An introductory paragraph on the prevalence of Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites is most likely needless, and because of how often people frequent these spaces, it seems that we no longer think of them as places that we visit but rather extensions of our own community, home, or even self. Having become so deeply ingrained in our daily habits, and thus, to borrow from one strain of theological thought, our souls, we no longer reflect on them as practices, much less question their very existence in our lives.
For instance, one’s daily ritual may be to get out of bed (or even remain in bed if he owns a smart phone) and check his social networking sites, along with his email, the weather report, the news headlines, the daily scripture reading, or any of those other seemingly trivial acts that make up engaging with the world.
But my question is this: if we believe that Christianity should at least enlighten if not imbue every part of our life, what are we to make of social networking sites and the implications they have for the church, aka: the body of Christ? Because social networking is an environment that provides space for so much of ourselves (image, thoughts, expression, family, friendship, achievements, history, etc.) the potential reflections become almost limitless. However, according to personal bias, I would like to focus on two aspects of this convergence that I find particularly intriguing: Facebook as Community and Facebook as Openness to God.
1) Facebook as Community:
Populist commentary and even scholarly literature on social networking sites seem to give much consideration to issues such as artificiality, perception, and privacy. For example, a study may explore how the self-constructed forms of these sites lead to egocentric behavior, the objectifying of individuals (including the self) and the ways in which we trade privacy (whether or not it is our “real” privacy) in exchange for a way of being perceived, or even the extent to which we become blind to the cost of our privacy, having fully bought in to the concept of anonymity that these sites suggest about themselves. (For scholarly research on social networking see “Virtual Friendship and the New Narcissism,” “Facebook and Online Privacy”).
Nevertheless, there are some good arguments and research that exist, which seem to show ways in which Facebook, and other sites like it can supplement or even partially replace the means in which we function socially (See “The Benefits of Facebook Friends”). Through these interpretations, Facebook becomes an equally “real” way in which to interact with other people. To connect with old friends with whom an out of the blue phone call might be awkward. To stay in touch with close family and friends who are far away. To streamline communication between multiple people, an amount of communication that would otherwise take a good part of one’s day to achieve.
From a Christian perspective, social networks can also be seen as a way to encourage and support one another for the building up of saints, to ask for prayer when troubles strike, and to share parts of our lives with each other in a way that promotes community.
For the Church (both the global and the local body) this community-forming feature is especially relevant as a means of fellowship, communication (ex: spreading word about events and opportunities), and anchoring, that is grounding people within a body of faith that extends beyond their personal sphere.
It is also an opportunity for individuals to integrate their various “worlds” or the various networks of people with whom they interact. In many ways, such subtle integration may prove more effective than overt evangelism, because it presents people with a more holistic image, ie: the Body of Christ as a living temple and an active and global community.
2) Facebook as Openness to God
Under this concept, it is argued that social networking sites provide us not only with opportunities to share our identities but also with opportunities to respond to the workings of God and the Spirit’s direction in our daily life. From scripture we know that when we are seeking God, He goes before us to make ready our paths. (Proverbs 3:6, Isaiah 43:19, Deuteronomy 31:8) *see endnotes.
Thus, as Christians, we are commanded to be attentive to God, in both obedience to His word and awareness of His movings. Within social networking sites, such attentiveness may manifest as general openness to ways in which God can lead and use our interactions with others by His grace and for His glory. This may include:
Sharing Needs: “in search of a roommate,” “anyone know where I can find a good deal on tires?,” “please pray for my friend who just lost her son”
Meeting Needs: “we have too many tomatoes to eat…come and get some if you want, and hurry,” “Car for sale, willing to give good deal if it can help someone in need.”
Spreading Information and Resources: giving helpful advice (mostly when it is solicited), sharing personal material goods or helpful knowledge, connecting people to those who can help them (passing along the name of a friend for a job, re-tweeting a request).
Making Connections: learning from the thoughts of strangers, engaging in dialogue with strangers, or even going to the trouble of sharing with or making connections for strangers in order to bless them.
In this way, our attitude toward Facebook becomes an extension of the attitude that we already have (or should already have) toward the workings of God. That is, an attitude of diligent seeking after where God can use us and faithful expectancy that he will use us (or bless us) even in ways we might not predict or recognize right away.
Critique of a Counter Example:
Somewhat of a counterargument to this idea of openness was found embedded in an online article from Christianity Today about “A Fishy Facebook Friend,” in which the author recalls a friendship request that turned out to be more of a business card for self-promotion. To this request, he responded:
“People have different expectations of Facebook. I try to use it to keep up with friends I’ve met in person or worked with extensively online—people who know me and like me for who I am, not for my ‘social capital.’ You sound like a guy I’d like to get to know in person—and when that happens, I’ll be happy to include you among my Facebook friends.”
Unfortunately, as much as I love Christianity Today, I can only half-agree with the line of thinking that gives way to this response.
First of all, the idea seems to promote two false dichotomies. One, in which there are only two groups of people: those who “know me and like me for who I am” and those who “like me for my social capital.” However, as painful as it is to admit, our perceptions of people are almost always blurry and slightly political, and it is hard to distinguish a “person,” from their “value” or “utility” in relation to ourselves.
Perhaps equally oversimplified is the idea that one’s “person” is “good” and one’s “capital” is “bad.” While this might ring true in an individualistic society that so highly regards the “self,” it does not seem to fit comfortably within Christianity, where we receive positive value not just for our existence as a child of God, but also for our role in the body of Christ (where God uses our “capital” as well as our “lack of capital” for His glory according to His will).
Thus, while human interactions will never cease to be born out of mixed motivations, or possibly even wrongly prioritized forms of love (love of God, love of others, love of self, love of material things etc), and while wisdom and discretion are necessary in all of our interactions with people, we should not be too hasty in adopting a defensive, protection-driven attitude toward those around us. While there are perfectly good reasons for sheltering oneself from abuse, fraud, and all of the other risks that exist, we must also be careful not to insulate ourselves in a personal safe-haven, or harden our hearts to the places, people, or even mindsets that God may be calling us to.
Finally, it is important to note that it is not the intention of this post to exalt Facebook and other social networking sites to a place beyond reproach. In fact, for Christians in the land of Facebook, there are just as many stumbling blocks as there are opportunities to do the will of God. Thus, we must check our hearts at the door or the computer screen, so to speak, and ask God to give us the desire to serve and glorify him in everything that we do.
*”In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” (Proverbs 3:6).
*”See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland” (Isaiah 43:19).
*”The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged” (Deuteronomy 31:8).