One of my favorite childhood memories is watching Star Wars in the theater in 1977. I (along with an entire nation) was awestruck. Nothing like that had ever been done before. We were all sucked into a new world of spaceships, lightsabers, strange creatures, and distant galaxies. But of all the things that caught the average viewer’s attention, the amazing technology of the future was doubtless near the top of the list. What would it be like to have robots with personalities, to hover above the ground on a “land speeder,” to play “chess” with virtual holographic images, and to have lost limbs restored with robotic parts?
Of course, these very things have been largely realized today. In fact, I noticed that when my own son watched Star Wars on DVD a few years ago, he wasn’t amazed by much of anything technological—some of it probably seemed pretty realistic to him. He was mesmerized instead by the fast-flying ships, lightsaber fights, and fun action scenes. We live in a world where technology advances at such a mind-boggling pace that we hardly have time to stop and be amazed by it. We feel this today particularly in the area of “social media” like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Periscope, and just plain ol’ texting. We are (supposedly) more connected, more in touch, in better communication than ever before.
Yet as I think about my son’s future, and even about life today, I have to ask the question: What effect does “social media” technology have on the way we view the church? On the way we conceive of life in Christ’s body? Much of social media is positive, of course. And the church has certainly leveraged this technology to advance the cause of Christ. Moreover, I can’t miss the irony of writing about the adverse effects of technology on a website. Nevertheless, I do have some concerns—and so should you.
Here are a five characteristics of a “Facebook culture” we must reckon with as believers:
1. Short Attention Span/Limited Learning Style
It’s difficult to imagine those who absorb information at the rate of short texts and tweets sitting through a 40-minute sermon and engaging in a sustained manner. Now does this mean we shorten our sermons and make them more entertaining? Or does it mean we work harder to train our congregations in the way they learn? Hopefully the latter.
2. Low View of Authority/Overfocus on Equality
One of the most often overlooked effects of social media is how we view authority figures. The internet is the great equalizer—everyone has a voice. We all have a platform to speak our mind, to say our piece. After any article or news story, anyone can offer an opinion. And certainly much of this is good.
But it can also lead to an “egalitarian” view of authority—that no one person’s opinion should be valued or weighted more than another’s. Needless to say, this presents problems for a biblical ecclesiology that understands the church and the pastors to have real God-given authority in the lives of its people.
3. ‘Surfacey’ Interactions/Artificial Relationships.
In her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (2011), MIT professor Sherry Turkle observes, “On social-networking sites such as Facebook, we think we will be presenting ourselves, but our profile ends up as somebody else—often the fantasy of who we want to be” (153).
In other words, though people might feel more connected, they can actually be more distant—at least from who they really are. On the contrary, true Christian fellowship demands we engage with people as we really are, so that we can honestly face our sin and grow together in Christ.
4. Lack of Physical Presence
“People readily admit they would rather leave a voicemail or send an e-mail than talk face-to-face,” Turkle notes. “The new technologies allow us to ‘dial down’ human contact” (15). Modern technology, then, can create an almost non-physical, quasi-Gnostic existence. So it’s ironic that one of Christianity’s earliest enemies was Gnosticism, which espoused the belief that the physical world was inherently evil and that salvation was largely a release from the physical body.
In contrast, biblical Christianity has always advanced a robust and positive view of the physical. Face-to-face presence matters. Indeed, one day, in the new heavens and new earth, we will have new resurrected bodies and will see our King (and each other) physically. Forever.
5. Low Commitment/Accountability
One of the attractive features of Facebook-style communication is that it requires little of us. It is a low-commitment and low-accountability form of interaction. We control—and entirely control—the duration, intensity, and level of contact. At any moment, we can simply stop. But the Christian life and real Christian relationships don’t work this way. We do have obligations to one another—covenant obligations. Put differently, Christianity has a corporate aspect that stands directly against the individualistic and self-determined relational patterns of our modern technological age.
So where do we go from here? Do we abandon technology, move to the countryside, and adopt an Amish-like existence? Not at all. Again, my aim isn’t to condemn modern communication technology (which I’m using this very moment). Rather, my point is we must be aware of the challenges it creates for ministry in our modern and postmodern world.
Technology doesn’t necessarily create sin patterns; it exacerbates them. In response, we must do something we needed to do anyway: give our people a robust and vibrant picture of the church and their place in it. In other words, we need to give them a full-orbed biblical ecclesiology.