Earlier in the year I was at a Conference in Harrogate. The event saw 2000 church leaders gathered from around Europe. I was working on a stand exhibiting for Christian Vision. During the conference, I had a discussion with a leader who denounced our work on the basis that social media is a largely negative time-waster, and the last place I should encourage the church to engage with. I empathised with the man’s comments; it takes discipline to not waste time procrastinating whilst on social media and negative posts do appear regularly on my news feed. Only this week I read a report linking social media with the rise of self-harm in those aged 11-18. The man I encountered at the conference had heard such reports and concluded that social media was a negative to be avoided.
The man’s comments made me think about whether he had a point: is social media a platform to steer clear of, or is it something that we should encourage churches and Christians to engage with? Personally, I don’t believe social media is a negative or a positive, Rather I would argue that social media is neutral. It is a space that is as positive or negative as the content shared, therefore the potential impact of the church engaging effectively with such platforms sharing content of love, hope, and grace can only be positive.
Some 500 years ago, Martin Luther put the Bible into the hands of the common man using translation and utilising the technology of the day, the Guttenberg Printing Press. When we utilise the technology of our day with the good news of Jesus, we are doing what the Reformers did 500 years ago. Leonard Sweet concludes:
“Can you imagine doing ministry the last five hundred years and getting away with ‘Sorry, I don’t do books’? Can you imagine doing ministry in the next five years and getting away with ‘Sorry, I don’t do Facebook’?” (Sweet, Viral: How Social Networking Is Poised to Ignite Revival, 2012)
Whatever conclusion you arrive at one thing cannot be disputed, social media is a major way that we interact with each other and it looks like it’s here to stay. Statistics show that there are 31 million active users of Facebook in the UK and 1.5 billion global users. If we were to view these figures in terms of population Facebook would be the world’s largest country! In Acts, Jesus called his disciples to go out, empowered by His Holy Spirit, to the ends of the earth to be his witnesses. Phil Cooke understands that in the twenty-first century there needs to be a paradigm shift in our understanding:
“in the online age, Christian organisations need to stop thinking of ‘missions’ solely in terms of geographic boundaries, and shift our thinking to include the digital mission field.” (Cooke, Unique: Telling your Story in the Age of Brands and Social Media, 2012)
So how do we engage evangelistically with the digital context in the UK?
Effective communicators understand the importance of perception. The message people interpret when we communicate is critical, maybe even more so than facts. If we are to engage effectively in digital evangelism we need to understand the need to be sincere. As Christians, we should be loving, gentle, patient, kind, etc. (Galatians 5:22-23). This is the fruit of a Spirit-filled Christian, and it should be expressed online and offline.
However, there were times in 2016 when my general perception of Christian Facebook posts led me to the conclusion that Christians are more argumentative and judgmental than loving and kind. The times when I saw this most frequently were around Brexit and the Presidential nomination of Mr Trump. My Facebook feed was filled with political arguments between Christian brothers and sisters and to be honest, I felt discouraged and embarrassed.
If we are to be perceived as loving, the things we post need to be grounded in love, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:1:
“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.”
Finally, what does your social media say about you as a Christian? If somebody scrolled through your Facebook updates, photos and shares, would they be able to say that you are a disciple of Jesus?
I encourage you to explore how to engage evangelistically in the digital world in 2017 and pray about how you can best serve your sphere of influence with the great news of Jesus!