Sounding an Alarm on Social Media Evangelism

Excitement and awe were palpable in the dimmed hotel ballroom as I stared at the presenter’s screen. The young speaker, who appeared to be in his early 20s, was explaining how Facebook was proving to be a strategic way to share the gospel and allow people to learn about scripture safely and privately. Facebook users could view his page that was filled with scripture verses, and if they commented or liked the content, he would send them a link to an online Bible in their language. It was clear to all of us that this was a revolutionary way to broadly share the gospel with people who might not have the courage to ask for a Bible in person. 

Since that day in 2011, Christian ministries and indeed the world have experienced massive shifts in how we communicate, connect, and share information with one another. With smart phones now outnumbering people globally, social media platforms have morphed from a means of connecting with loved ones to a ubiquitous medium of communication and marketing. People separated by thousands of miles can now easily form a community that does not require physical proximity.  

A Double-Edged Sword

With every innovation comes both blessing and curse, and social media has been no exception. What began as a medium of socializing is now a powerful advertising tool. Social media platforms’ ability to market to the audience most likely to purchase a product is at the heart of many marketing strategies. Since social media platforms can quickly learn details of users’ preferences, personalities, and socioeconomic status, they are able to disseminate individualized content that is curated for each user’s ever-changing preferences. With increased usage, users grow dependent on social media to meet their needs for interpersonal connection, news, entertainment, and general events in their community. 

Dependency on these apps has turned into outright addiction for many users, and the problem of social media addiction has turned from concerning to an outright crisis both in the U.S. and around the world. The tentacles of social media addiction reach far beyond how a user spends their time. Mental health experts and former social media insiders are sounding alarms on how social media is purposefully addicting youth and young adults and making them depressed, anxious, and suicidal. 

We know far more today than we did 12 years ago about the mental health hazards of social media use, and we have a greater awareness of social media companies’ incessant use of unethical practices in addicting and exploiting their users. Nevertheless, Christian ministries are promoting social media use for evangelism, and doing so with little regard for the well-documented accompanying hazards.  While some would argue that the “end” (users hearing, believing, and accepting the gospel) justifies the means, it would be irresponsible for Christians to neglect a careful examination what exactly the “means” is. While we cannot deny the fact that social media can and has been a way of exposing people to the gospel, we must start recognizing that no one, neither users nor administrators, are inoculated against the harms of this medium’s addictive and exploitative nature.

Exploitative?

Social media companies can give users content that is personalized and helpful. Based on their searches, posts, and likes, expectant mothers can expect ads for baby gear and nursery furniture. A grad school student might find their feed peppered with study aids and paper-writing tools. But what begins as a simple search for ten minutes is, by design, often extended into viewing other similar or related posts, and that added time viewing more content gives the platform evermore data on the user’s preferences. The apps purposefully remove “stop cues” like an actual end of a page or a blank screen at the end of video reels. There is limitless content that the platform is able to offer up to its users, so people who see no harm in spending hours upon hours on social media may do so without realizing that they are becoming addicted. 

This practice becomes increasingly unethical among users who are unwittingly using a service that is likely to harm them. Social media use is just as ubiquitous in low-income countries as it is in wealthy areas of the world with a broader understanding of internet addiction. Nevertheless, impoverished and low-income regions tend to be where social media evangelism efforts are being deployed. These areas have far fewer resources to educate populations on mental health hazards, so there is consistently a minimal understanding of addictive internet use.  Consequently, low-income countries offer up highly vulnerable and captive audiences to social media companies, who then sell that audience’s attention to anyone willing to pay for it. This is Exploitation 101: offering a service that seems highly beneficial while concealing its hazards in order to exponentially benefit and enrich the service provider. 

Seizing upon the dependable attention of social media audiences, Christian ministries join the fray by purchasing a piece of that attention. For a fee paid directly to the platform, evangelistic ministries can buy ads and broadcast to audiences most likely to view their content and respond. In order to grow their online audience (and thereby attract more users to their page), account pages can pay for likes, views, and follows. These accounts are often being run hundreds or thousands of miles away from the target location in order to protect the identities of Christians who live nearby, as these are often places with a history of hostility towards Christians. 

Users who view evangelistic pages are often presented with content and videos full of grace, hope, and love. For some, it is the first time they have ever read scripture, and it speaks to them in a deep, profound way.  Users who respond to the ministry’s social media content with questions or a desire to learn more are encouraged to call or meet in person with a local Christian who speaks their language and understands their culture. The hope is that people who are genuinely interested in knowing Christ will go beyond just text exchanges on a screen and begin a relationship with people who care for them. 

