While pursuing my Master of Divinity in the early 2000’s, I worked as a personal trainer. It was the perfect job for a seminary student. Not only did my work schedule leave the middle of my day free for classes and study, but I also had the opportunity to interact with clients one-on-one and to develop relationships with them over several years. As I went about my job, I was also able to be a living witness to my clients.
Being a witness didn’t mean that I was in constant evangelism mode. I wasn’t passing out gospel tracks at the end of every workout or doing altar calls between sets. Instead, I sought to live differently and to be honest about my faith day in and day out. My faithful and flawed witness didn’t simply involve sharing the gospel message (which I did as I had opportunity). It also involved living out my faith on a daily basis. I had to be odd in ways that would demonstrate the difference Christ makes in the lives of his people. In my speech, my reaction to the problems and challenges of the world, and my actions toward others, I sought to convey God to my co-workers and clients.
In many ways, our interactions on social media are similar to my interactions as a personal trainer. Our evangelistic efforts online can’t be limited to proclaiming the message of salvation. Posting a never-ending steam of gospel memes without also developing a faithful digital presence will not create a compelling, living witness. In the digital mission field, we have to live out our faith by conforming our digital selves to the image of Christ.
Even as we speak about our “digital selves,” we must recognize that who we are online cannot be at odds with who we are offline. We don’t live separate lives, but the whole of who we are and what we have is to be fully dedicated to God. The point is not to suggest that our digital lives are somehow separate from our physical reality, but to emphasize the emergence of our digital lives.
As we enter social networking spaces like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or TikTok, it is crucial for us to recognize that each of these platforms has a plan for our lives. They are not neutral spaces. They exert an influence on us and seek to form and shape us in ways that advance their particular agenda. As Jaron Lanier notes in the Netflix documentary entitled The Social Dilemma,
“It’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behavior and perception that is the product … Changing what you do, how you think, who you are.”Jaron Lanier
We are consistently in danger of becoming the “product” of the digital platforms on which we interact.
So, what can we do to resist the “gradual, slight, imperceptible change” in our behavior that forms us into “social media animals”?
First, and perhaps most importantly, we have to enter the social media space with our own agenda firmly established. As I argued in Thinking Christian, “when we have not offered a faithful digital presence, it is, in part, because we did not have a good idea of what it meant to offer a faithful ‘analog’ presence.” We have always been shaped and formed by our environment. George Will points, for instance, to the influence of the state in his introduction to The Pursuit of Happiness and Other Sobering Thoughts writing,
“Men and women are biological facts. Ladies and gentlemen—citizens—are social artifacts, works of political art. They carry the culture that is sustained by wise laws and traditions of civility. At the end of the day, we are right to judge society by the character of the people it produces. That is why statecraft is inevitably, soulcraft.”George Will
While the state and social media may use different mechanisms to change our behaviors, we need to focus on the agenda of God’s kingdom. Without that focus we will be far more susceptible to the purposes and plans of others that seek to conform us into something other than Christ.
Our agenda has been set for us. When we accept Christ, we become members of his body and commit ourselves to contributing to the corporate witness of Christ’s body. Our agenda is, as Moody suggests, “In the place God has put us he expects us to shine, to be living witnesses, to be a bright and shining light. While we are here our work is to shine for him.” We are to glorify Christ and walk worthy of our calling.
Second, even with an established agenda, we can’t be naïve. Our best intentions can be disrupted if we don’t inform ourselves. Watch The Social Dilemma on Netflix, read Lanier’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now or Holiday’s Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator, or watch Tristan Harris’s discussion of the media TED Talk, “How Better Tech Could Protect Us from Distraction.” None of these resources offers a definitive treatment, but each provides frameworks that will help you navigate the social media space in a more faithful manner.
Finally, agendas and information won’t help if we are running on our own power. No amount of smarts or willpower will give us the resources we really need to glorify God in the world. We need to be praying that the Holy Spirit will guide us and press us to obey God’s word. When we depend on God, we open ourselves up to new possibilities for being in the world. Seeking to chart our own course without his wisdom and guidance constantly standing before us is a fool’s errand. In truth, it is no better for us to determine our own path than for us to submit ourselves to a social media platform. Left to our own devices and limited by our own resources and strength, we will not only fail to love God with all we are and have, but to love our neighbor. As such, let us pray, as Paul did for the Thessalonian church:
“To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.”2 Thessalonians 1:11-12
JAMES SPENCER, PHD is Vice President and COO of Moody Center, an independent non-profit organization based in Northfield, MA, and author of Thinking Christian: Essays on Testimony, Accountability, and the Christian Mind. He also writes a regular blog at nextgenchristians.com.
Photo credit: Tracy Le Blanc