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. 

Third Culture Kids and Social Media

This summer, The Atlantic published a fascinating article called Has the Smartphone Destroyed a Generation? I encourage every parent, especially of tweens and teens, to read it and discuss it with your children.

I read the article with a particular mindset, that of a parent raising teenagers who also are Third Culture Kids. I wondered, how do these ideas apply to my own children? Keeping in touch is powerfully different for a suburban teen chatting with her friends from school than for a teen in Beirut chatting with her friends in Turkey or in Minnesota.

So how do TCKs, specifically, use social media? Both positively and negatively? How can we help our TCKs navigate this fraught world with wisdom and grace? I did a little unscientific survey and asked some TCKs for their perspectives.


Me Too. “Through our discovered solidarity, I’ve been able to let out a huge sigh of relief and say “…me too.” There is something profoundly powerful about knowing that you’re not alone in your existence. Thanks, Instagram.” Danai Mush (from an article for Hello Giggles called Third Culture Kids in an Age of Instagram)

Helps us educate people about the world. “Friends in our host country and our passport country can see life in the other place. We use social media to broaden people’s minds. To show a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Nairobi, Kenya. Or a plate of Ethiopian injera in Minneapolis, Minnesota.”

“Social media helps us broaden our (own) minds about the world.” (I love this comment because it comes from a teenager who has lived in five states and two countries and who has traveled to several other countries. She still wants to broaden her mind.)

Connection. This is the big one, isn’t it? One example is how two sisters use Google Hangout to have a Bible study with friends in Lebanon and in Colorado (while they lived in Minnesota). “Even though it takes a while to plan each time we meet to time differences and scheduling issues, we still have a blast when we meet.”

Prevents, or slows, engagement in the new location. Katha von Dessien wrote a 2-post series about nostalgia and the computer and TCKs, for Communicating Across Boundaries.

Skype calls, Instagram reminiscing, etc, can sometimes increase loneliness and longing, rather than soothe it, once the connection is cut.


TCKs struggle with the same temptations of gossip, bullying, addiction, and isolation from real life interactions that everyone faces with social media. But at the same time, they have unique needs that can be creatively met through these same networks. So how do we help our kids maintain a healthy balance?

It starts with having a healthy balance ourselves. We hand-wringing adults also walk around with our noses in our phones. We pull out our phones immediately after a movie, we wonder who is messaging us while we fly. We have to model putting the phone away and focusing on the person in front of us. No phones at meal times, no phones in bedrooms, time limits…

Cultivate an appreciation for the arts and nature. Sure, an Instagram photo can be lovely, but when you look at a photo of Victoria Falls, you don’t feel water splash your face. When you share a photo of a concert, you aren’t sharing the crush of people, the way your skin vibrated in beat, the way your shoes stuck to the goopy floor. So parents, take your kids out to the beach and the library and the museum. Not to post about it but to experience it.

Get physical. Move. Wrestle. Play football or cricket. Bake cookies. Have a dance party. Use your hands to do something other than text. University campuses are experiencing extremely low attendance at sports events or theater performances. Where are the students? In bed, on social media. So model activity and engagement while your TCKs are young.

Use social media not just to connect with friends from the previous country but to find new friends, in your new location. Use it to build a real, in-life community.

Cheer for power cuts. I’m thankful for how my kids barely blink when the power cuts. There is no freaking out that they can’t finish binge-watching a show or that they can’t immediately post a photo or snapchat message. It is good for kids to be happy with internet and without it.

Do you think TCKs have a unique need for, or way to engage with, social media? What has been your personal experience, for better and worse? Either as a parent or as a TCK?

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Say Less, Listen More, Love More

The world is a garish, noisy neighborhood. Decibels and pixels abound. The phone in my pocket spews more information in hours than I can assimilate in years. I’m reminded of my college speech prof who counseled tongue-in-cheek, “Shout louder if your argument is weak.” There’s a whole lot of shouting these days.  -My Uncle, Rick Porter

The Internet allows us to say too much.  I am convinced of it.  We have the time to say so much and somehow we have less time to listen or love.

sayless

I grew up in the 80’s, it was a time of feathered hair, Duran Duran, ET, and The Cosby Show. It was a time before the Internet and social media reached us all. (My children don’t even understand what that means.) It was back when there was a cold war, instead of a daily internet war.  You know what I am trying to say, albeit cliché – it was a simpler time.

I am guessing that I am just one of  loads and loads of people who feel this way. I believe the very thing that connects the world, the WORLD WIDE WEB, is making us dislike one another with increased fervor.  I cannot possibly know if this is true for anyone but myself, but I wonder if we are so busy sharing what we think that we are not able to hear from God as well. (Either directly or through His chosen channels.) We are very busy saying things.  How much listening can we really do?

