Social media introduced a new frontier of decentralized social, cultural, and psychological power we’ve barely begun to understand. Countless governmental and corporate institutions have been held accountable by movements catalyzed by social media. But social media enables the same voices that (rightly) celebrate the downfall of corrupt institutions to wield significantly more power with even less accountability than their institutional predecessors. That dynamic has so transformed institutional distrust into a virtue that we now assume institutions are corrupt by nature.
Brett McCracken, leaning heavily on Yuval Levin’s profound book A Time to Build, described the recent change in our expectations of institutions from formation to affirmation. The emphasis on the sociocultural dimension brings needed definition to the “what” and “how” of institutions as communal organizations that shape character and virtuous habits. But we also need a deeper theological “why” in order to distinguish them from their social media counterfeits, and thus regain an appreciation for their essential role in our being fully human.
Theology of Institutions
If Ken Myers is right that “culture is what we make of the world,” then institutions are what God uses to make us, us. They bear God’s creative image in plurality. At their best, institutions are greenhouses built to shelter, nourish, and flourish those inside for the sake of the world outside.
Social media enables the same voices that (rightly) celebrate the downfall of corrupt institutions to wield significantly more power with even less accountability.
The Tower of Babel (Gen. 11) is a picture of institutions at their sin-distorted worst. In The Mission of God, Christopher Wright notes that desiring to “make a name for (them)selves” and not “be dispersed over all the earth,” the people built the tower in explicit rebellion to the cultural mandate (Gen. 1:26). Humanity’s post-flood teeming in Genesis 10 gets a sobering reality check in “people who seem intent on reaching the heavens even while resisting God’s will for them on earth” (197). By confusing and scattering them, God’s judgment put them back on track to fulfill Genesis 1:26 despite their efforts to the contrary, foreshadowing the pattern of exile and return throughout the Old Testament.
Babel is a full-throated theological condemnation of institutions fundamentally compromised by rank self-interest.
Babel also has implications for social media, both negative and positive. On one hand, every social platform is designed to “make a name for” ourselves, and rarely does social media communication bring clarity rather than confusion to complex issues. Yet God also seems to be using social media as a catalyst to “confuse and scatter” modern institutions that have most rebelled against his cultural mandate. Whether their impact is a net good for institutions requires a much closer look.
Social Media’s Effect on Institutions
Social media dramatically flattens and expands social connection on a global scale. Combined with an algorithmically curated newsfeed, this “network effect” can be unquestionably redemptive for those who, for example, feel alone and isolated after suffering institutional abuse. Yet it can also give the subtle impression that experiencing institutional abuse is just a matter of time. Reality is somewhere in between, but even knowing that cognitively doesn’t prevent our perception from being shaped accordingly.
Institutional abuse (both real and perceived) has been a significant catalyst sparking the current “deconstruction” conversation. And with the pandemic often limiting embodied gatherings, that conversation has been largely outsourced to disembodied communities on social media. This is both a challenge and opportunity forcing the church (and pastors, especially) to demonstrate our trustworthiness. But if the gospel truly is the hope of the world, and if the church really is the place where Christ’s presence is experienced and displayed, then our task, while daunting, is both feasible and worthwhile.
Why We Still Need Institutions
Immediately following the Tower of Babel narrative, God calls Abraham out of Ur with a promise strangely echoing Babel’s motivation, but with an important twist: “And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Gen. 12:2, emphasis added).
God multiplies, magnifies, and blesses Abraham in order to birth a distinctly covenantal institution (Israel, and then the church), through which God displays to the world his redemption. God promises to form and shape those within this institution “so that” they will be a blessing.
A “spiritual greenhouse,” if you will.
If one important aspect of our creational design and covenantal responsibility is stewardship for the sake of others, then all the Holy Spirit’s work to fertilize, prune, water, and cultivate internally is biblically intended to also multiply externally.
This is part of why institutional abuse is so ungodly and wicked. It echoes the snake’s subversive lie that we can be “like God,” functionally substituting God’s glory and our neighbor’s good with our own. From Saul to David and Jonah to Judas, Scripture makes clear that abuse is paradoxically unacceptable to God and tragically pervasive in a fallen world.
We can’t live without institutions even if we sometimes don’t feel like we are flourishing within them.
But despite our best intentions, little of how we use social media (even our decrying of institutional abuse) reflects that stewardship. More often than not, it indulges anything-goes, scorched-earth outrage intended to dismantle institutions rather than reform them. At the end of the day, we can’t live without institutions even if we sometimes don’t feel like we are flourishing within them. We’ll be shaped one way or another.
Nourishing Hope in the Church
Christ’s promise that the gates of hell will not impede the church’s advance (Matt. 16:18) is the same hope that both puts the threat of a 15-year-old human technology into perspective, and frees us to repent and reform where needed.
So how do we nourish that hope? How do we prepare Christians to thrive in a social media age?
1. Counter disembodied content with embodied community.
This is not a call to double down on attractional ministry programs, but a challenge to rediscover what the church uniquely offers: embodied community. For example, Orlando Grace Church started “Formation Groups” using a curriculum that includes a “time and rhythm inventory” to quantify and audit the influence of media (social and otherwise). We desperately need similarly fresh approaches to discipleship that confront modern Babel’s false promises with the far more satisfying body of Christ.
2. Lay new ruts in the old roads.
The more we’re inundated with quick hits of dopamine-producing novelty, the more our neurological pathways are rewired accordingly. The endangered art of reading books has been increasingly overtaken by multiple invasive (digital) species like Netflix, YouTube, and TikTok. When we’re drowning in content, our treatment of the Bible as “just any other book” demotes what should be transformational to mere information. Rediscovering a daily diet of Word and prayer is essential to riding out this storm, but our people need more than for us to say that—they need to experience it ordinarily.
3. Prioritize local faithfulness over global affirmation.
In a season so clearly wearing on pastors, social media can be an incredibly tempting source of affirmation. A pastor navigating constant polarization within his church can tweet about the hot-button Christian issue du jour and accumulate enough faux affirmation in the form of likes and retweets to feel worthwhile and appreciated for a few minutes. It’s far too easy to trade the grinding, fruitful work of local church ministry for the hollowness of being a digital shepherd to a disembodied flock. Pastor, don’t succumb to the lure of social media likes, lest you cede responsibility for your own spiritual formation (and thus your flock’s) to the puppeteering of counterfeit institutions.
Jesus Is (Still) the Way
Every engaged couple knows they’re marrying someone as broken and finite as they are, but marriage brings them unavoidably closer to each others’ brokenness. Being aware of that dynamic ahead of time doesn’t prevent the shock of experiencing it firsthand.
Similarly, social media has brought many of us unavoidably closer to the brokenness of institutions, and the Bride of Christ specifically. As shocking as that brokenness may be, God is neither surprised nor phased in his love for the church. That’s really good news, and the potent reminder we need to also love his broken-but-beloved institution.
“We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19) can include no less.