Long before Facebook, Twitter, and Pandora, communities enjoyed sharing each other’s personal updates, receiving public alerts, and hearing entertaining music. Giving validity to the proverb “There is nothing new under the sun,” understanding social media is as important today as grasping the significance of the printing press. Hence, the intersection of social media and the church must be examined within the patterns of cultural change exhibited as mass communication.
Consider the mid-70s cautionary missive alerting the public to a purported movement to ban religious programming from the airwaves. I encountered the warning first as a copied copy of a copy of a mimeographed copy of the supposedly original request. It later arrived as a chain letter in need of forwarding before finding its place among my email. I should note that my first encounter with this warning was two decades after its alleged origination and, in its mediated updates, it continued for yet another decade after the rumored author was pronounced dead. Four decades later, many will recognize the hoax, originally attributed to Madeline O’Hair. When her death was confirmed, it was said to be the efforts of President Obama. Both its longevity and editorial redactions attest to the effectiveness of mass communication.
The church treasurer provided me that first alert. Her social circle consisted largely of members of the local congregation where I served. By residence, marriage, or participation in a public event hosted by or announced throughout the congregation, that social structure represented the people within the community she lived. Some she had attended school with decades earlier. Others were new to the community. Their children attended school together or they purchased milk from the same farmer. Then, as now, the tidbits of news mediated throughout the community captured the attention of both old and young, authoritatively broadcasted compelling information, and all too often lacked the required discernment before being passed on. This was the 20th-century’s version of a dialogic transmission system, with multiple sources and multiple receivers.
From the once elaborate information system of posting a letter to digital instant messages, a fundamental task of social media extends or enhances a basic human action – information sharing. For our purposes, social media refers to “digital application[s] that allow people worldwide to have conversations, share common interests, and generate their own media content online” (Media and Culture: Mass Communication in a Digital Age, ed. Richard Campbell et al., 9th ed. [Bedford/St. Martins, 2014]). These internet-based tools enable the creation, sharing, or exchange of information, ideas, and images across networked communities via the computer or similar digital devices. Such user-generated content represent the 21st century’s replica of a Copernican Revolution in mass media.
Hindsight and instant global news registers the oral tradition of days past as the slowest mode of circulation. But were they ever merely one-to-one exchanges? Mothers and fathers taught their children. Poets, teachers, and tribal storytellers provided the content that motivated earliest civilizations. From our vantage point, thought and verbal expression in societies lacking the technology of literacy (i.e., writing) seem primitive against the backdrop of the print revolution. Knowledge of the past is best captured in historical writings rather than spoken legend. With gratitude we turn to the documentation of scribes, philosophers, monks, often ignoring how these transcribers primarily served the ruling classes in a time when working people were generally illiterate. Paradoxically, philosophers favored orality in fear that the written word would threaten public discussion of the truly give-and-take format, with the dialogical style of inquiry only recently finding opposition in the academy. The efforts of William Tyndale, who utilized the printing press to facilitate wide distribution of the Bible in the language of the English-speaking working class, set a precedent for the church’s task to communicate the mission and message of Jesus broadly.
After the success of the Gutenberg Bible, books eventually became the first mass-marketed products in history, and with this, the seeds were planted for social media to serve advertisers, sometimes at the expense of the content conveyed. At its best, its products help us understand the circumstances that affect us. At its worst, it fails to document crisis by misrepresentation or exploitation that dwells on the trivial, scandalous, and melodramatic. Bordering the pages of scurrilous and shocking updates, advertisers depend on viewers lingering, then clicking, simply because they captured our attention. Recognizing this indispensible tool in the arsenal of brands and business, most of the writings about social media instruct the reader on how to reach more clients, build relationships, and raise revenue. The church has been remiss to labor only for a website that serves merely to announce events, advertise a congregation’s location, and provide a portal for online contributions.
We are the stories we tell. From the flickering flames of the campfire to the video captures of the humiliating or hilarious, stories have guided tribe and tradition. A community’s canon, whether an ancient Holy Book or a viral blog post, influences how one imagines the identity of those within their community and how the community imagines outsiders. Plato is attributed with this saying: “Those who tell the stories rule society.” Artists use images, musicians use song, and philosophers use words, all to rehearse their beliefs, traditions, and the events throughout their society. From the earliest icons to stained-glass windows, from Miriam’s song to Handel’s Messiah, from the Dead Sea Scrolls to the Gutenberg Bible, the people of God have used the technological tools of their era to convey God’s revelation recorded in the biblical narrative. When the user generating content is Christian, the message tells the story of God that is best demonstrated in Jesus.
