(If you read part 1 in the print Zephyrs Newletter scroll down past the line for part 2...)
I have a love/hate relationship with social media. If it were up to me I wouldn't be on any of those networks. I wouldn't own a cell phone. I wouldn't text people. I would live quietly with my record player and rotary phone (which we actually own) and fast forward to my days of being a complaining old curmudgeon who sits on his rocking chair.
But none of that works for me and (not to sound overly spiritual here) is not even what I'm called to do as a Christian. The world we live in today demands that I'm available on different platforms much of the day. Even still, as someone who likes to stay productive and enjoys very much getting things done, I have to be active on different platforms much of the day.
So you can find me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Strava, Blogger, Yelp, Skype, and I can even send you a personalized Bitmoji. You can also find our church on Facebook and Instagram because that's where the Presbyterians of the future will gather for committee meetings.
Recently I had caught an article about a group that has formed on Twitter called the White Nonsense Roundup. They're basic aim is to engage racist trolls on social media for people of color so the victims don't have to. It can be exhausting trying to dialogue with the gutter dwellers of social media. I've tried before and gave up.
But this group inspired me about what it means to live out the Gospel message of good news in every space. We normally think of public spaces as malls, sporting events, churches, parks, etc. But today many of us, especially our young people, are "hanging out" online. Why isn't there greater attention and thought behind what it means to be a form of good news in online forums?
Social media can be a very dark place. Why aren't we bringing Light into it?
When we go on trips with our youth group I always tell our parents that you'll get to see what we're up to on the church's Facebook page and Instagram feed. Although people sign releases for this kind of thing let's be honest, most of us don't read those things. So saying it aloud to everyone is our way of making sure people know and can then have any questions or concerns addressed.
Here's my caution though...
Whether we like it or not our young people are going to craft a social media image of themselves. While many of us see Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat as simply recreational things we do just for fun, these platforms are not just a part of young people's social lives, in some cases they're required for their collegiate and work lives. More and more colleges and universities are using Facebook as a means of connecting first year students in myriad ways. Furthermore, their colleagues at work are using social media as the first means of communication for work projects. Just yesterday I had a meeting with 2 other people (both around 40) and all of the communication occurred entirely over Facebook Messenger with follows on Instagram and Facebook so we could see what each other's ministry looked like to establish trust.
The ship has sailed. And while there are outliers ought there that we admire, teens who refuse to be a part of it all, this isn't about them. It's about the mass numbers that are sailing away into a new (virtual) world. With nearly 80% of young people using Snapchat with Facebook and Instagram following close behind, how will we meet the needs of these young people in these spaces?
There are so many negative stories out there about what happens on social media. I'll spare you any examples since its so easy to Google them anyway. How do we bring light into these worlds? That's one of the jobs the church has in bringing light into dark places. What will the church do?
We have to understand what most teens already know. The selfies we see, the group shots, the vacation pics, the interesting articles, every post is meant to create a positive image of the user. We share the good parts of our lives with our followers. So if it's a sunset, a party, or a thrill seeking adventure, these posts play a sort of self-fulfilling prophesy on the user.
You post pictures of the party because you're a party person. You post pictures of the ocean sunset all alone because you're introspective or an artist. You post the picture of the Warriors' beating the Cavs because you're a basketball fan and you like the warriors. Each of these help us portray ourselves in a particular light to our friends.
That's why we cringe at the young person who goes away to college, then posts a picture of themselves scantily clad at a tailgate. Its not just that a prospective employer may see it, on a personal level we're afraid that is a greater representation of who this young person is and is becoming. For another example, the repost of an offensive meme meant to get a laugh worries us because we fear that this young person either A) has already gone astray or B) has fallen in with a bad crowd and will go astray soon.
So what does it look like for the Light to step in?
I think it means encouraging these young people's use of social media during events that are positive like volunteering, study groups, and even church events and trips. While some churches and charities might see this as a form of cheap and easy marketing I tend to see it as a cheap and easy means of spiritual preservation. When a young person snaps, posts, or tweets a pic or video from one of these activities what we're allowing to happen is for that young person to equate their pride in service, worship, or fellowship with their pride in being at a Jay-Z concert. That's pretty significant.
What if instead of fearing our young people's social media presence as an indicator of the worst that is to come we used as it an opportunity for them to showcase themselves as the person we'd all be proud of them becoming?
What if you looked at your child's Instagram feed and half the pictures were at a soup kitchen, church service, Bible study, food bank, orphanage, etc? Not sure what other's opinion of that is but in our youth ministry that's a win.
So yes, we take pictures and videos of our young people and post it to WPC's Instagram and Facebook feed. And yes we tag them in those posts because in the end if we can help create a social media presence for them that can be a marker on their spiritual journey then we think that's a win for them in the long run. Archiving the bright spots of their journey in the Light of Christ on Instagram serves them with a reminder of the best days in their life. And their stories on Snapchat featuring their intentional spiritual practices sets them apart as leaders amongst their peers on the things that really matter.
It gives them a social media presence that represents a self-fulfilling prophesy we'd love for them to live into. One full of love, inclusivity, curiosity, service, justice, and fellowship.
If you'd like to see more of that on social media then by all means "share" as much of your spiritual journey with us as you can.