10 ways the Church needs to rethink its social media usage

It was a very strange thing to tweet:

Back in 2009, conservative theologian John Piper seemed to be criticising people for wasting time on social media when they should have been praying instead. It is ironic that he decided to use social media to say this. Sadly, Piper's approach is echoed by most Christian commentary on the subject. Almost every Christian book I have read about new technologies and social media are full of warnings about its dangers – lamenting the way it's fragmenting society and making us a "tribe of individuals", or giving us a fake sense of global connectivity. I want to paint another picture; one that seeks to grasp the phenomenal opportunities social media gives for the gospel.

There are currently 2.078 billion active social media accounts in use, 1.68 billion of which are accessed through mobile phones. It is often the first thing that people check in the morning and the last thing they look at before they go to sleep. Let me present you with 10 ways that we can make better use of social media in our service for Christ:

1. A back channel for a movement

Malcolm Gladwell has argued that the civil rights movement would not have started on Twitter. He is right of course; social media's "weak tie" relationships would not have withstood the onslaught of systematic and brutal racism that those activists faced. There is a slactivism that attempts to alleviate conscience by responding to the tragedy of global poverty or racist violence by simply favoriting a tweet or liking a Facebook post. That kind of engagement with justice was not what mobilsed thousands to face baton charges on the bridge in Selma, or face down a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square. A social network in itself will not produce the next civil rights movement – but in the right hands it can act as a catalyst. Social media has played an important part in the Arab Spring, as well as the London riots and the mass clean up operation that followed. For the Church to neglect this tool would be like the apostle Paul choosing not to travel along Roman roads, or not write on papyrus.

I have heard of guys who set up an online prayer meeting that meets once a week on Skype. As the men who make up the group travel regularly, using this social media platform means they are in regular touch where ever they happen to be in the world. Their relationships are stronger as a result of social networking.

2. A stethoscope for culture

Right from its origin the Church has been spreading the good news of Jesus in a way that connects with culture. From Peter explaining to a Jewish audience how Jesus fulfills Old Testament prophecies, to Paul speaking with farmers about God's control of the seasons, or later to philosophers about the way Greek thinkers stumbled upon biblical ideas. There is a connection between the gospel and cultures. Understanding our own culture is a lot easier thanks to social media. At both a corporate and individual level, social media acts as a stethoscope, helping us to hear the heartbeat of our culture. Individuals often share more openly online than they would face to face. The opinion formers for so many aspects of the media, arts, politics and sport use social media channels like Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. Even if you are not sure about having a voice on social media, listening to the different ways people are communicating will help you get under the skin of the culture you are seeking to share the gospel with.

A preacher friend of mine used to subscribe to a tabloid newspaper and a women's magazine just so that he could keep abreast of what was shaping the culture around him. Nowadays it would be more productive to follow Taylor Swift, the Guardian and Steven Fry on Twitter in order to keep an ear to the ground.

3. A front porch for a conversation

Social media has become the dominant "third space" for conversation. Before industrialisation, most people lived and worked from their homes in what can be described as the 'cottage industry.' With the rise of urbanisation, home and work became separated, but the bar, the coffee house and for some the front porch was a third space where people could relax and have a conversation. More and more people are using social media as their third space; sharing news about their lives, dreams and hopes in a public setting.

If the church has no presence in this space then we are leaving it empty for others to shape the conversation. But just as it would be inappropriate to set up a soap box and preach on someone's porch, we need to be appropriate in our use of these platforms to communicate in an effective way.

A nun has started a prayer feed on Twitter, which has opened up all sorts of conversations. Gerard Kelly used his Twitter stream to post mini liturgical prayers to help connect people in common prayer. Others have found the simple sharing of joys, sorrows and reflections on scripture as a normal part of their online life a very natural way of sharing their faith. I recently spoke with a student from Novosibirsk who has helped launch five new university Christian Unions in her city using #uniprayer to gather students to pray together.

4. A shared dream for inception

The movie Inception had a brilliant premise – a team of industrial spies aim to plant an idea into a CEO's dreams so that he would come to think of it as his own. Thanks to ingenuity, creativity and a budget of billions, the advertising industry tries to do the same thing to us. Its ideas of the good life have been incepted into our dreams, hopes and aspirations. Advertising continues to play an important part in forming the furniture for our ambitious dreams but businesses are coming to understand the power of social media to shape our hopes and aspirations. Peer referral is powerful; people are more likely to buy things if a friend has recommended it to them. On social media, we are presented with the highlights of our friends and acquaintances lives through the stream of photos and comments they give us. Indeed psychologists speak of "Affluenza" – a problem faced by those of us in the western world who, despite our relative wealth, compare our lives with the edited highlights of our friends and feel shortchanged. Of course, when we look at our mundane lives through the lens of everyone else's best experiences our lives fall short. Could a prophetic opportunity for Christians on social media be to live authentically? Could we follow the example of the Psalmists and, yes, Jesus himself and speak openly about our joys and our struggles, our faith and our doubts? An authentic presence on social media for Christians that are seeking to "live such good lives among the pagans" could offer an alternative narrative of what it means to be human.

