The Book, The Gram, The Bird, The Ghost
This roll call of media makes up the nuclear family of virtual gathering spaces. Most people with a computer or smart phone visit this "family" on a daily basis. I am still completely blown away by just how quickly these mediums came into existence and importance in our lives. Access and entertainment not even dreamt of back when I was filling my down-time with televised cartoons is now a dominant reality for many of us.
I work with college students and so social media is a presence that dots the landscape of student ministry. Most of them are on multiple platforms every day. They talk about, critique, and laugh over it but most of all - they use it. They use it a ton. For many of them, it is something they look at first thing in the morning and last thing at night. It is a favorite time-filler allowing them to scroll and get caught up while waiting in line, walking to class, or to curb boredom. I say this with confidence, not just because I live and breathe college ministry, but also because I just did some research for a paper I am presenting in a few weeks at the Ecclesiology & Ethnography Conference. In the course of my research I learned several things but among the most alarming are these:
There are very few resources that instruct student ministers on how to engage missionally in virtual spaces. (Barna Group just released a study I highly recommend, but this is just one of very few I found)
While most of my students are on social media, almost none can recall their church or youth group talking much about it. Some can remember scattered warnings about the dangers of social media, but none could relay any substantial conversations or guidance about how to inhabit these social spaces.
Additionally, my students report that their church or youth group only used social media promotionally. Many of their youth groups had an Instagram or Facebook page but posts were mostly about what was coming up or what event had just occurred. They might post pictures of students having fun with friends at said event but there was little other engagement.
In general, social media life and church life were two completely separate realms. This is shocking to me not just because of how often my students are on social media but also because these spaces are having a formative impact. My research reveals that the regular consumption of images, and rhetoric is not without consequence. Social media consumption does, in fact, present liturgies and narratives about what is "right" or about "the good life." That are forming my students whether they realize it or not.
At the ground level, social media consumption is impacting identity formation and relationships. In their book Spiritual Formation in Emerging Adulthood, authors David P. Setran and Chris A. Kiesling state that while Christian identity formation should take place in the community of the church, for many emerging adults identity formation is "outsourced to the powerful moguls of corporate America. In the end, default individualization neglects true identity formation in favor of a passive and mindless conformity to the whims of popular culture."(60) How is this happening on social media? Well, I’m glad you asked. Setran and Kiesling explain with the help of James K.A. Smith:
"The media they consume, the institutions they join, and the activities in which they engage all carry with them implicit (or explicit) visions of the good life, pictures of ‘kingdoms’ that represent ultimate goods. In reality, many of these places and practices are ’serving up’ false gospels, alternative versions of sin, redemption, and eschatological hope. … ‘We need to recognize,’ Smith suggests, ’that these practices are not neutral or benign, but rather intentionally loaded to form us into certain kinds of people - to unwittingly make us disciples of rival kingdoms.’ How many emerging adults cultivate active resistance to the allure of these false kingdoms?" (45)
Relationships are also being affected by social media. As it turns out, the number one reason
people are on social media is to connect with others and see life updates from friends. While this is an asset of social media, some research shows that these forums have the power to both connect and isolate people. The nature of community and interactions change when filtered through virtual platforms. Many are thankful for the advantages they get like keeping up relationships with people they love all over the world while others spiral further and further into loneliness and hurt as a direct result of social media engagement.
So where is the church in all of this? Identity and community are at the heart of ecclesiology and discipleship, yet ministerial voices are conspicuously absent from social media platforms.
This should be our clarion call. What if ministers viewed virtual spaces missionally and created strategies just as they would for any new missional space? Evangelism and discipleship efforts have long relied on social sciences and practical theology to guide the steps they take to integrate into schools, bars, motorcycle gangs, prisons, community centers, and foreign countries. Just like any missional strategy, this requires a thorough examination of the new culture. What are the assets and what are the liabilities? What narratives need to be corrected and challenged? What aspects create a bridge for communicating the truth of the gospel? What can be redeemed and what needs to be rejected?
As a minister to students, I hope to see a fresh wave of resources, books, and articles written on this subject so that we can be missionaries in virtual spaces. But we need to get started because those we serve are already there and the messages they consume are void of our presence.
So who wants to go first? Let’s hear your ideas.
(If you want to check my claims and place it against the research, I am happy to get you a copy of the full academic paper I wrote on this subject. Just leave a request in the comments on my own social media.)