This isn’t some piece on how you should know that “Jesus sees your search history even if you delete it” or something like that, though I suppose that’s a fine application of what I’m saying here. What I’m concerned about is much more foundational than God looking over our shoulders as we scroll on our phones or the importance of being nice to people on Twitter, like Jesus would.
We need to talk about a very real, very frightening phenomenon: a lot of people truly see their online activity and their offline activity as totally separate existences.
In addition to the Terms of Service book releasing in February, I am in the middle of writing a book due out early 2023 for pastors, church leaders, and others who are in charge of discipling others. The focus of the book is on how to spiritually lead and disciple people in the age of the social internet. I’m addressing things like:
How do pastors functionally lead people when they are less trusted and given less authority than ever?
How is the social internet making entertainment and psychological hedonism the king of our hearts and how does that affect how small group leaders lead their small groups?
What role does the social internet have in our present anxiety epidemic and how might Christian leaders instill calm and peace among an increasingly anxious people?
I am currently on a writing break from the book. I wrote 31,000 words of it between Labor Day and Thanksgiving, which is well over half, and I need to finish the rest of it by May. So I’m giving myself a mental halftime until Christmas, after which I’ll pick it back up again and finish it out.
I lead a small group at my church, and have served in the student ministry for a number of years both as a volunteer and a staff member, but I am not and have never been a “pastor.” So, considering pastors are a significant audience for this book, I have been having regular conversations with pastors around the country about social media and how they see it influencing their congregations.
“My Online Life Is Private”
A couple of weeks ago I spoke with a pastor from the western half of the United States who told me a sad story about a woman at his church.
The woman posted on one of her social media accounts that she was having a really rough week, explaining in some ambiguous details what was going on.
The pastor told me that someone from the church saw the social media post, recognized it as a possible call for help, and suggested church leadership reach out to the woman, just to check in on her and see if there was anything the church could do to love her and come alongside her in whatever it was she was enduring.
When a church leader who knows the woman reached out to the church member in distress, the church member responded in a rather shocking way: the church member was offended that a church leader reached out to her and tried to help, citing what she posted on social media.
Why was the church member offended? In short, though her social media profile is public and available for the world to see, she told the church leaders, “I posted asking for encouragement from my online community, not my offline community.” The woman also expressed, “My online life is private,” and she said it should not be of concern to anyone at the church.
Again, this woman shared about her discouragement on social media and was asking for encouragement. She was not being called out by her church leaders for some sort of rampant sin they saw her committing online. They saw someone in their care in distress, and they reached out to see how they could help.
Online v. Offline Life
Have you ever been in a conversation with someone who, in talking about something on the internet, says something to the effect of, “Well that’s what happens on the internet, but in real life…” with “real life” meaning “that which happens offline”?
I think we forget, like the church member in distress, that who we are and what we do on the internet is as much a part of our “real lives” as what we do when we’re at church or going to the grocery store. In fact, I would argue that who we are and what we do on the internet are a better picture of who we really are than when we are at church or the grocery store. Why? Because, often, how we act on the internet is how we act when we think no one is looking, even though the entire world may be able to see us.
Though anonymity is not nearly as much a part of the online experience as it was 20 years ago, a lot of us still act on the internet in ways we would never think to act in our homes or among our friends. Though avatars and obscure usernames are not as prevalent as they once were, we still act as though we can hide behind them. So much so that even when we have nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to our online conduct, we feel a bit awkward when our “real life” friends ask about something we posted on the internet.
What Is the Realest Life?
The internet is real life just as much as your home or your church is real life. Actually, the sad reality is that an increasing number of people see their offline lives as simply staging grounds for who they present themselves to be online.
Bo Burnham says in his “comedy” special Inside, “The non-digital world is merely a theatrical space in which one stages and records content for the much more real, much more vital digital space.” He says this sort of sarcastically, or perhaps seriously, but not happily.
Burnham once said in an interview:
What is the feeling of walking through your life and not just living your life, not just living your life—which is already hell and impossible—but also taking inventory of your life, being a viewer of your own life, living an experience and at the same time hovering behind yourself and watching yourself live that experience? Being nostalgic for moments that haven’t happened yet. Planning your future to look back on it.
I think we can see twin pitfalls, two ditches on either side of the road toward a healthy relationship with the social internet. Either we take the social internet less seriously than we ought, and we don’t see it as “real life,” sort of like the distressed church member. Or we take the social internet too seriously and we come to see it as the most real, vital form of life, crafted of cobbled-together content and hollow tricks of amateur show business scraped our offline lives.
We should neither take our relationship with social media too seriously nor not seriously enough.
The social internet is real life, but it shouldn’t be our lives.
I've had this conversation COUNTLESS times after a few years working in digital missions. Many pastors and missionaries have the same perspective that the digital world "isn't real" and that "digital ministry" isn't "real ministry".
As Christians, we should be engaging the internet (social or otherwise) with cautious wisdom AND creative winsomeness (Mt 10:16). Our team has talked a lot about how so many parts of the Christian life and following Jesus equates to following the Jesus' third-way: not to the left, not to the right, but the narrow road of somewhere in-between. It's amazing how that concept applies to so many spheres. How do we engage online AND offline that reflects the ways of Jesus?
Grateful for the great processing you share in this space, Chris. Keep digging... these and related questions are the ones we, across the church, need better answers to.
This is so distressing but not surprising. Imposters are a dime a dozen in the church. The reality is God is not mocked. Whatever someone sows they shall reap. This is the Word of the Lord.