“Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:1-2, NIV)
Paul is here transitioning in his letter to the Romans from a masterful exposition on the salvation of Jew and Gentile alike into practical advice on how the Jew and Gentile can relate to one another in a joint fellowship. This transition is an appeal to believers who are both Jewish and Gentile to live sacrificial lives that do not conform to the pattern of the present world. This is a perennial challenge to believers; that we truly become strangers and aliens in this world, that we don’t embrace friendship with the world and yet we still reach out to the world in intentional ways of love and service.
Social media is the way that billions in the world are relating to one another. There will always be a temptation to simply embrace the habits of the world, because everyone is doing it. Yet we have to be intentional. Intentional about even opening accounts on social media. What are our intentions for opening a Facebook or Twitter account? And then once we have, we must be intentional about what we post.
I’m assuming many who are reading this have already made the plunge for varied reasons and set up one or many social media accounts. If you have what follows are a few principles that I want to present as a way to “not” conform to the pattern of the world, but to use social media in a way that is both Christian and redemptional. These questions actually apply to more than simply social media, most are more general relational rules, however social media has a tendency to amp up inherent human challenges, so be intentional and try to think about these questions before you post:
Question #1: Am I adding to or providing a way through the clutter?
We live in a world of clutter, we are constantly bombarded with media messages. This is truly the information age. We are constantly in need of wisdom how to navigate this overload of information; trusted curators are needed who can provide a light in the midst of the clutter. So the very real question that you need to think about concerning what you personally post is whether you adding to the clutter or are you becoming one of the curators of information.
Question #2: Does this post provide helpful resources or information to my friends and social media contacts?
I am unclear whether your posting of the latest personality test proving what kind of dog you are is helpful to others, or what you are eating for dinner is an encouragement to others (it may be… I’m just asking the question), but one helpful way to bring definition to the first question is to ask whether what you are posting is helpful, informative and edifying to others.
Question #3: Am I being kind and encouraging?
Building up others in their faith and in their life is always to be encouraged. It is a good in itself, it will make you feel better and will make your audience better. The corollary is also true. Try to avoid unkind comments and expressions.
Question #4: Am I being negative?
Please take a moment to consider whether what you are posting is negative generally or offensive to someone else. As a general rule take all complaints offline. Bitterness, gossip and slander should not be found in the midst of the Christian community, yet the allure of gradations of sarcasm, cool cynicism to outright bitterness, gossip and grumbling is strong. It always has been, that is why the Bible takes such a strong stance against such language. The difference today is that such back room conversations are taking place in the open on social media platforms. Nothing good can come from this. If you would not make the comment to the person in front of a crowd of people, then don’t do it online.
Question #5: Am I angry right now?
If you are angry PLEASE don’t post. Social media is a very “immediate” medium, it is very easy to dash off your thoughts in a moment of anger and hit “send”. This would also be true of email. Please make it a rule if you are feeling angry/frustrated to cool down before you send any kind of electronic communication. Emailing, posting and texting lack so much of the nuance of human interaction. So if you need to resolve the issue immediately try to meet face to face. Sleep on the issue. If you have to write something try to get an objective counselor to read what you have written and offer some changes (and avoiding gossip in the process).
Question #6: Am I seeking approval through this post?
In addition to anger try to avoid posting while feeling other negative emotions e.g. self-pity, depression, and try not to post with a hope to self-justify yourself in the eyes of others.
Question #7: Am I being an online bully?
Social media is inherently tribal in nature. It is very easy to fall into political groups online either defending your own camp or criticizing another camp. In such a climate it becomes easy to fall into easy name-calling. If someone does not agree with me, this by necessity makes them a [fill in the blank] heretic. This is the epitome of online bullying, yet it seems to be a space that is inhabited online by those that have a passion for calling out heresy in others in the name of passion for Christian orthodoxy.
Question #8: Am I “pimping” my audience?
The sphere of social media is a place for dialogue. True dialogue involves active listening, not simply waiting for a space to speak, or sometimes in social media simply posting once and not responding to other people’s response. If you are trying to build a platform and you are a driven with a definite purpose often in trying to cut to the chase you want to mention your product, event, latest and greatest thing without building up a relationship/rapport with your audience. Sandi Krakowski has termed this practice as “pimping your audience”. Most people have a fairly good “insincere/phony” detector. You don’t like having product pimped to you, so do unto others as you would have them do to you.
Question #9: Have I become a social media stalker?
Unlike the other questions this one isn’t about posting, it is more generally about obsessive behaviors related to someone else’s profile/account. Relational dysfunction is common and it can sometimes get amped up on Facebook and other networks. There are several manifestations of “stalker like” behavior, but let me give one example. You have been in a relationship with a significant other and you break up. After the break up you visit the social media profile of the person you have broken up with rather too often. As a rule of thumb I would advise the couple to no longer be Facebook friends. There is a place of bitterness/fantasy that is very unhealthy that still being Facebook friends can create. The news media has noted that Facebook is being used in many divorce cases as people connect with previous partners.
Question #10: Is the debate I am having healthy?
In March 2011 James MacDonald of the Harvest Church in Chicago hosted an event called the Elephant Room. He brought together ministers of the gospel of different theological persuasions with a stated purpose “to model loving confrontation and gracious disagreement that honors relationship and allows diversity of opinion but stands without compromise on the revealed word of God. As Proverbs 27:17 instructs us that iron sharpens iron, so we want to sharpen each other for effective ministry”. As I recall, Macdonald had noted the amount of vitriol that attended online theological debate, especially in the comment section of articles. He thought there was a different more productive way and initiated the Elephant Room.
This was a valiant endeavor indeed, for often such debate around theological or political issues become like a gladiator sport. Everybody is right in their own eyes and everybody has to defend their turf at the expense of civility. Such debates are commonplace on Facebook. Many of the questions we have already discussed also apply to such debates on social media. However a few further points should be added to determine whether you are having a healthy dialogue. It is important to note that Facebook or for that matter any similar online platform of either synchronous or asynchronous written communication is inherently flawed as it cannot carry the same nuance and pathos as a face to face encounter. The same words in one context can create mortal enemies, while in the other context can result in deeper friendship. If the debate is getting heated (and you can figure this out by asking questions such as are the participants civil, demonstrating humility and not saying things they would not say in a public forum) I would suggest to take it offline.
Understanding Intellectual Development
One other piece of wisdom is seen by understanding some of the sequence of intellectual development outlined by Harvard psychologist William G. Perry, Jr in his seminal work Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years. In this work he noted the development of students during their college years from a very black and white dualist view of beliefs to a more gradated relative approach to belief. He noted nine distinct stages of progression. The change from the first to the second stage are however germane to many debates on Facebook that I have encountered. This change sees students coming from a position that the authorities of their youth (be they teachers, parents, spiritual leaders) are correct and know right from wrong, to a position that the “new” authorities the student has embraced are true and their previous authorities are not just wrong, but are actually being fraudulent. This violent switch from one set of beliefs to another is surely a prime motivating factor in historic revolutions and also results in very vitriolic comments online.
The next stage of development sees a little disillusionment in the “new” teachers, as the student comes to a realization that they actually don’t have all the answers. The progression moves on until the student finally arrives at a strong set of personal beliefs but with respect for others and a teachable spirit to other views. Let us be aware of this progression, having grace for those who are transitioning from the first to the second stage in this progression, but also aware that we need to navigate individuals beyond this stage to a place of civility and Christlike love.