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. 

Facebook lies and other truths

Have you ever created a fake boyfriend? Yeah, me neither.

One woman did, though, and while she’s no Chewbacca Lady, I still think she’s pretty awesome. You can read Ms. Smothers’ story here. Apparently, It only took one week and five easily stageable posts for Smothers to convince her followers that she had found love.”

Facebook, er, Instagram, lies. [And for the purists, Facebook owns Instagram, so the title of this post still fits.]

Ms. Smothers succeeded in convincing her followers that something amazing had happened: she had found love!

But it was all a ruse.

fbl1

I’m really glad you’ve never created a fake significant other, but have you ever created a fake missions point? You know, tweaked a ministry photo of someone else’s ministry and gently hinted that it was yours? Piggybacked on someone else’s success without explicitly giving credit?

Ever not posted your vacation pictures because they look a bit too exotic for the home team?

Ever tweaked your ministry numbers just slightly because you know the people counting?

Using social media to deceive is pretty easy, especially when everything gets washed through thousands of miles of sub-oceanic internet cables. Using social media to salve our souls (or attempt to) is also pretty simple: have you ever shared something because you were lonely and you needed some smiley faces and thumbs up and likey hearts? I have.

The accumulated consequences of these behaviors are enormous, both to us individually and to the future of cross-cultural missions. How we use social media really, really matters.

We all know that our online lives differ significantly from our senders’. Our supporters and friends probably won’t lose money by showing a picture of a vacation. We might. On the other hand, our friends won’t make money by showing a picture of a destitute child or a baptism. We might.

And that’s disgusting and gross.
It’s also true.

Our use of social media, like all communication, can construct or destruct. Our words can be sweetly hospitable or bitterly mean.

I want to figure out how to bless the socks off of people with my online presence. I want people to meet Jesus and his power when they browse my Instagram feed or Facebook page. I want them to leave in awe of a God who takes little people, connects them to his heart, and then changes the world.

To do that, I have to own my role as a curator/creator. And so do you.

 

Missionaries as Curators
Facebook and other social media allow us to show a curated life, and that’s not a bad thing. As it turns out, most of us actually like curated things, like National Geographic and the BBC. “To curate” simply means to select, organize, and present, typically using professional or expert knowledge.” We really should do that.

Curating is communicating; it’s you and me choosing what to communicate to the world outside of our heads.

The alternative of “just being real and showing everything” is a non-option. It’s not that people don’t care about our ENTIRE lives, it’s that people aren’t God. Simply put, no one has that kind of capacity. So, again, we must curate, select, and present.

Now, the key is to remember that the thing is curated.

The one photo in a National Geographic stands in the place of thousands that didn’t make it. The story on the front page of the Huffington Post hides hundreds of others.

What we share is what people see. How we spin stuff is typically how it stays spun.

You see, the power to curate is the power to blind.
It’s also the power to create.
To raise awareness, instill courage, raise up prayers.
To disciple, challenge, and bless the world.

 

The Power We Wield
How we talk about missions impacts the next generation of cross-cultural missionaries. It impacts their expectations and their hopes, and perhaps whether or not they even show up.

Those arriving on the field in 10 or 20 or 2 years won’t learn about cross-cultural missions from a book. They’ll learn from Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat (Lord, have mercy!) and whatever’s next. Will they think it’s all safaris and hugging kids with darker skin? Will they think it’s all boat rides and baptisms, with a swig of bubble tea to end the day?

Will they think it’s all loss and dirt and manual labor? All grief and regret, and after a certain number of years, you just come home weird?

How we talk about missions impacts how our senders see missions. Is missions something we do (as in “we, the elite missionary force”) or is it something WE do (as in, “we the global church reaching the people of the globe”)?

How we talk about missions impacts how our senders see the next missionaries. Do missionaries rest? If we never let our supporters see us resting and having fun, they will go on thinking that the next missionary they send can go 20 years without a vacation. That is not a gift I want to leave for the next missionary!

We influence these discussions. A lot.

 

Going Deeper – The Curator’s Id
Social media can be a dangerous place. We take our fleshy souls and string them up on an http:// and hope for the best. Maybe we hope for love and acceptance. Or affirmation.

