Loud voices often tell us that social media is an enemy of community, faith and love. It isolates us, dehumanizes us and too often divides us, the critics claim. They are, in some ways, right. Any form of communication can and does tend to challenge existing ideas about how we should interact. The radio, for example, replaced family and community gatherings that had been a primary form of entertainment for much of America.
But there is good in social media too. I am fascinated by a project one of my former students at the University of St. Thomas Law School, Mikel Podgursky McLaughlin, calls "We're Friends, Right?" He is chasing down all of his 500+ Facebook friends in person to make the connection human and real.
As part of that project, he met me at a Minneapolis restaurant called Hell's Kitchen for breakfast. We had a remarkable conversation; among other things he revealed that my students often speculated about my faith, based on the things I had talked about in class. We had a wonderful, fresh, challenging conversation that I have been thinking about since.
Could that discussion have happened over Facebook? Probably not. But could it have happened without Facebook? No, because I would have lost touch with Mikel the way teachers usually do with their former students. In that subtle difference lies the gap between Facebook's challenge to spirituality and the spiritual opportunities that it offers. It may not be the house in which spirituality lives, but it can be the door to that house. Let's consider four ways in which social media works in people's spiritual lives:
1. It keeps us in community.
There are hundreds of people who know what is going on with me because of Facebook, and I follow them as well. A common, and correct, criticism of social media is that people tend to interact with people online rather than in-person. However, Facebook also allows some connection to people who otherwise would be lost to us: the second cousins, the high school acquaintances and the people I knew two jobs back. Part of what those people see is the life of my church through what I post, and that is a good thing. We baptize infants in the burbling creek beside the church each year. When I post photos, I hear from people coming from all parts of my life.
2. It accommodates gentle reconciliations.
The first step in mending relationships is usually very simple: Someone comes home for Thanksgiving or picks up the phone. Facebook and other social media make that first step easier, and allows for a gradual re-acquaintance. Perhaps we trust social media because it offers us control as we make ourselves vulnerable -- we can limit what other people see and know even as we begin a do-over. The next step is important, of course, but without that first step there is nothing.
3. It can enable and further worship.
Several times a year, I get to give sermons in various churches. I love doing it, and enjoy getting to know new congregations. I will usually float the ideas for my sermon online, and get reactions from others, and love to discuss them afterwards with people I may have missed or do not know. The one breach in the seeming ban on bad news on social media comes in the form of prayer requests, where people reach out to others in times of hardship. What is wrong with that? Facebook is no substitute for prayer or for worship services, but it can be a way to share both.
4. It helps to welcome the stranger.
As a Christian and an introvert, Christ's directive to welcome the stranger is a tough one for me. I'm awkward at meeting people, and struggle to reach out in person to those I don't know. Even for those in need, it is tough for me to respond face-to-face. I have found that social media can be a bridge to those people -- if I reach out to them online first, it lets me do so in-person down the road. The traditional model is flipped, in that I am meeting people online first and then in person, rather than making my existing friends my Facebook friends.
Social media is a tool, like the written word, the printing press, the radio, and television. How we use it will define our successes in all parts of our lives, and our spiritual lives are no exception.