Sherry began to cry. Her husband put an arm around her, pulled her close, and said, “It will all be okay.” It was a kind sentiment. But it was wrong. She’d lost her mother.
Not to death. To Facebook.
Over a period of three years, her elderly mom went from Facebook illiterate to Facebook junkie. From a great-grandma liking photos of her great-grandkids to a full-blown QAnon conspiracy theorist posting wild articles. Sherry watched her mom transform from a godly woman who quoted the Sermon on the Mount and told her to respond to bullies by “killing them with kindness” to an anxiety-filled propagandist, warning Sherry the end was coming.
Sherry tried to intervene but failed multiple times. Now she was crying in my office: “I lost my mom to Facebook.”
I told her, “I know it’s hard. But you’re not alone. Your mom isn’t the first person I’ve seen transformed by social media. There are so many. Even here in our church.”
New Pastoral Reality
Like every other pastor in America, I’m wrestling with a new challenge. Artificial intelligence—using neural networks and sophisticated machine-learning algorithms—is shepherding my church into the valley of the shadow of death. The algorithm, to misquote Psalm 139, has searched them and known their hearts. It tests them and measures their anxious thoughts. It has woven digital models of them in its silicon womb so it can sell their everlasting data to the highest bidder and keep them addicted to the online platform it serves.
Pastors need to be aware that every day of the week their church members are being instructed—and, most likely, their mentor is an algorithm. Is it any surprise that the human shepherds are losing to the digital ones?
Of course, algorithms aren’t the only problem. A recent piece in the MIT Technology Review showed that foreign troll farms are exploiting the algorithm to target Christians in their effort to destabilize American democracy. Nineteen of the top 20 Christian Facebook pages are run by these anonymous, nefarious agencies. If you visit one of these Christian troll pages, it’ll seem innocuous at first: Cheesy posts. Cursive Bible verses over Colorado landscapes.
But then you see it.
Pastors need to be aware that every day of the week their church members are being instructed—and, most likely, their mentor is an algorithm.
A headline saying something verifiably false. A partisan hot take that borders on conspiracy theory. That’s how the troll farms do it. First, they build trust using Christianese. Second, they slip some nasty disinformation into the Christian’s social media cocktail. Third, they watch as Christians are seduced by QAnon.
But even if we stopped these bad international actors, it wouldn’t solve the problem at home.
According to an internal report from Facebook, leaked to the Wall Street Journal, “Our algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness . . . in an effort to gain user attention and increase time on the platform.” To keep you on Facebook, the platform keeps you engaged with highly emotional content—which usually means the most extreme, partisan, intoxicating trash possible. This explains why people get radicalized so easily on social media.
How to Shepherd Your Flock in the Social Media Era
Pastors are asking themselves, How do I combat the deformative power of pervasive social media when all I have is one hour a week? How do I shepherd a flock being shepherded by the almighty algorithm? How do I help my people renew their minds in the image of Christ when they’re being hoodwinked by foreign trolls?
No one has the answer. But we need to get creative because we’ve already lost valuable time. Here are seven things I think every pastor should consider doing.
The algorithm pantomimes divinity, but it will never achieve it. The Holy Spirit is not threatened by a global networked age. In fact, I’m sure historians will look back on our generation to catalog all the ways the Spirit transformed society through social media despite monumental challenges. Yes, pastors only get one hour per week. But God gets every hour. Trust him. Labor in prayer for your people.
2. Preach about social media.
You can’t be an expert in everything, but given the pervasive power of Big Tech, it would behoove you to spend time understanding how it works. Watch The Social Dilemma. Read Chris Martin’s excellent book Terms of Service. Seek to understand how smartphones, global internet access, Big Tech surveillance, and machine learning collectively became the most powerful discipleship technology since the printing press.
Then take those insights and preach them. Help people see that social media is an online casino, stealing their attention with variable rewards. Train them to cultivate disciplines like Sabbath and solitude that intentionally diminish the influence of technology on their lives. Encourage parents to set healthy limits on tech—for themselves and their children.
3. Teach on media literacy.
Media literacy is the ability to accurately analyze and interpret a piece of media. That might sound basic, but it’s not. How do you know if a website is legitimate? How can you tell if a news source is biased—and how should that shape your reading? What are the dangers of reading headlines and skimming articles?
4. Develop a theology of the news.
Jeffrey Bilbro’s book Reading the Times [read TGC’s review] is a great place to start. He proposes a number of critical questions: What deserves the attention of journalists, much less the attention of the public? What does the news cycle do to our attention? What are the risks of focusing your reading on national headlines over local news?
Batya Ungar-Sargon and Ashley Rindsberg add an equally important question: What are the incentive structures controlling what gets published? They’ve shown that the financial incentive structures in our current media landscape favor outlets with partisan hot takes, not measured news coverage. This isn’t just true on cable. It’s true at our most prestigious newspapers and news magazines. Encourage your people to find news sources whose incentive structures promote fairness and independent thinking, including the growing cottage industry of newsletters and podcasts starting up. As disciples of Jesus, who are keenly aware of the “hollow and deceptive” philosophies pedaled by the world, we cannot be lazy about evaluating our media diet (Col. 2:8, NIV). We must take our media diet seriously.
5. Create digital antibodies.
If the digital bloodstream is infected, we can’t just ignore it. We need to pump antibodies into the system. That means more good content, not less. We’re living in a digital Babylon. If you think the only answer is escape, you’ll stick with ideas 1 to 4. But, as God told the Jewish exiles in the heart of Babylon, “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer. 29:7). As digital exiles, we should seek the welfare of our internet home, making it a better place for human life to flourish.
Create alternative content. If you want your people to spend less time on soul-warping websites, podcasts, or YouTube channels, curate (or create) better options. Here are a few ideas from our church. Don’t let this list overwhelm you. Pick one thing and try it.
- Create a short midweek podcast where your congregation can dig deeper into topics relevant to discipleship. Coram Deo’s podcast is an excellent example.
- Create a short-term email devotional that brings God into the busyness of the email inbox. At our church, this approach has proven to be a great doorway for dechurched people to return.
- Start a blog connected to a weekly newsletter that encourages people in their faith and points them toward in-person opportunities.
- Create weekly or daily podcast devotionals that go through books of the Bible.
- Create a weekly email newsletter that digs into interesting parts of the Bible or explores a technical, biblical part of the sermon.
- Create a cultural commentary podcast that helps people engage with the present moment.
6. Model the fruit of the Spirit online.
In your online activities, model how to disagree charitably, how to argue winsomely, and how to be a faithful Christian who isn’t co-opted by the latest headlines. This is desperately needed because online discourse is characterized by “hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions”—exactly the kind of speech that Paul warns “will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:20–21, NIV).
7. Make the case for the beauty of IRL fellowship.
Champion the embodied fellowship of believers as a more rewarding and satisfying experience than Highly Online life. Worshiping alongside Christians in a variety of life stages, investing in one another’s lives, praying for one another, counseling one another, dining at one another’s tables—these are less polished but more satisfying experiences of formation than what happens solely on screens.
Jesus calls us to something greater than the social media slot machine with its constant drip of malformative misinformation, tribalism, pornography, outrage, and hot takes. Instead, he invites us to follow him. Conform to his mind. Walk in his steps. Enjoy the beauty of the good world he’s made. Let’s help our people see the grandeur of Jesus’s vision, resist the digital Babylon around them, and simultaneously work for its welfare—showing our whole society a better path forward.