I write this on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent in the Church. These 40 days are popularly characterized by “giving something up” for Lent. I want to comment on one current trend as questionable to missional Christianity: giving up social media for Lent.
Learning a New Language
Leonard Sweet (@lensweet) is a church futurist who has many evocative books about Christianity and our changing culture. In a video of him that I have archived from The Work of The People (not available anymore, sorry), Sweet talks about social media as a language.
Good luck with saying in the past 500 years “I’m sorry, I don’t do books.” Good luck with saying in the next 30 years, “I’m sorry I don’t do Internet.” As the book was the delivery system for learning and faith development, the Internet will be the delivery system for learning and faith development…
What’s the first thing a missionary does? Learn the language. This is the language of the world we live. I’m sorry if you don’t like it. You could go “okay, I don’t like Swahili.” Well, if God has called us to be ministry now in this kind of a world, so you don’t get to choose: you have to learn a new language.
For Sweet, the Internet is not an endeavor or an add-on or a “it would be nice if we participated in it” but it is an essential aspect of outreach to large swaths of humanity. The Millenials who were born when I got my first email address in middle school (I was an early adopter thanks to my geek dad) are now 20 years old and have grown up as the Internet Generation. This is the language that a super-majority of them speak.
I find this convicting because online interactions are a different form of communication. There’s often nothing to give context or weight other than pixels on a screen, so it takes intentionality with language and building up of cadences that others will recognize as “that sounds like Jeremy.” And it has taken a lot of trial and error for this last-years-of-Gen-X’er to communicate with Boomers and Millenials in a holistic way.
So I completely affirm that internet communications are a language that we must learn if we want the church to be effective missionally in the future.
Giving up the Language
It is seeing “online interaction as a language” that causes me to question why people–including many pastors–give up social media for Lent?
First, the most annoying aspect of this phenomenon is the updates of “Hello, I’m giving up social media for Lent.” This is ironic considering the lectionary text for Ash Wednesday is Matthew 6 where Jesus calls out people who do their penance in public and make sure everyone knows of their sacrifices. As a friend on Facebook said:
“And when you give up social media for 40 days, be sure to announce it to the whole world. And God who sees what you do in public will reward you in public!” (pretty sure JC said this!)
Second, and more to the point, my frustration is that for any practitioner of foreign languages, you should do two things: learn it early and practice it often. I feel like giving up social media–a primary method of communication–is to be behind the game when you return. So much of social media is rapid adaptation to what is going on–the best communicators online know their voice and practice it with remarkable speed to reflect on current events and trends. To deny that aspect of ourselves for 40 days seems less helpful from a functional perspective.
Finally, giving up social media for Lent means that–for 40 days–there are fewer voices of faith online to offer moments of helpful interaction and allow Christ into the cracks of the social media facades we create.
Sweet closes his video with a reminder. I don’t share his anthropomorphic understanding of evil (ie. The Devil), but it’s a helpful image in this case:
The Devil is an evangelist. The Devil is learning their language. The Devil is learning how to speak on the Internet real well. So, are we going to leave him with the field? Or are we going to get in there in the struggle of good and evil.
My hope is that more followers of Christ choose to not cede the online field to those that do not have others’ best interest at heart, and indeed embrace internet conversations as the missionary language to which all are called.
Navigating a Need to Disconnect
I will admit that for people who find social media to be an addiction, there is value in stepping away for a while. Like Jesus who needed to get away from the crowds to recharge, there’s a place for stepping away from the crowd to recharge. I had a friend in seminary who was seriously burned by having her personal life online and she stepped away for several years from social media. There are multiple studies (1, 2, 3 – thanks Trelawney!) that indicate the harm done by social media. So for some, I understand the desire to disconnect comes from a place of self-care that I, as a raging extrovert, do not understand fully.
To those who authentically wish to balance self-care with missional considerations, here’s two suggestions:
- Fast from social media from sunup to sundown. Don’t give up social media, but give up the way you use social media. I have the apps on my phone and I get the notifications as they come in. I go through periods where I turn off those notifications and only interact at particular times. So like Muslims who fast from sun-up to sun-down during Ramadan, maybe only interact at particular times when you know you can handle it.
- Interact in a different way. Perhaps choose to send emails or call people on the phone when you see they are doing something online that you wish to interact with. Choosing a new form of communication maintains the engagement but moves it into an arena where you might feel more comfortable.
Other suggestions? Post them in the comments – if you haven’t given up blogs already!