Published March 18, 2022
Researchers estimate that on average people spend around two and a half hours a day on social media. Compare that with Barna’s research that the average Christian spends less than 30 minutes reading the Bible daily, and what you have is a discipleship problem.
With voices on social media getting louder, pastors and churches are finding their voices getting lost in the noise. How should Christians in general and pastors in particular think about discipling amid the proliferation of social media?
Before we answer this question, we first need to understand both the harmful design and the harmful content of social media.
Social media platforms aren’t neutral. They’re designed for addiction. Their business model is data extraction, where the service they provide is “free” because you as the user are the product. We pay with our time, attention, and data, which they then sell to advertisers for revenue. To generate more revenue, they need to sell more ads, and to sell more ads, they need to keep us as engaged as possible.
The most effective way they can keep people engaged is by using algorithms. Their algorithms are designed to feed us the content we want to see. The better their algorithms are, the more time we’ll stay engaged. It’s a deadly combo—their algorithms combined with our sinful tendency to enjoy content that appeals to our flesh. We don’t like to grapple with alternative viewpoints. So we don’t click on those posts. And so over time the platform doesn’t show them to us. What’s more, these algorithms drive us into our own bubbles and echo chambers. They incentivize sensational, hyperbolic, and extreme content by promoting sensational, hyperbolic, and extreme content. As a result, our discourse is polarized. And our churches are fracturing.
Finally, the overall design of these platforms encourages the projection and expression of the self out to the universe for the judgment and approval of others. The invention of Facebook’s “like” button in 2009 drastically increased this tendency. As these platforms incentivize and encourage self-obsession, we struggle against envy, bitterness, and discontentment in our hearts.
All these negative design features lead to content that traffics in what the Bible calls “desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life” (1 John 2:16).
Let me highlight just a few examples of such content. The first is online pornography and sexually illicit content. Pornography is actively distributed on mainstream social media platforms, like Facebook and Twitter. A recent Wall Street Journal piece highlights how TikTok sends users, including teens, down dangerous rabbit holes of sexual and drug-related content. Instagram has also been found to push drugs on teens. Instagram and TikTok both promote content related to eating disorders and self-harm, particularly to teenage girls. Bizarrely, teen girls are now developing physical tics from watching videos of people with tics on TikTok. Other teens are diagnosing themselves with rare mental disorders due to diagnosis videos on TikTok.
Lastly, social media actively promotes messages and values that are directly opposed to Christian beliefs. Silicon Valley actively manipulates their algorithms to promote various social issues related to gender, sexuality, abortion, and other topics. The rise of transgender influencers and transgender content on social media is deeply disturbing. In her book Irreversible Damage, Abigail Shirer explains how the transgender craze affecting our teenage girls is due in large part to the rise of transgender influencers on social media. Most teens who transition didn’t start by struggling with the mental illness of body dysmorphia but by watching trans influencers.
HOW CHRISTIANS SHOULD RESPOND
In light of these dangerous realities of social media, how should Christians and churches respond?
1. Consider taking a “social media” sabbatical.
Peter instructs his hearers to pursue “sober mindedness” (1 Peter 1:13, 4:7, 5:8). When it comes to social media, we should be watchful and set clear boundaries. Perhaps we should consider getting off of social media entirely or taking a complete break for different seasons. At the very least, we should make sure that we are not spending more time in our week on social media than in God’s Word or with God’s people. John Piper once tweeted, “One of the great uses of Twitter and Facebook will be to prove at the Last Day that prayerlessness was not from lack of time.”
2. Model Christian social media use for your kids and congregants.
Part of the job of a pastor and a parent is to be a model of godliness. Parents and pastors must model a good use of technology for our children and church members. For parents, this means teaching our kids that living as “strangers and aliens” will mean not having the same access to social media accounts or smart phones that other kids have. For pastors, this will mean avoiding an unhealthy craving for controversy, quarrels about words, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction (1 Tim. 6:4–5). It will also mean modeling righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, and gentleness (1 Tim. 6:11). Ask a godly friend, or a godly critic, which list best characterizes your use of social media.
3. Prioritize face-to-face interactions over screens
The apostles understood the priority of face-to-face communication (Romans 1:11–12, 2 John 12, 3 John 13). One way we can counteract the culture of expressive individualism on social media is by prioritizing in-person relationships and conversations. There’s no better place to do this than in our local churches. As much as possible, we should keep our church small groups, Sunday school classes, Bible studies, and certainly our services in person, rather than online. If we see a member post something online we disagree with, then we should talk to them about it in person rather than online. It’s hard work to have conversations with fellow believers that we have strong disagreements with, but it’s absolutely necessary. Doing so builds up unity in the church, rather than allowing polarizing online exchanges to divide us.
All of this can be summed up in one word: love. Seek to practice and cultivate self-sacrifice rather than self-expression. Just as the “Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and give His life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28), we should do the same. Combat the age of expressive individualism and self-promotion through serving others. This life is not about our glory. It’s not about us expressing or finding ourselves. So let’s give our all to loving and building up his church and glorifying Christ.
A MATTER OF AUTHORITY AND TRUST
At the end of the day, our interaction with social media boils down to bigger questions of authority and trust. Our differing algorithmic experiences have become the dominant source of authority in our lives. And since our algorithms feed us what we want, this is just another way of saying that we have become our own final authorities.
To this crisis of authority, the Bible instructs us to look to the authority of parents, pastors, churches, and ultimately God’s Word. Are we living according to the authority of our self-selected social media experience, or according to the authority of God’s Word? Are we trusting voices on social media that we’ve never met more than the pastors who baptized us, pray for us, and preach to us? If you’re a pastor, are you tweeting for your “audience” on social media at the expense of the congregation God has entrusted to you to steward?
There’s no going back to an age before technology. But we must constantly assess our stewardship. As God warned Cain, “Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it” (Gen. 4:7).
Clare Morell is a policy analyst at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where she works on the Big Tech Project. She worked in the White House Counsel’s Office and the Justice Department during the Trump administration.