The Power of Social Media

“The world has changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was, is lost, for none now live who remember it.”

– Galadriel, The Lord of the Rings

The opening lines from The Lord of the Rings seem to ring truer with every passing day. I know they do for me, and they probably resonate with you as well. I was born in 1982. I remember a time of rotary phones and answering machines, when there was no Internet, and television turned off after the Star Spangled Banner played and didn’t come back on until 6am. There was no Pokemon Go. There were only park swings and Nintendo console with Mario Brothers and Duck Hunt. Instead of a Google Maps app, we had handwritten instructions.

All of that has changed. Today we have cell phones, wireless Internet, endless options for video games and the phenomenon known as Social Media. Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram—to name a few—demonstrate how drastically the world has not only changed, but is now in constant communication.

Let’s look at the numbers. In 2016, Facebook reported 1.86 billion users, which means that if it were a country, it would be the largest on earth. Snapchat estimates that its users view 10 billion videos a day. Twitter estimates that it has 317 million users, and the former and current American Presidents, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, both used Twitter to communicate with voters and announce decisions in their administrations.

Still not convinced? Take the social justice movement Black Lives Matter as an example. Whether or not we agree with the movement, or even understand what it stands for, what cannot be underestimated is this: Black Lives Matter began as a Facebook post. One woman posted her reflections on the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Her friend read it, and copied the link to Twitter. She summarized the note by simply writing #BlackLivesMatter. That’s it. One person’s personal reflection and another’s summary of it gave birth to a social justice organization and worldwide protests.

Again, whether we agree or disagree with its utility, we have to acknowledge there is tremendous power in social media. As Christians, we must consider how to access the power and the gift that social media can be to our communities of faith. Rather than seeing social media just as a place that tells us of the brokenness of the world, what if it was also a place of light where the gospel was proclaimed and practiced? What if Christians modeled a digital ministry of presence, inviting people to share more of their stories? What if digital first responders to current events, crises, and concerns raised by college students were followers of Christ? 

Let me suggest that Social Media provides an opportunity for Digital Displacement and Digital Discipleship. Displacement is a discipline needed for one to both recognize their privilege and the unknown needs of various communities nearby. Discipleship is a discipline that allows God through Scripture, His Spirit, and people, to shape our minds and transform our hearts. Both are needed to grow spiritually, and both are available on Social Media.

Digital Displacement

In any well taught bible study, leaders and learners wrestle with the content of Scripture and of the original hearers. Content is what words say, while context is what they mean to the hearers. If we have had limited experiences with people from ethnic or geographic backgrounds different than our own, we may struggle to understand the needs of their community, and vice versa.

Social Media provides a place for people to be displaced from the comfort of their smartphone or laptop. As InterVarsity staff who spent 10 years working with Black college students, I trained people to look for places where people of color gather, to connect and to build community. Social Media gives us the opportunity to step into enclaves of various communities and to listen to their stories, raising our awareness of issues and perspectives we may have oblivious been to previously. In John Maxwell’s book, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, he starts with The Law of the Lid. He argues there is a lid on our lives and our leadership because “we don’t know what we don’t know.” Social Media lifts the lid of such limitations and invites us to listen to voices and perspectives we may have never heard before. Listening is the first step in understanding the context of the people we interact with online.

Digital Discipleship

I can hear you thinking. “Sean, have you seen some of the things that are on Social Media? You paint it as though it’s a beautiful place, but the comments and can be ugly and cruel.”

Yes. There are a number of reasons Social Media has become a place that can be very painful to engage in. First, we have to acknowledge that people are hurting, and some communities have been hurting for some time. Sociologists are fascinated by a phenomenon referred to as Black Twitter, where thousands of Black people spread throughout the U.S. gather on Twitter to share their common experiences of being Black in America. Social Media provides a place for the unheard to be heard, and for those in isolation to find and form community. Second, Social Media has given some people digital courage, the freedom to say things online they would rarely say in person because the consequences are minimal. People are willing to say harsh things to former boxing champion Mike Tyson on Twitter that they would never say in a face-to-face conversation.

Our call as believers is to be in the world, yet not of the world. To be salt and light. Social Media provides a rare opportunity for us to be the change we wish to see. There are answers to be given, truths to be told, compassion and apologies to be dictated, and patience within our hearts that can be both revealed and developed. Engaging in Social Media is a discipleship opportunity for both observers and contributors.

We miss a tremendous opportunity to hear from and dialogue with our students if we don’t include Social Media in our respective ministries. In case you’re wondering, even with all the aforementioned issues, 98% of college students use Social Media, and it is changing how they view the world. That means they are thinking about, engaging in, and reflecting on issues throughout the U.S. From politics to entertainment, social justice to dating options, whether ministry leaders are there to walk with them or not. If you are a part of a collegiate ministry, engaging in Social Media is not optional. It is seminal. 

Where Do We Go From Here?

Join Social Media.

If you are not on Social Media, I would encourage you to sign up for a platform like Facebook, Twitter, or Snapchat. Who are your favorite actors, pastors, and writers? Most of them are on Social Media. Start by following them.

Listen Before You Lead.

Practice displacement online before you seek to educate or inform. Each person you’re about to engage with has a history. Seek to understand before you seek to be understood. “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”

Look for God’s Leading.

Consider why Jesus may have you reading posts from particular people; which dialogues catch your attention more than others. Is Jesus asking you to pray for this person; to digitally walk with them through a season of life? 

Want to learn more? Check out The Peril of Social Media and The Potential of Social Media.

Read more about Sean on his bio page, or follow him on Twitter @seanisfearless