The Christian church has always wrestled with its language—from the exclusivity of the Latin Mass to the perpetual struggle to speak the language of younger generations. This past fall an article showcased this struggle in the Pacific Northwest. The reporter comments:
“One billboard stands out among the rest on the elevated train tracks at Post Street downtown: It features a young woman holding a cell phone and looking toward the sky. It reads, “Have you tweeted Jesus lately? . . .’
“While church leaders hesitate to call it a marketing strategy, it is at least an attempt to appeal to a generation that uses social media for the bulk of its communication. This kind of advertising for religious organizations is becoming more common not just in Spokane but around the nation.”*
While it is laudable that religious organizations are acknowledging the existence of social media, the question remains: Why did they use a billboard to reach people on Twitter?
The interplay between church and technology typically lacks rhythm and coordination, and includes frequent stepping on toes. It’s painful when the microphone refuses to work midsermon, the singer’s monitor refuses to resonate, the words on the screen disappear during the opening hymn, and the church Web site takes a vacation from its URL.
Part of the problem involves a language barrier separating those born after 1970 (known as “digital natives”), those born before but readily adaptable to technology (“digital settlers”), and those who get excited when they manage to send an e-mail . . . to the correct person (“digital immigrants”). The disparity among groups is not strictly generational. The president, the pope, and prime ministers all tweet.
Immigrants can feel intimidated by technology, and have a harder time understanding how it works. The first time I spoke with my brother on MSN Messenger, my mother was incredulous as to how that was possible. . . . I laughingly told her his soul was trapped in the machine and I was helping him find his way out, “just like in
Tron, Mom.” She didn’t laugh.
While digital natives take in astonishing amounts of data, those who can’t keep up often turn the use of technology into a moral issue. I have known many who take pride in not having an e-mail address. To them it seems noble, but their ability to be effective witnesses for Jesus in a digital age is compromised.
Bottom line: digital media is not a fad. The Internet is 45 years old; the World Wide Web is 25; Facebook is 11; and Twitter is 9. Most people don’t keep their houses, their cars, or their carpet that long. Additionally, the number of people using these outlets is measured in the hundreds of millions.
While I affirm the primacy of in-person communication, I also recognize that refusal to participate in tech diminishes one’s influence and ability to network. And it can frustrate those around you. Fundamentally, media (whether paintings, film, literature, or an Instagram photo) is language. With nearly a billion people Facebooking, the “lingua franca” should be fairly obvious.
The question of whether Jesus would use social media is tricky. Sometimes He told people not to “post” anything (Mark 7:36). People typically ignored this command, and Jesus attracted mass followers by word of mouth (see Matt. 4:24; Mark 1:45; and Luke 7:17). Did He know that people would tell? And when He sends out the 72 (Luke 10:1), can that be considered the same as a mass e-mail?
Jesus began His ministry with a tight-knit “group” of 12 in order to reach a specific target audience. Post-Resurrection Jesus told us to share His message with the world, making us His social media. This means we have to speak people’s language in the places they actually spend time. This is something Jesus mastered.
Jesus’ use of language involved agrarian imagery, current political situations, religious symbolism, popular sayings, stories, hyperbole, and more. He went to weddings, wells, temples, feasts, gardens, hills, houses, and parties, and even hosted a fish dinner. I have a hard time believing that Christians with a missionary spirit would ignore the river of social media as a venue for facilitating conversations, awareness, and personal connection.
So how do we integrate social media without separating ourselves from real relationships, developing obsessive phone-checking tics at the supper table, or simply drowning in the total onslaught of conspiracy theories, political posts, health tips, and baby pictures on the Internet?
All of us have values, whether we have defined them or not. A quick glance at where your time and money are spent will show you your values (for better or worse). Once you have them in mind, or once you have worked out what you would like your values to be, begin asking how each media outlet can augment those values.
For example, social media should help relationships, not hinder them. If the time spent online is taking you away from real conversations, the ability to listen to others, embroiling you in constant online debates, or causing you to post inappropriate things in order to get more followers, you need to scale it back.
