I received an email from Jonathan, a person I’d never met, last June. He explained that he’d hit a point in his life where he had questions about life, faith, his purpose, and how to respond to everything that was happening in the world. We were in the midst of a pandemic; people were losing their jobs, and there was political turmoil and racial injustice. Jonathan said he didn’t know how to process all the chaos we all were witnessing.
Jonathan had found our church through Google and Instagram. Unbeknownst to me, he had been listening to our sermons and podcasts and following SLO City through social media. One day, while Jonathan was on vacation in Michigan, he put in his AirPods, headed out for a jog, and listened to our church’s message on joy—and that’s when the Lord touched his heart.
Jonathan wrote this to our church: “God broke through to my heart. I dropped to my knees right there . . . and committed my life to Christ. I’m not exactly sure what the path forward looks like, but I wanted you to know that you are making an impact.”
A few months later, when I had occasion to meet Jonathan for coffee, I was floored by the way God used social media and the spoken word through an online platform to meet him right in the middle of a jog.
The Potential of Social Media
Social media has impacted almost every aspect of our lives. Recent reports indicate there are more than 330 million Twitter users (sending more than 500 million tweets per day), 850 million Instagram users (posting over 95 million images per day), and 2.7 billion people using Facebook. People are engaging one another, shopping, sharing opinions, and gathering information online more than ever. Think about that for a moment.
When we started SLO City Church, we built strong relationships with schools and city officials, we met neighbors and strangers in coffee shops, we coached sports teams and served our community, and we prioritized building a strong social media presence. Why? Because people all over the world—young and old, rich and poor—are using and consuming social media. We wanted to meet people—people like Jonathan—where they are and to bring the hope of Jesus into conversations happening online and in our city. We’re seeing God use social media platforms to connect the unconnected to Jesus . . . a hope that is steady and sure.
Photographer and digital marketing consultant Steven Estes recently shared this: “Social media has the potential to be the greatest tool to advance the gospel since the printing press. It basically gives the average Joe (or Jolene) a pulpit (or platform) from which to share the gospel like never before, and it gives churches a constant connection to their congregants beyond a Sunday morning service. It’s up to us whether or not we use it as such.”
The Deficiencies of a Digital World
We all recognize the power of handshakes, eye contact, and face-to-face conversation. Hugs and in-person smiles are deeply impactful. This global pandemic has exposed our need for such interpersonal connection, and yet we’ve been left with our laptops, iPads, smartphones, Zoom meetings, and the glow of a blue screen to give us this sense of connection in this season. It has left most of us less than fulfilled. It can be hard to encourage and maintain community during a crisis that forces us to remain isolated. And while social media has blessed both our church community and thousands of others around the world, it’s also a reason for great concern.
In 2020, the Netflix film The Social Dilemma explored this tension and exposed some of the troubling realities of a digital world. The film revealed what we all feel—that social media can be a breeding ground for comparison, contempt, hatred, and division. Studies show that social media usage increases anxiety and feelings of low self-worth.
The film explained how the various platforms hook users and keep them coming back for more. In one of the most troubling scenes, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt shared that suicide rates and instances of self-harm in preteen and teenage girls have skyrocketed since social media was first made available on smartphones in 2009. In the last decade, suicide rates have risen 70 percent in preteen girls and 151 percent in teenage girls. The film is important viewing for everyone—parents, pastors, and parishioners—because it helps explain that social media is a tool to be used, but it also is a tool that can easily use us.
Wrestling with How to Use Social Media Well
Social media is impactful. It can be a blessing, and it can be destructive. Social media users can be impacted in both good and bad ways.
The church needs to wrestle with the dilemma of how we use it. The church needs to better understand how social media can shape opinions, perceptions, and politics. The church must resolve to be shaped by Jesus’ love, grace, truth, Word, and worship—and then to use social media to bless others.
For too long the church has branded certain things as bad and untouchable, and for too long it has removed itself from certain places because of perceived dangers and threats. Social media undoubtedly fits in these categories. But Jesus and his disciples never slunk away from controversy or danger; instead, they went to public places and reached out to people in the middle of the mess. Jesus and his disciples met the people right where they were and sought to share hope with everyone. The church needs to look like Jesus in all settings. The church must shine the light of Christ wherever people are—for the glory of God and the good of all people.