The question of ethical practice here is not about the message being offered to vulnerable social media users. It is about the medium by which that message is being conveyed and its incendiary methods of creating markets of hungry consumers. Yes, Christian ministries are offering a message of truth and hope to these markets. But is paying the drug lords who run the market an ethical practice? And are Christian ministries taking the time to inform their patrons of the health hazards of the medium they are both using?  

Beyond the Target Audience

The target audiences of social media evangelism are not the only vulnerable parties in these efforts. Those who are tasked with responding to inquiries are also falling prey to social media’s addictive devices, but their unhealthy habits or full-blown addictions are easily cloaked in the language of urgency for the gospel and “lives on the line.” Since this type of work is increasingly becoming a full-time job for globally minded Christians, we must recognize the addictive nature of social media ministry as an occupational hazard. Some responders are staying up into early hours of the morning to correspond with people who have reached out, and others report a hesitancy to create boundaries around ministry time on social media and personal time in general. 

The church should never shy away from entering dark places to carry in the light and love of Jesus, and we have a rich history of doing so. Ministering to people who are trapped in substance addiction, sex trafficking, and systemic abuse is the work of the body of Christ. However, we have historically done this work with diligence and awareness of the systems of oppression that can just as easily ensnare and brutalize us. We need to treat social media outreach in much the same way we would treat ministry in night clubs, casinos, or red light districts. The people on the inside may just be passing through, but they are very possibly there because they do not know how to leave. This may mean that people who put their faith in Christ as a result of finding hope on social media were indeed there because of an addiction to the platform. And this may mean that they need recovery rather than an invitation to work as social media evangelists or responders. 

Installing Guardrails

There was a road in the mountains of Eastern Afghanistan where the guardrail was completely destroyed, giving way to a frighteningly clear view of a bus skeleton far below. While the guardrail had certainly been in place on that treacherous road, it did nothing to deter a bus full of passengers that veered off course. 

The best boundaries are both strong and visible. Seeing them helps you keep a healthy distance, but bumping up against them protects you when you fail to notice. In using a tool as powerful, addictive, and controversial as social media platforms to spread a message of hope, Christian ministries need to ensure that guardrails are well-established to avoid doing harm to vulnerable populations. This could mean refusing to use strategies of engagement that are addictive in nature, such as rewarding users’ viewing of a video with another video. It could also mean transparency about how their respondents’ information is being saved, stored, and shared. This particular issue requires imagining how you would feel if, in an existential search for connection and hope, a person responded to your need while keeping a detailed record of your messages in a database and shared it with donors who funded the campaign. A guardrail could also mean that ministries begin disseminating information about social media addiction right alongside their regular posts. When using targeted ads, it could mean researching and adhering to rigorous standards of ethical advertising. 

Likewise, Christians who are taking part in social media evangelism ministry need clear guardrails with regular accountability on when, where, and how much time they spend on the platform. Since social media platforms make both accidental and purposeful viewing of pornographic content easy, we must also inquire of a person’s current internet habits and personal history with pornography use before inviting them to make social media work their full-time job and ministry.  The Kingdom of God is not dependent on any social media platform. It has been advancing since Jesus blew the doors off and began inviting everyone into his family. As we assess the time, space, and resources God has provided for us today, may we work with both compassion and conscientiousness of the realities of oppression and sin that will be present until the day of Christ’s return. And until that day, may the Holy Spirit guide us in serving people with love, respect, and dignity to the glory of God the Father. 

How I Became the Poster Child for Swedish Families Living with HIV — And Why You Should Rethink Your Selfies

Someone recently pointed out that our picture pops up on a Google search for “blended family” (just a few spots behind the Brady Bunch).

 

 

 

That was a pretty cool moment.

I felt a little famous. Like the internet finally found out about the Joneses.

 

Then some more friends passed this little gem on to us.

 

 

 

Our picture had been consentlessly chosen to help people “reflect” on adoption and “how that decision might impact your life and the lives of those around you.”

Sweet.

I think “flattered” is probably the word that best described me at that point. Not only were we showing up on Google’s front page but someone, somewhere out there in Arkansas Cyberland went looking for photos to represent adoption and they chose us.

I love that.

I mean look at us. We scream adoption. Right?

It made up for at least half of the horrible, “picked last” moments from 5th grade gym class.

 

Then came this one.

 

 

 

 

Umm. Ok.