In just the first decade and a half of the third millennium, radio, television, film, popular music, poetry, and social networking, among other forms and products of media culture have made the turn into digital technology. Although these channels of communication produce and distribute cultural products to large numbers of people, the global reach of social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter masks the individualization of information enabled by pocket-sized personal devices. Multitasking as e-readers, music players, web-browsers, TV and movie screens, gaming systems and phones, these handhelds personalize schedules for watching TV shows, avoiding fixed broadcast timeslots. Listeners stream musical singles, creating entertainment sensations without having to listen to a musician’s body of work. With video-gaming consoles serving as portable cinemas, social media enables mass distribution into the smallest of venues – the individual. The forms of communication that created contemporary societies moved from wandering tribes to centralized nation states. But such has always been the means of transmitting information. From the dispersed nations from Babel to the multi-ethnic assembly at Pentecost, this challenge to socialize remains the community-forming task of the church.
Recognizing Christianity as fundamentally a communication event enables us to identify with Shane Hipps how each new medium changes the function of an older technology (Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith [Zondervan, 2009]). And in a back-to-the-future modality, the church must join the turn to digital technology already made by mass media. But to do so requires both wisdom and integrity. Wisdom recognizes that first and foremost, social media is merely a tool. These tools allow the church engage in conversations, share interests, and generate their own content online. Digital applications, computer-mediated instruments, mobile and web-based technologies serve to facilitate the transmission of content. Like the FCC alert from the ‘70s, today’s blogs and tweets require discernment before continued distribution.
Such discernment arises from the integrity of being Christian. In today’s culture, Christianity no longer enjoys the carte blanche authority once granted. In a context where actions and habits are first exposed and then preserved through video and audio recordings, the ability to walk the talk is more pressing that ever. Failure to do so undermines the Christian witness. Therefore, we concern ourselves with announcing publicly the truth (2 Cor 4:2).
Digital technology is no longer an alternative social space, but operates as the primary platform for providing and receiving information. The concerns of Sherry Turkle notwithstanding (Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other [Basic Books, 2011]), online users seek a community with whom they can identify. The fluid and flexible nature of the internet has provided multiple affinity groups, nonetheless enabling greater ideological integration (James Webster, The Marketplace of Attention: How Audiences Take Shape in a Digital Age [MIT Press, 2014]). While gathering together to rehearse the Christian story, the church must avoid the temptation of the Tower of Babel, to associate only with those speaking our dialect who seek a single goal of building a monument that will make a name for humanity other than image bearers of God. The task of the church is to form a community that holds as its ultimate description a reality where every tongue, every tribe, and every nation share the value of serving the God made known in Jesus Christ. Every other value is mediated through another story.
For all of the influence of digital technology, we who narrate our existence through the revelation of an ancient text have this mandate to form a community – a body of individuals who share a perspective on the world and recognize our identity as a member of that affinity group. Yet another contribution to culture, the content of this perspective must capture the attention of both old and young, authoritatively broadcast compelling information, and provide a genuine invitation for others to claim their identity as witnesses to the risen Christ. Without compromising this identity, Christians actively participate in global affairs impacting culture with a distinctive witness to the presence and power of God. That mandate grants latitude for Roma Downey’s A.D.: The Bible Continues, LeCrae’s record label, and even posting to twitter during a sermon. William Dyrness captures this in Poetic Theology: “the best human work in any culture is an expression of what the biblical tradition calls wisdom, the human capacity to bring treasures out of the storehouse of the created order. This creative capacity expresses both the divine image in human activity and the general working of God’s Spirit in culture” ([Eerdmans, 2010], 38). The church is not about great programs, alluring events, or really cool welcome stations in the foyer. It’s about community.
The mandate for the followers of Christ to go into all the world will not be fulfilled by riding a donkey through Jerusalem but going into the virtual spaces made available through digital technology. In the digital culture, as in every era, the task remains for Christians to speak to the world. Nonetheless holding to the textually mediated reality of Christian Scripture, the people of God today must utilize the various tools for community formation in a digital world. To do this, assumes the task of sharing a particular story as the message of the church. Through public presentations of the reality depicted in the narrative of Christian Scripture, this generation, as those before us, must rehearse the reality of God in such a way as to enable the drama which its telling suggests.
Campbell, Richard et al., eds. Media and Culture: Mass Communication in a Digital Age. 9th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2014.
Dyrness, William A. Poetic Theology: God and the Poetics of Everyday Life. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010.
Hipps, Shane. Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009.
Kallenberg, Brad. God and Gadgets: Following Jesus in a Technological Age. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011.
Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York: Basic Books, 2011.
Sandage, Tom. Writing on the Wall: Social Media: The First 2,000 Years. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.
Webster, James. The Marketplace of Attention: How Audiences Take Shape in a Digital Age. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014.