If I were starting my own religion, it would look an awful lot like social media. (Have I thought about this? Yes. Is this actually on my To-Do list? No.) Think about it: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and all of their friends give us a space where we can:
- Express our emotions, both positive and negative.
- Discuss issues that matter to us.
- Talk to people we don’t see on a day-to-day basis.
- Connect with others who share a common interest.
- Have a sense that our community is universal and not bound by distance.
- Confess (or brag about) the stupid things we do.
In a time when many in my generation are becoming more spiritual but less religious, social media seems like a good stand-in for the community you could at one time only get through the church.
But is it really? Here’s a clip on our use of social media that says, “No.”
The video makes a point that social media magically fulfills “three gratifying fantasies,” but does so in a hollow way. It gives us a sense of control (but only over trivial things), an opportunity to always be heard (but who in Facebook-land is really listening with all the self-promotion noise going on?), and the feeling of never being alone (without really solving the ache of loneliness).
In contrast, Christian community doesn’t claim to give us any of those three fantasies. So, if that’s what you’re looking for, Facebook is a better bet. But Christianity does, I think, address the real longings underneath them.
One: Sense of Control
Nope, you don’t get to assemble only the Christians you like to be around, and choose just the bits and pieces of your life that make you look good to display to the world. You’re called to love everyone—from the over-the-top hug-giver to the fake hipster to the kid who sings “Let It Go” every week in Sunday School loudly, off-key, and with an improvised drum solo. And you’re called to let others love you in return, which means being honest and vulnerable instead of displaying only a shiny, stained-glass façade.
But I think our need to control, as seen on Facebook, covers up a deep fear that we are not loveable. If people knew the real us, they wouldn’t stay around. And that same fear prevents us from loving others well, because it’s a risk. Instead of “seek to control your surroundings or image,” Christianity says (over and over), “Love one another.”
Two: Opportunity to Always Be Heard
In some ways, this need should be and often is fulfilled by Christian community. We should be known as the place where every person’s voice is significant and welcome in the discussion. But the need to be heard is often expressed in a selfish way: “The world must know my opinion, and it is right. And don’t disagree with me, or I will discredit you and call you names.” (Unfortunately, this attitude can and does exist in the church. All over the place. But it shouldn’t, because it’s the exact opposite of the graciousness and humility that is supposed to mark our conversations.)
Here’s a really culturally strange idea that the church has been saying from the start: it’s not about you. It’s about loving others enough to consider them before yourself. The nuances of what that means in practice are complicated, but the idea is simple: we should listen more than we should try to be heard.
Three: Feeling of Never Being Alone
But wait, you say, isn’t one of Christianity’s core slogans that you’re never alone because God is always present? Well, yes. So in that sense, the church does fulfill this need, and in a very profound way, because it erases the fear of insignificance that lurks behind our drive to be connected to others every second of every day. We can rest in the assurance that we are known and loved by God.
Ironically, though, it’s that very same assurance that allows us to know we are significant without others. Solitude is a spiritual discipline—Christians are supposed to spend time alone. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it in Life Together, “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.” If you can’t spend time in silence with just God and your own thoughts, that’s a warning sign of a deeper problem
The New Testament is almost cluttered with “one another”s—instructions of how fellow believers are supposed to interact and relate. The early church was not a good place for rugged individualists, and it shouldn’t be today either.
Am I saying the church is always good at accomplishing these things? No. We are still selfish people. But this is what we should strive to be. We are supposed to:
- Welcome one another (which takes more than a friend request)
- Live in harmony with one another (even after someone posts a political status we don’t agree with and that is clearly completely idiotic)
- Bear one another’s burdens (not just comment, “Sorry!” or even “Praying for you.”)
- Not lie to one another (or conceal the truth with hap-hap-happy posts and pictures)
- Teach and admonish one another (which hopefully will go deeper than sharing the latest quiz or Top Ten list)
- Stir one another up toward love and good works (instead of just stirring one another up to another round of Candy Crush)
- Confess sins to one another (and not in the yeah-maybe-I-should-take-that-picture-down kind of way)
The church should stop trying to be Facebook—either on one extreme, being a super-unhelpful shouting match of people with strong opinions on non-essential things, or on the other extreme, being so focused on fulfilling our desires for relevance and risk-free connection that it takes out all the hard parts of our faith.
Instead, Christian community should do exactly what it’s meant to by not giving us what social media promises. That means shattering those “gratifying fantasies,” but also replacing them with something meaningful and real.