Spread the Word...on Social Media
By the Rev. Liam Muller | Rector, Trinity-Rutland, Vt.
Every so often the curmudgeon inside of me wants to shake my fist and yell, “Get off my lawn,” at all things technical. I don’t, but sometimes I really want to. This of course includes social media.
Most of the reason for this is that it’s all so new; so different from what is familiar and comfortable to me. And it’s all happening so fast! Consider: My undergraduate degree is in Communications/Journalism and none of our now-commonplace social media sites were discussed, theorized or, probably, thought of when I graduated (and, truly, it wasn’t that long ago).
I am not of the opinion, however, that just because something is new and unfamiliar that it must be bad; far from it. Rather, there are times I am impressed with the positive (yes, you read that right) qualities of social media: Catching up with old friends; receiving news from afar; recipes and, to a lesser degree, debate on current events are examples of the positive aspects of social media. Likewise, there are aspects of social media I am not so enthralled with: Selfies; mean-spiritedness; politics and politicians; animal videos and anything even remotely intolerant, racist or xenophobic.
There are times I am impressed with the positive (yes, you read that right) qualities of social media.
That being said, all of social media is new and what its future is is anyone’s guess. One thing I am certain of, however, is that social media is here to stay and we have to not only accept this fact, we need to be prepared to use it for the benefit of all. Since this column is about evangelism, I was wondering what impact social media may have to help us as we evangelize. To that end, I have asked Communications Minister Maurice Harris to answer some questions I posed regarding the use of social media as it pertains to evangelism. Here are his responses:
Muller: How do you define social media?
Harris: Salem Press Encyclopedia defines social media as, “The Internet-based applications and websites that promote the sharing of user-generated content, communication, and participation on a large scale.” I think this is a good place to start, but there are deeper implications for the spiritually-minded. Whenever a user generates and shares content in social media—it could be content about himself or herself or someone else—a version of the subject’s life is portrayed online. However real or artificial that portrayal may be, it factors into the behaviors, values, and beliefs attributed to the individual. Thus, social media is a platform for evangelism, insomuch as one’s life online reflects God’s love.
Muller: Given the definition of evangelism (“to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ”) why is social media a good means of evangelizing? If it’s not, why isn’t it?
Harris: Comparatively speaking, social media is no better or worse a means of evangelism than encounters in real life. As you’ve often said, Liam, “If you have to tell someone you’re a Christian, you’re probably doing something wrong.” The same holds true for the lives we project online. In Hebrews 12:1, the apostle Paul advised his friends, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” Consider this: Social media significantly expands an individual’s “cloud of witnesses.” Paul’s advice is certainly relevant in the context of social media.
Consider this: Social media significantly expands an individual’s “cloud of witnesses.”
Muller: What might be some advantages of evangelizing through social media? How about disadvantages?
Harris: Recently, over the course of several weeks, a Facebook friend of mine shared a series of articles from a Christian publication about violence against Christian minorities in the Middle East perpetrated by Islamist extremists. His intent was to awaken his U.S. friends to their religious privilege and rally them to prayer for the victims. But his editorial choices and timing were, in a word, terrible. During that same time, President Trump’s travel ban was making headlines, and my friend’s posts originated from a so-called “conservative Christian” publication. Put all of that in a blender, and you can see how those posts could be misinterpreted as fodder for Islamophobia here at home.
This is an example of one disadvantage of evangelizing through social media. We must consider critically not only the messages we share, but also the sources we promote, their agendas, and our passive endorsements of them. From a biblical perspective, one might say, “Do not let your good be evil spoken of.” Sure, Jesus dined with tax collectors and sinners. They were on his “friends” list. But we don’t find their words in his mouth. Simply put, he wasn’t “sharing” their content.
We must consider critically not only the messages we share, but also the sources we promote, their agendas, and our passive endorsements of them.
Another disadvantage is that the Internet has a relentless memory. It only takes a Google search to dredge up things we wish others would forget. As we grow spiritually, and our online lives begin to project God’s new creation, some may challenge our authenticity. Millennials may be especially susceptible to this because so much of their lives is archived online as compared to older adults. Ironically, this also represents a tremendous evangelism opportunity. When changes in our lives are dramatic and attention-getting, they open the door to discussing the One who inspires transformation.
Muller: How might you foresee a future in which social media is used to its fullest advantage to evangelize?
Harris: Here is where I fall back on the idea of “Evangelizing Through Whispers and Actions,” which you discussed in the previous edition of the Mountain. We each know what love, kindness, compassion, and inclusivity—characteristics of the Christ—look like in the real world. Are we emulating these same attitudes and behaviors online? Just as importantly, are we perceived as emulating these characteristics by those who view our user-generated content. When we when can honestly say yes, then we are using social media to its fullest to evangelize.
Muller: What excites you the most regarding the use of social media to evangelize?
Harris: Social media demands that we be creative in order to cut through online clutter. It excites me when I see expressions of faith—in a video, quote, or meme—go viral. It reminds me that despite the oft-reported declines in church attendance, the Spirit of the Lord is very much alive.
Muller: What about the use of social media to evangelize gives you pause?
Harris: Evangelism malpractice gives me pause. It happens on social media in much the same way it happens in real life—a form of well-intended browbeating. For example, when I read news articles online, I often scroll through the comments at the bottom. Whenever disagreements emerge, there is inevitably one responder who is determined to win the argument at all costs. This is particularly disheartening when it happens in faith-based media among self-proclaiming Christians. How we handle disagreements—lovingly or angrily—says something about who we are, and whose we are.
How we handle disagreements—lovingly or angrily—says something about who we are, and whose we are.
Muller: How can you, as Communications Minister, assist us as we evangelize through social media?
Harris: Interestingly enough, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, which set the criteria for user-generated content years ago, ruled that it excludes “all content created with a commercial market context in mind.” Stated another way, social media is meant for individuals, not organizations. Although a tremendous lot of social media content today is generated by organizations, there is still a sense that the individual holds the power. The user, not the organization, determines how far the message goes. So, when I post on behalf of the Diocese, my aim is to generate content that you’ll want to include in your own story. Last month, you wrote about evangelizing through whispers. Each “share” or “like” is a whisper. Many whispers can become a roar.