5. A printing press for exiles

There is little doubt that Guttenberg's printing press helped the ideas of the reformation to spread like wildfire across the world. Social media offers a similar game changing technology that we would be foolish to ignore. I have spoken to publishers concerned that people are buying fewer books because they are reading blog posts or online magazines instead, while print newspaper production is in serious trouble because of the advent of online technologies. It seems that the opportunity to shape the imagination of a nation and inform both a Christian and non-Christian audience is available to us like never before. You don't need to write a book to influence a culture. Your facebook status, your tweets and even perhaps your blog posts could be a means by which you are able to offer up a Christian perspective on life, culture and justice. You also get a level of feedback by using this digital printing press that most print-only authors would be envious of.

6. A shop window for a worldview

If I am thinking of attending a festival, enrolling on a course or visiting another country it has become normal procedure for me to do some online research. I am particularly nerdy about this; often taking months of meticulous investigation before making any major purchase. So if a student is thinking about joining a student ministry, a friend is considering an Alpha course or even if someone is looking to attend a church service, it would not be unusual for them to search online first to see what they should expect. Even at a most basic level, looking at your church or ministry's online presence from the perspective of a potential visitor would be a worthwhile investment. If your church website is geared primarily for Christians then you miss an opportunity to commend the gospel to potential seekers. If I go to a church website and I see that it is geared towards non-Christians on its landing page I am impressed by that church's vision to share God's grace and I am happy to work a bit harder to find the information I am looking for on the site. But if a non-Christian comes to a church website that is designed primarily for Christians, they may well be put off by feeling that they are going to struggle to engage. One of the best examples of a website that takes seriously the inquisitive non-Christian visitor is that of Ivy church in Manchester: www.ivychurch.org.

7. A confession booth for the digital native

I am surprised by how open some social media users can be online. I often hear about bad news from acquaintances on Facebook. A few of my friends have been diagnosed with cancer and have used their social media stream as a way of helping keep their networks informed with what is happening to them. Some have been Christians and they talk about both their trust in God and their struggle with doubt in this very public forum. Both Christian and non-Christian friends have left comments offering prayer or wishing them well. This is a very transparent form of living and could be described as form of digital confession booth. While critics of social media see only unashamed exhibitionism or a nascent loneliness, I see an opportunity. Many of our social media connections seem to be asking for pastoral care. How about we the Church take the opportunity for intentional online pastoral ministry? How about we prayerfully go online looking for opportunities to encourage and bless? Sometimes this will lead to face-to-face help. Sometimes it will be a comment of encouragement on someone's Facebook status. Sometimes it will mean picking up the phone and reaching out.

8. A barn raising for visionaries

I love the old tradition of barn raising. Friends, family and neighbours would work together to help build a barn for someone in their community who could not afford to do it themselves. This collaborative community construction does not exist in quite the same way anymore, but Wikipedia is an excellent example of volunteer-led collaboration that created something together that would have been impossible apart. When I was working at the Evangelical Alliance we started threads as an attempt at collaborative Christian engagement to construct something across denominational boundaries for twenty-somethings. But the stage is set for collaborative creation that helps us as the Church to build more together than we can apart. For example, speaking to student leaders in Mexico recently I encouraged them to crowd source local materials that would help to build a shared resource base that would serve their ministries.

9. A soap box for the digital town square

Long gone are the days when leaders would get on their soap box as a make-shift platform to deliver a speech in the town's square. Apparent from occasional publicity stunts and die hards at Speakers Corner in London's Hyde Park, there are few public spaces where ideas are presented and argued about. Many decry this lack of public discourse but it is not that this discourse is not happening; it has just relocated to Twitter. If we want to be part of the conversation we need to move to where the discussion is taking place. Engaging intelligently and meaningfully in the digital world will need some training and sharpening and adapting of skill sets but it is not too late for the church to join the debate with grace and candor.

10. A nervous system for the Body of Christ

A new US friend of mine, Adam Jeske, whom I originally met on Twitter and have now met face-to-face has coined the idea of social media as the nervous system for the Body of Christ. Thanks to its instantaneous nature we can offer rapid response to developing crises around the world and the days of the missionary prayer letter are over. Even recognising the closed contexts some missionaries are operating in, we can be invited to pray for events as they are happening rather than just reading about them a month later. Thanks to Periscope, we may even be able to watch live and pray along as things unfold. My participation in this exciting venture that is Christian Today is an attempt to be part of the digital revolution that offers Christian analysis, news and comment from across the world so that we might be better informed and better connected and therefore more effective in our service for Christ.

I have already broken a number of social media rules when it comes to the length of this piece, so I am not claiming expertise but I want to change the conversation we are having about social media. Even John Piper's early negativity seems to have changed as he has amassed some 761,000 Twitter followers and made time for 11,500 tweets, many of which have been helpful and uplifting. So come on Church, lets have less moaning, less scare mongering and more redemptive appropriation of these exciting new technologies. Here's the tweetable summary of the article: Stop bleating and start tweeting.

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