsistent. At worst, it’s arrogant and counterproductive. Our pejorative statements are often a sign of our perverted spirituality.
What would happen if this post were widely seen? Justine Sacco made an offhanded joke on her Twitter account about AIDS victims as she boarded an international flight. It was sarcasm intended to portray the lack of grace shown to many AIDS patients. Besides, Justine’s mere 130 followers knew her well enough to understand her meaning.
However, when Justine reached her destination, she turned on her phone and discovered she’d been retweeted, misunderstood, and vilified. She became Twitter’s most hated person that day. People on Twitter were so outraged, they lobbied her and her employer. Justine was unemployed before her plane landed.
Very few of us imagine how our online words might be interpreted if they suddenly went viral. Two years ago, my son told me he reviewed and deleted numerous past social media posts. He said, “I was like such a jerk,” and asked, “What was I thinking?”
It’s an important question. Thanks to an app called Timehop, I review things that I posted on today’s date as far back as 7 or 8 years ago. Often I find myself shaking my head. I was posting long before I asked and answered some important questions.
Here’s a guiding word through which we can filter our posts: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29).
So many social media posts are about the originator’s need to be heard, not about building others up.
How frequently should I post? At a training event for church leaders, a social media expert encouraged pastors to post multiple times a day, every day. It is needed, he explained, to build a brand or platform. But there was no guidance or discussion about the whole idea of setting out to build a bigger online presence. To be clear, it seems to me there is a positive reason for trying to reach more people with our voices. But at what point do we accept the realm of influence God has given us?
I’m not trying to Jesus-juke anyone with good things to offer and pure motives for doing so. But I hope I can find a way to genuinely humble myself before the Lord and trust him to lift me up where and how he sees fit.
Perhaps that’s easy for me to say because I have less to offer than others and, therefore, less of a burden to offer it. But I think providence is still a thing. I want to trust God’s wisdom concerning the degree of my visibility.
Would I say this in any other forum? If it would appear desperate or dopey to say something in a crowd of people at church or at the mall, why would I say it on social media?
“My name is Eddie and I’m a user . . .” of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. I’m pretty digitized and not even close to being unplugged. There are a few hundred e-mails in my in-box. I recently counted the e-mail accounts on my phone: six (though my phone service provider created two on my behalf for reasons I can’t explain). I use one e-mail address for work, one for personal items, and one for people I don’t like so much! I recommend it.
Maybe I’d be wiser or saintlier if I attempted to make a case for nixing digital media altogether. It would be futile—and I’m not there. In the world, not of it, was the way of Jesus. The world is present on social media, so you and I should be there too.
But to be salt and light, let’s eliminate the “morality rant” posts, the “complaint-box” posts, the “hell-in-a-handbasket” posts, the “look how uptight I’m not” posts, the “look who I’m with now” posts, the “look where I’m traveling because I’m important” posts, the “I’m humbled that you thought my sermon was awesome” posts, the “they’re stupid, I’m smart” posts. . . .
Let’s, at least, ask if something will be built, other than our own platform. And let’s remember what happened to Haman in the book of Esther when he built one.
And now, excuse me. I have some deleting to do.
Eddie Lowen, lead minister of West Side Christian Church, Springfield, Illinois, writes the “Ministry Today” column semimonthly in CHRISTIAN STANDARD.