For years my Dad resisted moving forward with technology, I mocked him for hating email and wanting me to call him. To this day there are still hold-outs, the 60-somethings that just refuse to engage social media or digital communication. Today is the day I humbly submit my apology for mocking their resistance.  They knew something we didn’t know. They knew that noise overwhelms.

“How we hear or see God is likely as diverse as our styles and personalities. But we best begin in quietude. If you really want to hear Him and know Him, let the chaos of contemporary life settle. Listen for the whisper. Watch for the wink. Your faith will be encouraged and your life enriched. We dare not lose the best of forever in the noise of now”. -My Uncle, Rick Porter

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I recognize in myself a need to let the chaos settle – to be quiet. I don’t have a lot of answers or the time to listen for them, but oh so many things to say. I want to say less and listen more. I want Internet wars to go the way of the Cold War. I came up with some helpful questions that reduce my commentary by all the percents.

Five questions we (I) could ask ourselves (me) before we (I) post on-line:

  1. Why is it important for me to disagree with something I’ve seen? Do I need to prove myself? Do I need to be right?  Am I attempting to shame someone for their opinion?
  2. Does my disagreement in a public forum bring the person I am disagreeing with closer to Jesus?
  3. Does the tone of my thoughts convey respect and love for people who don’t think like me?
  4. Could I say, “Interesting thoughts, I want to think and/or pray on this for a few days and I may be back to dialogue after I do.”
  5. If I feel it is important to share my thoughts on a particular topic, could I share them and then end them more humbly by saying, “That is my belief, but I could be wrong.” (Tony Compolo just modeled this to me.)

Whatever the hot-button debate is, it is fairly common to see friends questioning one another’s sanity, love for Jesus, or comparing someone’s politics to Hitler. Something has happened that makes us bold enough to type things that we would not say if we were standing face to face. Nothing gets worked out during an Internet debate, I am afraid we need to find a way to stop the madness of our mouths (fingers) and find our ears again.

Maybe if we  found the quietude and listened more to God and  one another, our capacity to live AND LOVE  in the tension of varying opinions would increase. Maybe we could say less and listen to and love one another more.

Maybe not, I could be wrong.

When Missions Goes Hollywood

 Anybody can have a good website.

Anybody.

And that includes missionaries and ministries and humanitarian efforts that want and need. . .  money.

And oftentimes, what you see IS what you get– honest efforts at helping others, effective means of sharing God’s love with a community whether it be in education or poverty reduction or leadership training or whathaveyou. 

But, I’m on the ground here in SE Asia, which happens to be somewhat of a Christian mecca for missions organizations in all of Asia, and a story I’ve seen repeated more than once from or by the missionaries here is one of

false advertising.

Because anybody can have a good website.

And, let’s be honest, a good website with moving pictures of the impoverished or the primitive, sells.  Or fundraises,to be more specific.  And since so much of the work here is support-based, it’s a bit of a game that missionaries and organizations have to play.  We live in a virtual age, after all, when the validity of a company is based in large part by the flashiness of its website, and nonprofits are having to compete, naturally, if they want to survive and raise the necessary funds to further their visions.

And I get it.  I understand the language of SEO tags and google analytics, but my greatest struggle is when ministries paint a picture for their online viewer that isn’t actual reality or when they use content that actually exploits the people they are supposed to be helping.

The hard reality is that Hollywood sells.  The dramatic, the photoshopped, the extreme, the well-crafted word, the grungy graphics, the SEO-optimized– this is the stuff that raises funds, faster.  And funds are what the missionary or relief organization needs to stay operational, to stay on the field, to continue the work.

And I’m not pointing fingers, because I look back at my own communication of our past 18 months, and I’m left nervous that I myself have painted too grand a picture of the work here, have cropped reality too often, or have used brush strokes that have highlighted self far too frequently.

But, really, what’s a missionary to do?  Give the ‘audience’ what they want–  inspiration that will translate into the writing of checks, and thus, the ability to do more ministry?

Or deliver the brutal truth of failed efforts and the boring everyday and, more than likely, watch their financial support go the way of their old-school website stats?

I mean, really, {and I’m sincerely asking} where’s the line between honestly recording the good cause and softly manipulating to further it?

*post archived on LauraParkerBlog

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Thoughts?  What do you think of the connection between fundraising and Hollywood?  Stories, rants, opinions? How do you handle this tension with your donors back home?

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– Laura Parker, former humanitarian worker in SE Asia