Church membership classes should consider equipping members to understand and use social media. I know. In a church membership class? What am I thinking!? Well, hear me out. I am not saying that you need to know about social media to be a Christian. I am saying that given how pervasive, addictive, and damaging social media can be that knowing about social media and how to use it well forms a key aspect of Christian discipleship.
In 2006, no one would ever have expected this. I think many of you reading this article now may already, even if only slightly, feel that you agree. My opinion has only grown and perhaps crystallized after watching Netflix’s The Social Dilemma. I already knew about some of the effects of social media through, for example, Jonathan Haidt. But the documentary helped clarify matters for me.
After watching The Social Dilemma, the topics that I think are important to address are: how social media’s primary purpose is to change your behaviour in order to sell you as a product; how to use social media wisely without falling prey to its deleterious effects; and lastly, how to protect your privacy since data mining for future thought-crimes has become and will continue to be the norm for some time.
With that introduction out of the way, let me explain why I think churches should do this.
First, churches should consider equipping their members to use social media because it aims to sell you as a product to advertisers by using its algorithms to entice you to certain kinds of behaviours.
These behaviours tend towards what makes the social media platform wealthier. They sell our time spent hovering over ads or clicking into them to advertisers. We are the product. It is not humane—not made for human flourishing but for human exploitation.
Therefore, the billions of people on social media—and those who are on it for 2 or 3 hours per day (younger people usually)—use a platform whose entire purpose exists to exploit them for financial gain by changing their desires.
If you want to talk about a way of living and being in the world out of step with the Gospel, this is it.
The platform itself teaches us to desire whatever gets the advertisers the most clicks. Tempted by sensuality? Well, no matter because the algorithm knows it. Tempted by materialism? No matter because the algorithm will feed your heart’s desires. Want to be self-disciplined? Not going to happen because the algorithm knows how to get you glued to the screen.
Talk about spiritual formation—in this case, we may want to call it materialistic formation!
Second, churches should consider equipping members to understand social media because it will greatly affect the future of Christian missions.
Churches should consider equipping members to understand social media because it will influence the future of Christian mission. The reason why is simple. What we say on social media now could be used against us in ten years. It could mean a lawsuit against a church, sucking up valuable finances that could be used for missions.
It could mean being tied up in personal lawsuits or even the stress of being cancelled. It could mean distraction from real life Christian living. And it could even mean criminal action against you. It is serious stuff.
Consider cancel-culture. A comedian made a joke five years ago on Twitter. And now people cancel him or her. Why? Because it was okay then, but not now. Realistically, it probably was never okay. But you get my point.
What is said online can be mined to create unwelcome attacks against you in the future. And I suspect legally too (it could at least be used as evidence to build a case). Why invite a lawsuit for discrimination because of something you said on Facebook? Why open yourself to possible liability when anyone can see your words without knowing you and often without context to make sense of your words?
I wonder how many Christians will have their testimony hurt or their bank account drained because of an unwise word made online? And let’s be realistic. If you have something controversial to say, is Facebook really the place? Or is it at the table in front of someone who can see the love and concern on your face and ask follow up questions?
I am concerned for our future Christian mission, and I think our words now will be used against us. Note: I am not saying, “Do not follow your conscience.” I am saying if you want to make a case that could be controversial: write it out, share it with friends, get input, and then publish. Or maybe don’t even then.
Third, churches should consider equipping members to use social media because a virtuous use of it requires intentionality.
Given what I said above, Christians (and really anyone) need to know how to understand themselves as users on social media and how to protect themselves from exploitation. But beyond that, we need to understand that social media does not get a pass from the application of spiritual discipline. Even if you are not as concerned as I about exploitation and mining, you should still be concerned about the personal deleterious effects of social media.
Social media algorithms aim to keep you on the screen, and so they may do so by feeding you information that promotes addictions, bad thinking, and even evil. They create echo chambers by feeding you what you like (and can we really trust our hearts?).
Algorithms send articles your way that create deeper biases and divisions among our society because they know that you will click. And many do because we are addicted. What’s the result? Answer: the deepening political and personal divide that even split families partly follows from social media’s algorithms and their influence on us.
Further, Social media is intended to create addiction and pursuit of materialism within a person. It aims to create a desire in you to love certain things in the world (clothes, makeup, games, etc.). It trains your desires.
But Christians ought to bring every thought captive to the word of God. And pastors need to know that their congregants are becoming formed and shaped by an echo chamber that may deepen one’s conviction of evil or at least of unhelpful truths.
Since the algorithm and drive behind social media aim to keep you glued to the screen, then you want to avoid that by using specific strategies. Here are some brief suggestions when it comes to strategies.
You can use third-party applications like Hootsuite or Buffer to share content on your social without logging on. That means you can still share that video, podcast, or article you like so much but you do not have to get sucked into the system.
That means you can choose to login when you want to see updates. It is up to you to do so. In order to set this up for Facebook, you need an author’s page. For Instagram, you need a business account. Twitter allows it for regular accounts.
There are some obstacles that get in the way of using a third-party app—and it seems obvious that Facebook has created these obstacles (they own Instagram) to ensure that users can get sucked into the system and so be transformed by the algorithm and generate revenue.
All this to say, these sorts of practical measures can be explained in a membership class to guide congregants along a virtuous path. That’s really the heart of pastoral ministry: guiding sheep along the narrow path to reach the heavenly city of God.
In conclusion, church membership classes should consider equipping congregants on the nature and use of social media for the sake of their congregants, for the sake of mission, and for the sake of guiding them to God.