I suppose technically we’re not ACTUALLY “foreign-born step parents” and these are not ACTUALLY our “stepchildren” but hey . . . semantics, right?

That’s how it works in the modeling world . . . even though technically we weren’t ACTUALLY models and this is just our family photo that we received ZERO compensation for.

Semantics.

Right?

I was curious.

So I dragged our photo into the Google search bar (you can do that).

And this is what I found.

 

We were also the poster child for Marriage and Family Counseling.

 

 

AND “Cooperation during the holidays” (for “blended families” because it’s different for us than the “normal” families).

 

AND “Intensive In-Home Counseling”

 

 

And quotable quotes . . . about blended families.

 

 

And maybe my favorite . . . We represent the happiest, blended family in all of Sweden living with HIV.

I mean look at us.

We don’t even seem phased.

 

 

I sought the wise counsel of my friends and got a wide range of reactions.

 

“You can send them a take down notice.”

“You should get paid for that.”

“That is a violation of privacy.”

“That’s the best thing I’ve ever seen.”

 

I found myself swinging back and forth on the whole spectrum.

 

Flattered and violated.

Laughing and frustrated.

Ready to call a lawyer . . . or maybe just write a blog post.

 

And then TWO things happened.

 

ONE: I stumbled across this one.

 

 

Now we had become the “Not Safe for Work” representatives for in-vitro fertilization, sperm switching in which shocked, white mothers gave birth to the children of (and I quote) “random Negros.”

Wow.

Before I vent I should mention — this webpage is a discussion forum. I’ve shown you the first bit and intentionally cut out the rest.

 

So you can see that they cropped my daughter out of the picture (because she didn’t fit the story).

But you can’t see the bit where they repeatedly use the “N-Word” about my son.

Or the part where they say “look how happy the whore is.”

Or the part where they say “Just f•••ing imagine having to resort to artificial insemination due to medical problems and your baby comes out as a f•••ing disgusting mongrel.”

 

Let me be clear — I don’t feel for a moment like this is about my family. These people don’t know us and the sickness in their hearts is not directed at us. They are idiots. Twisted, broken, sick, sick fools leaning on the misguided strength of perceived anonymity.

 

But DON’T EVER call my son a n**ger.

And DON’T EVER call my wife a whore.

And if you’re going to use my picture without my permission then DON’T crop it to fit your sick, selfish agenda.

That’s MY picture. NOT YOURS!!

I’m done venting now.

 

Curious about the second thing that happened? Here it is.

 

As I vented sarcastically via social media about our new found fame and violated personal space. Marilyn Gardener, the brilliantly, humble matriarch of alifeoverseas.com dropped this bomb (which ironically, I use here without permission).

 

 

Boom.

Wow.

I have to admit . . . In my self-centric rant, it hadn’t crossed my mind . . . but challenge accepted.

 

For a brief moment, I got a tiny taste of what it is like to be dehumanized. It was genuinely non-threatening and non-fearful but it in a small way I felt exploited.

Cheapened.

Used.

 

My entitlement swelled.

My “How Dare You” was ticked.

My Westerness roared.

 

Because somewhere, someone treated me as less than human.

Not real.

Just stock.

 

“Sobering” is the right word and so I’ll offer this challenge (but I’ll do it without shaming).

 

Please. See people as people. Even the people in your pictures. 

 

Don’t make them a poster child for something you don’t know they believe in.

Don’t wrap them around your agenda without their consent.

Don’t force them to represent something they don’t.

Don’t tell the story first and then find the picture.

Don’t degrade, demean, dismiss or devalue.

Look at pictures . . . and see people.

Look at people . . . and fall in love.

 

Here’s the “non-shaming” part.

 

If you’re like me you’re scanning your brain for the times that you have done EXACTLY this.

 

Overseas selfie.

“Look at me — I’m helping poverty.”

Grab a photo from Google.

 

What if instead of feeling guilty.

Or getting defensive.

Or making excuses.

 

You just said, “yeah, we’re all kind of figuring this out as we go?”

 

“But something needs to change.”

 

And then you stopped and pondered what you might do differently.

 

That’s a big step.

 

No pressure — but the world would be better if you took it.

 

Here are some resources for the pondering.

 

Woman’s Instagram Post About Kenyan Child Ignites Fury

How to Get More Likes on Social Media

How to Communicate to the World

White Savior Barbie is Here to Save Africa, One Selfie at a Time

The Problem With Africa Selfies

Serving Overseas? 3 Kinds of Selfies You Should Never Take

 

Thoughts?