While the ancients didn’t have any specific advice for social media use, they do offer timeless truths that can help guide our time. Texts such as Proverbs 20:19; 16:28; 12:17; and Ephesians 4:29 encourage us to stifle gossip and speak in order to build others up. Given the tendency for online toxicity, fostering a spirit of kindness and gentleness is a good place to form a boundary.
The boundaries you set and the reasons you choose various apps to build your platform for the kingdom will vary, but a few reflections may help to stimulate your church’s creativity—and your own.
Twitter limits your post to 140 characters—meaning you need to use intentional language. Jesus places a high value on word economy, especially in prayer (Matt. 6:7). Church communicators would do well to spend a little time tweeting to find accessible forms for their insight.
You'll find that many of your favorite Bible verses are tweet-sized.
Twitter is also about sharing content—such as articles on how to use Twitter—with people. If you can become a resource for what people are seeking, people will follow. Tweets also spark dialogue—be prepared to respond to others’ words as well as your own.
For the photographically incompetent, Instagram provides built-in filters to make your iPhone photo rival those of Ansel Adams. People can “like” your pics and make comments about them. How could your church feature its social events? What pictures could the church post that would provoke theological dialogue?
The Christian church used to create stained glass to help the illiterate understand the stories of Scripture. What if Instagram was the modern stained-glass window? What stories can we tell with our pictures?
If the government really wanted to keep information from people, they would place it in church bulletins. Every leader laments the lack of bulletin reading in the church. Facebook allows you to create a church account, add parishioners, and bombard them with important announcements, urgent prayer requests, and last-minute cancellations. Instead of calling every congregation member to tell them snow has buried the church, a quick post from home lets everyone know instantly.
As a pastor I have also found Facebook to be helpful in keeping tabs on major life events within my congregation. While no system is perfect, Facebook has enabled me to see announcements of births, deaths, moves, marriages, and troubling questions involving my parishioners. Many times a quick note of congratulations or sympathy lets the member know they are noticed and loved. It helps multiply my very limited physical presence, and helps me be “with” people when I can’t physically be with them.
Vines are extremely brief videos that people have turned into mini skits, parables, and social commentary. What could a youth group do if tasked with creating parables using this media? How could short interviews be used in sermons, or to create online trends? Ask a provocative question, post a response, and see how many other people accept the challenge.
Mission Impossible messages that self-destruct, a Snapchat video or message is viewed once before it vanishes. While this app has been used for salacious ends, most people have found it useful for event invitations and quick pics for fleeting moments (the app opens directly to the camera). This app could be used to send quick notes of encouragement to members, funny moments to make people smile, and last-minute event reminders.
This app not only places every Bible translation at your fingertips for free; it also allows preachers to upload sermon outlines/notes for members to download during the service.
Put a Pin in It
The ways we can use social media are endless, as is the potential time spent on them if we don’t set boundaries. However, rightly used, congregations benefit from increased participation in the worship service (including live dialogue on Twitter while the sermon is going on), instant feedback on worship experiences and social events, marketing to nonmembers (just have members “check in” on Facebook when they come to church), access to new recipes/books/quotes (if your church uses Pinterest), and even fund-raising with a technique called crowdsourcing (Google it).
Like dessert or seasoning, social media can be used in ways that keep it from being a valuable tool to enhance quality of life. Living with so much information, however, means we have access to articles, tweets, books, and micro-blogs to help us on our way. Churches also benefit from digital natives holding seminars to help settlers and immigrants adapt to a world that can feel overwhelming.
One last thing: Whether you tweet, Facebook, Pin, or YouTube, do all for the glory of God.
* W. Criscione, “Churches Use Religious Marketing to Draw Young Members,”
The Spokesman-Review, Sept. 18, 2014. Retrieved fromwww.spokesman.com/stories/2014/sep/18/churches-use-religious-marketing-to-draw-young/.
Seth Pierce is the lead pastor at the Puyallup Seventh-day Adventist Church in Puyallup, Washington.