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.
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.
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…
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.
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.