Or maybe we’re afraid that if we don’t post, we’ll be forgotten, abandoned, and ignored. The fear is real.

Because the curator’s task – our task – is so crucial, we must seek to understand what lies underneath our social media selves.

Fear: Am I afraid of losing support. Am I deeply afraid of being labeled as lazy, or ineffective, or unworthy? Am I afraid that people will withdraw their love? Or money? Fear is such a terrible motivation for everything (except maybe teeth-brushing). If what you post/don’t post on social media is driven by fear, name it, call it out, and talk with God and your close friends about what to do with it. And maybe read some Brené Brown.

Attention: I need to be awesome. I need people to think I’m doing amazing things and visiting amazing places because, you guessed it, I’m amazing. You wouldn’t really say that, but does your Instagram account? I’m 100% sure the Pharisees would have been on social media, and they would have looked good – like, perfect, white-washed good. They had their street corners of boasting/prayer. Is social media yours?

Affirmation: Am I ok? Am I doing enough? Am I enough? Will my kids be ok? Have I ruined my family? Are you sharing your life in order to be affirmed by your friends and senders? Hopefully, there are people IRL (in real life) who do affirm God’s work in you. People who know you deeply and love you unconditionally. Write their names on a list. Then talk with them. Regularly.

 

Facebook, Fracking, and Viral Posts
Social media is like fracking. We inject tons and tons into this thing in hopes that we’ll get something usable bubbling to the surface. And we do. But then we come to find out that we’ve just destabilized a whole region and earthquakes are now common in Oklahoma!

Facebook “like” buttons and happy emojis offer illusions of care and affirmation; they’re nice, but they cannot fill the void. They are empty carcasses, incapable of answering the deeper longings.

It took one viral blog post to sink this home for me. It felt really great, sure, and I got a lot of attention. But pretty quickly, “real people world” crashed my internet party with the messiness of kids and ministry and marriage. And you know what I found? Real joy, lasting joy, is found in real places with real people. Not online.

It’s a ruse. A golden pot at the end of a rainbow. On the moon.

 

A Word on Vulnerability
Curating your story openly and with vulnerability does not mean you share everything. Transparency doesn’t mean everyone sees everything. Jesus himself didn’t let it all hang out for everyone. He had layers of subscribers and followers and disciples and friends. And then he had John.

Vulnerability gets hijacked when we use it to meet our own needs, and that’s not healthy for us or anyone else. Brené Brown, renowned vulnerability and shame researcher, goes so far as to state in her book, Daring Greatly, “Using vulnerability is not the same thing as being vulnerable; it’s the opposite – it’s armor.”

Are you using your online vulnerability in an attempt to get your own needs met? Is it your armor? One easy way to find out is to quit the internet. Go dark for two weeks and see what it feels like? If you feel like the wind got knocked out of your sails, like you lost all your friends, like a failure, you might need to recalibrate.

I tried this last January, and I was really nervous. I wondered if I’d die. I didn’t. In fact, I’m planning to do it again because it was entirely refreshing. It reminded me of the outernet, which is actually way bigger and more entertaining anyways.

 

Logging Off
So, I guess what I’m trying to say is, curate an online life, but live a real one. Connect with your neighbors and your teammates and your friends and let them see you. Not the Facebook you, not the Insta-filtered you. You.

Yeah, Facebook lies. So find some friends who won’t. Friends In.Real.Life. Of course, “In Real Life” doesn’t necessarily mean they’re physically present; these could be people with whom you spend time connecting, personally – and privately – via e-mail or private message or Skype. We all need people who are close enough and trustworthy enough to hold our stories.

The world doesn’t need any more fake boyfriends. Or fake missionaries. Let’s learn how to curate our stories well, and with integrity. Perhaps we could start by praying this prayer…

Serenity Prayer for Social Media.1

 

Peace,
Jonathan T.

 

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Articles someone somewhere might find helpful
Check out How to Communicate so People will Care for some simple guidelines to more engaging communications.

Read Elizabeth’s thoughts on asking supporters for prayer When the lights go out.

 

Chewbacca Lady
If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you could just go on thinking I’m crazy (which would go on being accurate), or you could just go ahead and do something 150,000,000 other people on the planet have done and watch this video. You’re welcome.