It Distorts Reality
Matthew Lee Anderson is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith (Bethany House) and blogs at MereOrthodoxy.com.
The benefits of social networking are many but require judicious and responsible use to be enjoyed. When done well, social networking can enhance the fellowship of the church by providing congregants a window into each other's lives. It can mobilize congregants to serve their neighbors and enhance the church's mission by embedding the community of church relationships in the broader community.
But social media can merely offer a short-term, technological solution to deeper, more fundamental problems. Social networking can give the appearance of intimacy and community without enabling the substance of embodied friendship.
The more we wed ourselves to social networking as a strategy for building community, the more we risk forgetting that the problems in our communities do not hinge upon lack of access to shared information about each other's lives. They result from our own reluctance to share space and meals together, and to enter into environments and social situations that require our embodied presence. The comforting arm around a shoulder that comes when we "weep with those who weep" will never have an equal virtual substitute.
In that sense, while not immediately harmful to fellowship, we should ask whether social media undermine our intuitions about what is distinctive and unique about the gathered, embodied fellowship of the people of God.
This is especially true now that social networking is increasingly video-centric. Video social networking seems to make online sharing more like embodied presence. This makes it more difficult to see what is unique about being together in body, and may make us think church gatherings are unnecessary.
Social networking reminds us of our intrinsic sociality, but constantly moves us closer to the point where sociality no longer requires our bodies to be fully human.
As Christians, we serve a God who became flesh and dwelt among us. We have a principled reason by which we can say "stop" when technological expansion sabotages our humanity.
That does not mean Christians shouldn't use social networks. I continue to use them, both personally and professionally. But in doing so, we need to recognize that social networks hold within them the false promise of purporting to help the church's gathering while at the same time undermining it in future generations.
It Deepens Fellowship
Brandon Vogt is a Catholic writer and speaker who blogs at ThinVeil.net. He is the author of The Church and New Media: Blogging Converts, Online Activists, and Bishops Who Tweet (Our Sunday Visitor).
At its core, the church is one giant social network. It exists as an intricate, interconnected community. Even more, God is a network himself—the Trinity—pulsating with communion.
As social beings created by a communal God, we should take courage and not be afraid of modern social media. There are five primary reasons congregations should embrace these tools to aid church fellowship.
First, fellowship is not an end in itself, but a means to many other goals: community, mission, evangelization, and spiritual growth. Social media amplify each of these elements exponentially and therefore are a potent aid to fellowship.
Second, social networking transcends geography. These tools extend fellowship beyond the church walls and stretch it around the world. They help us fulfill Jesus' command to Peter, which still echoes for us: "Put out into deep water" (Luke 5:4).
Church fellowship must never be exclusive and closed in on itself. It should always be outward-focused and mission-oriented. Members are ultimately connected in the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12), not isolated in local church bodies like disparate tribes.
Third, social media transcend time. Fellowship in the past was typically constrained to the times when people gathered at churches or in homes. But now conversations about Sunday sermons can linger throughout the week.
Fourth, online relationships spark offline community. Social media do not replace personal relationships. They supplement them and cultivate new ones. Ideally, online social networking leads to offline social networking, meeting face to face so that our joy may be complete (2 John 1:12). I have recently met with several friends from other states whom I first encountered through Facebook. Even 20 years ago, these relationships would not have materialized.
Fifth, and most importantly, social media open the doors of Christian fellowship and invite millions of outsiders to join the community. Young secularists who would never darken the doors of a church find themselves dialoguing with Christian bloggers. An atheist YouTube viewer stumbles across a religious debate and becomes intrigued by the idea of God. A Facebook exchange dissolves the distorted images a young mom long held about Christianity.
Of course social media come with potential dangers. For example, they can inflate gossip, encourage narcissism, and reduce people to text. But these dangers are avoidable. Once aware of them, we can prevent or overcome their damage.
When used prudently, social media strengthen more than destroy. They not only tighten the bonds among Christians but also connect them with millions outside the faith. Rather than undermining church fellowship, social networking stands as a powerful tool to both grow and fortify it.
It Gives and Takes Away
Doug Groothuis is professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary and author of Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (IVP Academic) and The Soul in Cyberspace (Baker).
Many Americans assimilate and advance new communication technologies without a second (or perhaps first) thought. To invoke Marshall McLuhan, they "sleepwalk through history." Those whom Jesus called "salt" and "light" (Matt. 5:13-16) should wake up and assess the strengths and weaknesses and the nature of the plethora of technologies that assail us daily and hourly.
What place do social media have in the fellowship and evangelism of the local church? Is Facebook a good home for your church? Should your pastor tweet or not?
To answer these questions, we need to attend to two issues: First, what are social media? Second, what is a biblical model of fellowship (or koinonia)?
Social media are computer-mediated methods for communication. They enhance human accessibility and the speed of communication between people and groups. I can check Facebook or Twitter to learn how a friend in India (or across the street) is doing.
They extend the reach of text and images far beyond what the un-electrified, unmediated individual may do. However, social media can also restrict the human presence by subtracting the reality of "being there" and "being with." One should not receive Communion while glancing at a text message. One cannot be baptized online.
Social media also clutter our field of concentration, rendering our attention to any one thing at one time with any depth nearly impossible. Thus, multitasking becomes the norm (even though our God-given brains are not designed for it). We become scattered, flighty, not fully engaged in anything.
The Bible prizes the personal and face-to-face dimension of human fellowship that is absent but simulated through social media. John writes at the end of his short epistle, "I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete" (2 John 1:12). Although God had sent prophets and inspired Scripture for centuries, all was not complete until "[t]he Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14).
God's mission is to make himself known and worshiped as the one true God in all the nations. To that end, Christians have ardently preached and defended the gospel. They have copied and translated the Bible into as many languages as possible. Christ followers have also labored to spread the message through radio, television, and now the Internet, because "how can they hear [the gospel] without someone preaching to them?" (Rom. 10:14). We can evangelize through social media and develop forums of association within the church.
So, social media both give and take away, as do all media.
Copyright © 2011 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Previous CT articles about social networks include:
Twitter Reaches Out to Christian Leaders at Catalyst's 'Be Present' Conference | The company wants to verify prominent pastors as the religious leaders navigate social media challenges. (October 7, 2011)
Religious Self-Profiling | Identifying one's faith on online social networks proves challenging for some. (January 14, 2010)
Does Twitter Do Us Any Good? | How the movement of the Trinity can help us decide. (June 4, 2009)
An Entertaining Saboteur | Facebook promises to connect us to one another. Is that what you are doing right now? (February 5, 2009)
Previous "Village Green" sections have discussed online dating, Muslim-Christian relations, military drones, terminal illness, marijuana morality, credit card debt, tithing during unemployment, illegal immigrants, giving to street people, the best Christmas stories, laws that ban Islamic veils, the Tea Party, Afghanistan, Bible smuggling, creation care, intelligent design, and preaching.
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